OLIVER’S EATS: SIMPLIFYING MEALS

Welcome to the November 2012 Simplicity Parenting Carnival!

This post was written as part of the monthly Simplicity Parenting Carnival hosted by The Lone Home Ranger and S.A.H.M. i AM. This month we are discussing how we balance food, family, and simplicity. Be sure to read to the end to see a list of the rest of the excellent carnival contributors.

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I can’t for the life of me remember where I saw this, but several months ago I read about a study that explored the correlation between food variety and vegetable consumption in children. More specifically, the study claimed that in order to encourage a child to eat the greatest number of vegetables in a given meal, the optimal number of (healthy) foods to serve at once was seven.

At the time, we were only a couple of months into our baby-led weaning journey, and we were trying to expose Oliver to as many different flavours and textures as possible. We decided to adopt this “seven foods” recommendation as a rough guideline for Oliver’s meals, and also decided that every meal should consist of as many different coloured foods as possible.

A typical meal, circa August 2012 (one year old). Seven different foods; six different colours.

It turned out to be a somewhat flawed approach — at least in Oliver’s case. Rather than eat a little bit of each food offered, which is what we expected, Oliver would quickly eat the one or two foods that particularly interested him at that moment, and play with (mash, drop or throw) the rest. Still hungry, he would then fuss for extra servings of whatever he had finished, despite the fact that most or all of the remaining foods on the plate were ones that he had on previous occasions eaten and enjoyed.

As I became increasingly frustrated with his mealtime behaviour (and the clean-up… oh, the clean-up), I started to have the sense that Oliver’s behaviour was not so much an act of mischief, but a response to some sort of external stimulus. I’ve known for some time that too much choice can be paralyzing, and that children best develop their decision-making skills when given simple choices — for example, “Do you want to wear the red shirt or the blue one?” instead of “Which shirt do you want to wear?”

Could it be, I wondered, that Oliver was simply overwhelmed by the choices on his plate?

It was right around this time I received a copy of Simplicity Parenting from the library — I’d been waiting months for it! When I reached the section entitled, “Simplifying Tastes” (p. 116 – 124), my suspicions were echoed:

“A sense of overwhelm, especially for children, can be the basis of poor eating habits and lifelong control issues around food… My first suggestion for simplifying food, as with toys, is to limit choices and complexity. Simplify the number of food options available to your kids… You actually limit their options by giving them too many choices, too young.”

From then on, we began to serve much less complicated meals and snacks. Instead of six to eight foods at each meal, we now serve one protein alongside two or three different vegetables and/or fruits. Snacks consist of only one or two foods (usually leftover meat with some fruit or avocado).

Instead of trying to incorporate all of the colours of the rainbow into every meal, we strive to serve a variety of different coloured foods throughout the course of the day — or even over the course of a few days.

A typical meal, post-simplification: a protein served with two or three choices of vegetables and fruits. On this day, Oliver ate cod served with mixed vegetables (broccoli, squash and mushrooms).

The results of the change were better than expected. Oliver’s mealtime behaviour showed an immediate and obvious improvement. He no longer plays with or throws his food, except sometimes towards the end of the meal (once he is full and no longer interested in eating). He is — surprisingly — eating much greater quantities of food when he has less choice. At 15 months of age, we are fortunately that we’ve yet to see the seeds of picky eating behaviour. Reducing the food stimuli really seems to have increased Oliver’s focus on and enjoyment of his meals, and it has also made things a lot less stressful for the one-woman cleanup crew :).

Have you found variety to be a help or a hindrance in encouraging healthy eating habits in your child(ren)?

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Thanks for reading the Simplicity Parenting Blog Carnival! We hope you’ll take time to read these other great contributors’ posts (Note: Links will all be live by 3pm ET on November 27th):
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  • Filling Our Freezer (or, Making Life a Little Easier) – Emily at S.A.H.M. i AM discusses how her recent discovery of freezer cooking is keeping family meals interesting and making life with a new baby a little easier.
  • Food. I love it. – Jamie at I Love Junkmail describes how food unites us and how simple changes can make planning and eating healthier easier.
  • Starting Holiday Food Traditions – Justine at The Lone Home Ranger discusses how she embraces the bounty of holiday meals while still simplifying her family’s food traditions.

Thanks to all the fabulous writers and readers for being a part of our simplicity parenting community! Stop by The Lone Home Ranger and S.A.H.M. i AM to see how to join us for a future carnival.

6 responses to “OLIVER’S EATS: SIMPLIFYING MEALS

  1. We always followed the doctor’s recommendations for food (with the exception of grains/cereals) and it echos what you wrote here. My 15-month old has always gotten a protein, a veggie, and a fruit since he came off purees (we didn’t do baby led weaning). He is a FABULOUS eater. Zucchini is his favorite. I’ve always read that limiting their choices is the way to go, just never though to apply it to food. Very interesting insight!

  2. The more I think about it, the more sense it makes to me. Even as adults, if we are presented with a ton of choices (say, at a buffet), we will generally only eat what is immediately interesting to us. For example, I don’t mind broccoli, but given a spread of food options, I’d probably not put it on my plate. Whereas when we serve steamed veggies alongside a steak at home, and there aren’t any other more appealing options, I’ll happily down a cup of broccoli, or more.

  3. I wholeheartedly agree with your finding too. My kids are good eaters, and while they do respond better to a variety of foods when considered in a context of several days, like you I offer them at each meal only a protein and a few other veggies/fruits. I give them the semblance of control but choose the options I present them carefully. My other trick to getting them to eat is to offer the same bland, unexciting options for after-meal evening snacks. If they know they can only ever have a slice of bread/rice cake with nut butter, they are more likely to eat the meal presented to them.

    • That’s a great idea! I suspect that a lot of kids actually hold out for snacks because snack foods tend to be more appealing (i.e. junk food). I guess if they are legitimately hungry, they’ll eat the boring snack regardless :)

      The odd time that Oliver doesn’t eat much, I pack his leftovers into containers and put them in the fridge. If he’s hungry later, he can finish his meal, or he can eat the leftovers of anything else that’s been served throughout the day.

  4. So true! Simplifying options has made a huge difference in many aspects of our parent/child relationship…getting dressed, choosing activities, helping around the house. It seems to work as we have a good eater on our hands too!!

  5. The funny thing is, with my first, I had all kinds of time to fret about that sort of thing. Her meals were always works of colorful art (in her bowl, on the floor, on the walls…). Now, I have time to make exactly one kind of protein, and about two vegetables in any given meal. Cauliflower again?

    While I wouldn’t classify either of them as picky eaters, I do notice that they won’t eat sauteed greens, or the slightly bitter salad greens. I still relentlessly send raw celery and carrots in D’s lunch with assorted dips, but she won’t have any of it. She usually just eats the dips straight.

    Simple is great–with second children it’s more of a basic sanity saving technique than a method. :-)

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