How To Avoid “The Food Rut”: Guest Post by Edwena Kennedy

How To Avoid “The Food Rut”: Guest Post by Edwena Kennedy

As a pediatric dietitian, I hear from parents quite regularly how one of the main struggles they have with feeding their family is learning how to offer a variety of foods to their picky child. A big fear for them is that their children will fall into a food rut where they would only want to eat the same food over and over.

This is definitely a legitimate concern for parents to have. When a child falls into a food rut (which happens very easily, especially in the toddler years), they become less likely to try any new food that isn’t a favourite. This leaves parents feeling helpless, when they so desperately want their child to be a well-rounded eater. Knowing that there are 3 meals and 2 snacks a day, and yet only a handful of foods that the child will accept, is a difficult situation to get out of.

How do kids get stuck in a food rut?
1. Parents feel like they are offering variety in their meal plans, but in reality, most of the meal plan variety happens only at dinner time, while breakfast and snacks tend to be the same foods offered over and over again, out of habit, convenience or preference. Think of how many times a day or days in a row your child has yogurt, or cereal, or a granola bar, or goldfish crackers.

2. Kids show preference to one type of food (soft food, bland food for example). They have a few other foods that they may add that fit within this repertoire, and then decide to stick to these foods as preferred.

3. A new food (again, usually at dinner time) is offered to the child up to 5 times before a parent typically gives up and deems their child picky. The recommended number of times is closer to 10-20 before it is liked.

4. Parents feel the stress of seeing their child refuse other food, and decide that in order to avoid them being hungry, the best option is to offer them their “safe” or preferred food.

As you can see, it’s a combination of unintentional repeated exposure to the familiar food that the child comes to expect (with the possible exception of dinner time), combined with the fact that the child hooks onto a few comforting favourites and holds the control in terms of feeding decisions. So, rather than us deciding what is going to be served, we cater to our kids' requests.

This feeding style promotes a habitual pattern of eating that (unintentionally) leads to kids preferring “kid-friendly” foods, to avoid trying new foods, and to resist other strategies to eat a varied diet.

While there are many steps taken in feeding therapy that are required to help get a child out of the grilled-cheese-and-chicken-finger rut, there is one key tactic I recommend to really help prevent the onset of this situation to begin with.

The Rotation Rule
The rotation rule is simple – we don’t offer the same food two days in a row. Sounds simple, right? Here’s what it looks like in practice:

If yogurt was offered at breakfast on Monday, then on Tuesday we want to offer a different food for breakfast (the more different the better) – like eggs or oatmeal. If cheese and crackers were offered as a snack on Monday, then perhaps on Tuesday the snack offered would be veggies and a muffin. This way, a child doesn’t ever get used to the same food day in and day out, and every feeding time is an opportunity to be exposed a variety of food. The same rule can be applied within the same day. If yogurt were offered for morning snack, then we wouldn’t offer it again as an afternoon snack.

Let’s take a look at dinner. While it’s encouraged to have as different of a meal as possible, sometimes, it’s easy to serve up the same protein (chicken two nights in a row, for example). This can be ok from time to time and can be convenient when planning your meals for the week. However, do your best to at least change up the sides (different vegetable each night), or different grain option, or perhaps serve the chicken in a sandwich vs. on its own as was served the night before.

If your child is very picky and perhaps is stuck in a more strict food rut where only certain textures or food groups are accepted, then I want you to change at least one characteristic or property of the food they are stuck on. For example, the colour, shape, flavour or texture. An example is with pasta noodles. If your child likes white spaghetti noodles, you can first start by changing the shape of the pasta to rotini pasta. You can change the colour of the pasta (white to whole wheat, or white to spinach pasta, etc.). You can change the flavour of the pasta by adding different sauces, or changing the type of cheese your child eats with it. Maybe you just add some extra salt, or add some garlic powder to it. You can change the texture by cooking it slightly more or less than usual. Build on these changes over a few weeks or months to eventually branch out to more varied changes and eventually, new food altogether.

It’s important to make sure to let your child know of the new family feeding rule you will be putting in place. If your child asks for toast when your plan is to serve something else, you can say something like “We had toast yesterday and we don’t have the same food two days in a row. You can have toast tomorrow. Today we are having eggs”. With consistent messaging and some time, kids can expect that the parent will choose the meal and that they will be eating different food daily.

Implementing this simple rule can make a huge difference in the chances that your child will fall into a food rut. This, combined with strategies on how to serve liked with disliked foods, proper language, removal of pressure, and some other feeding tactics, make for high chances your child will grow to be an adventurous and varied eater!

For more information, tips, and strategies on how to implement this and other feeding strategies, visit www.edwenakennedy.com.

Edwena Kennedy is a registered pediatric dietitian, mom of two little boys, speaker, and expert in all things related to family food and nutrition!  She truly understands the many challenges mothers can face when trying to feed themselves and their family, including time constraints, picky eating, accommodating to the needs and preferences of your family, and conflicting
nutrition information. She offers Moms real nutrition solutions and step-by- step support through all stages of the lifecycle (pregnancy, starting solids, picky eating, and family meal planning).

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