One of the most common questions I get every week is something along the lines of "Is it okay if I give my baby eggs everyday?" The food changes frequently here, but the question remains the same. Is it okay to serve the same food to your baby or toddler?
While eggs (and most of the other foods I'm asked about) are a pretty nutritious food with lots of benefits to them, too much of anything can backfire. And that includes when you serve your baby the same food every day. One of the biggest ways it can backfire, especially in the first two years of life, is by limiting the amount of variety that your child is getting in their diet.
The Importance of Variety in Your Child's Diet
Just why is serving a variety of foods so important? Does it really matter if your serve your baby the same food every day? During those first two years of life, your child is really open to you laying down the foundation for their lifetime of eating. You can influence it exponentially during this time period! By exposing them to all sorts of different tastes and textures, you are providing them with the opportunity to develop food preferences for nutrient-rich foods. Research shows us that the preferences babies develop in those first two years can last for their lifetime!(Ref)
That means that if you repeatedly serve your baby the same food over and over in those first 18 months of eating without modifying it at all, you are missing out on the chance for variety in your child's diet! We want to do our best to expose them to as many foods as possible. Not just a few standbys!
How Your Preschooler Might Eat
The positive influence that exposing kids to a variety of foods early on has might seem hard to believe. Especially if you have kids somewhere in that 3-4 year age range. During that time, kids tend to enter a neophobic phase. This means they aren’t willing to try new foods, and often refuse foods that they have previously eaten. They good news here is that if you’ve offered your child a variety of nutrient-rich foods in their first two years of life, those preferences carry way beyond this neophobic phase! Meaning that they may not like something for a few years when they’re in preschool, but there’s a high likelihood that they will start liking it again once they are school-aged. (Ref)
Foods to Avoid for Babies and Toddlers
There’s a lot of talk out there about what you should avoid when it comes to feeding your young kids. And it's an important consideration if you're focusing on giving your child a wide variety of foods. But outside of a few things, I find it much more helpful to look at it from the opposite side of the spectrum!
What are the things to include in their diet? How can you provide a balanced, nutrient-rich diet right from the start? If we think about it as trying to get as much as we can in, instead of trying to keep things out, we tend to have much greater success. When it comes down to it, providing a foundation that focuses on nutrient-rich foods for your child's diet, is one of the best things you can do. And it is often more important even than what you don't include. Because if you're focusing on nutrient-dense foods, and a variety of them, you don’t have to really worry about the odd time where you aren’t serving a nutrient-rich food! Their diet will help counterbalance any of those times.
Sugar as Part of a Toddler's Diet
Take for example sugar here. The goal is to offer your child nutrient-rich foods for the beginning of their life. Then, by the time they get to where they can ask you for something, like a super sweet cereal, you don’t have to worry about them wanting that and nothing else. Their preference is for the nutrient-rich foods you fed them during their first two years. Not for something that they get occasionally. Same thing goes for cookies and other similar foods. Sure, they’re delicious. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with them. But we can all agree that they aren’t the most nutrient-rich food out there. And they don’t need to be a part of our everyday diet.
If you lay the foundation for nutrient-dense foods in your child’s first two years, you won’t have to fight a losing battle! It’s okay to give cookies sometimes, and when your child has a preference for nutrient-rich foods it makes it even easier to offer those without worrying too much about whether they should or shouldn’t have it. And the research really is out there that supports this! By focusing on a wide variety of nutrient-rich foods throughout those first several years, your child is likely to develop a preference for them. They are likely to be open to trying other new foods, as well. (Ref)
How a Varied, Nutrient-Rich Diet Can Help Parents
Having a balanced nutrient-rich diet will guide you in so many ways as a parent, too! By making these foods the staples of your diet, you can start to tune out any other advice that you hear. Advice that might be telling you to give this food, or avoid this other food. And you won't need to wonder if it's okay to serve your baby the same food every day! It gives you a sort of compass to help with self-guidance in feeding, and that is priceless!
What Do We Actually Mean by Nutrient-Rich Foods?
Here’s the thing, though. A variety of nutrient-rich foods is all good and well, but what do we actually mean by that? Just what is considered a nutrient-rich food?
First and foremost, I look at the overall quality of the food. Has it been stripped of all nutrients, in the sense of vitamins, minerals, and fiber? Think white bread for this. All the of the healthy stuff has really been taken out with refinement. It is no longer full of nutrients like a whole wheat bread is.
While processing can certainly be a good indicator of nutrient-density, it’s certainly not the only one. Because when you really think about it, canned beans are all processed! And I would definitely consider those to be a nutrient-rich food. So you can also think of it as how close to its original form is it? Is it a recognizable fruit or vegetable, or have a bunch of other things been added to it?
If it’s meat, does it look like what it would not long after it was taken from the animal, or did it look that way right before cutting it? (I consider ground beef just to be a way of cutting, in this case!) Or was it squished and squashed into something unrecognizable and then made into a processed meat? (Some sausages, hot dogs, and lunch meats fall into this category.) Meat processed in that way generally tends to lose a lot of its nutrients!
Should You Ever Serve Foods That Aren't Nutrient-Rich?
Remember, I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for these less nutrient-rich foods. I’m saying that by focusing on foods that are nutrient-rich for the majority of your child’s diet, whatever foods you choose to eat that are not as nutrient-rich take on less of an importance in their overall diet.
Examples of Foods To Serve Your Baby or Toddler
How about some actual examples of nutrient-rich foods and what you should include in your child’s diet? For this, I’ve got you covered! Because variety and nutrient-rich aren’t always easy to accomplish when feeding a baby or toddler! I know just how easy it is to fall into that pattern of serving your baby the same food every day. With this in mind, a fellow dietitian and I have created something that will help! An ebook with essentially step by step guidance on how to create a varied nutrient-rich diet by age, starting at 6 months and moving to 24 months. We’ve dissected all the research about the most important nutrients for kids under 2. Then we distilled it down into the foods that you should be focusing on to ensure that your child can thrive. Easily, and without needing a nutrition degree to do it! But of course, it’s just the foundation, and can help any age child, not just those under 2! Head here to find out more details about it.
The Bottom Line for Your Child's Diet
At the end of the day, we want to focus on nutrient-rich foods most of the time. We want to be including a variety of foods in it, not just serving your baby the same food consistently. And we want to put our focus on exposing your child to a variety of foods way more than focusing on what you need to be restricting them from!