We all know at least one notoriously "picky eater. " You might even say we're a nation of picky eaters. Americans eat the same 14 to 18...

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We all know at least one notoriously “picky eater.”

You might even say we’re a nation of picky eaters. Americans eat the same 14 to 18 dishes over and over, says Cary Neff, famed spa chef, author of “Conscious Cuisine” (Sourcebooks, 2004) and consultant to Jenny Craig. Typically, we eat the same breakfast, vary our lunches slightly and for dinner have about eight to 10 different meals every month.

Here are some strategies to help you increase the variety of foods you eat and make room for some new, healthful choices.

Repeat it

Food preference is mostly an acquired taste, which means repeated exposure to a new food — as many as 10 to 15 times — may be required to develop a food fondness, says Marcia Pelchat, a food expert at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia.

Increase variety

Although research shows that the greater the variety of unhealthful foods available, the more you overeat, the same principle can also be applied to eating vegetables. In fact, people who eat the widest variety of vegetables have less body fat than others because they can eat more of them for fewer calories. Plus, eating a variety of healthful foods helps ensure that we get all the vitamins, minerals and nutrients we need.

Keep them handy

“Have the desired food — say, vegetables — around the house and present at every meal,” says Amy Galloway, professor of psychology at Appalachian State University in North Carolina. Make healthful foods your “reach-for” foods. Buy and prepare asparagus, broccoli, grilled chicken, roasted vegetables, beans and soups, and keep them front-and-center in your fridge or freezer.

Make unhealthful foods scarce. And start small; use the “one-bite” rule, meaning don’t push it — have just a taste.

Foods you know

Introduce new foods along with a familiar one. For instance, use your favorite seasonings the first time you’re trying couscous and serve it with your usual vegetables.

In the beginning

Introduce new foods at the beginning of the meal, when your appetite is greatest. Some people tend to be less picky when they’re really hungry, says Kathleen Zelman, director of nutrition for WebMD Health.

Mix it up

When introducing a reduced-fat or lower-calorie version of a familiar food, mix the two at first. For instance, instead of eating plain egg whites, combine one-third egg whites with two-thirds whole eggs, and then gradually reduce the amount of whole eggs. You can do the same with a variety of foods, including whole milk and skim milk, as well as low-calorie whole-grain and regular cereal.

Sneak it in

Stealth nutrition is a great way to hide or disguise nutritious foods. Sneak fruits and vegetables into familiar dishes such as casseroles, soups, stews and omelets; shred carrots or zucchini into muffins, suggests Zelman.

Eat out

Fear of cooking new foods incorrectly is one reason we avoid trying them. Another issue is the preparation: If it looks or feels strange (e.g. slimy, scaly) before it’s cooked, it could result in disgust and food aversions. Therefore, if you’re ready to try a new healthful food, visit a restaurant known for cooking and presenting the food at its best. Tempting menu descriptions also make new foods more appealing.

Don’t force it

Don’t force kids or adults to eat foods they don’t want, says Galloway. A journal article in “Appetite” reported that when an authority figure, such as a parent or teacher, forced a child to eat “a novel, disliked, or aversive food,” 72 percent of those currently in college said they wouldn’t eat the food today.

Copycat

Kids mimic the eating behavior of parents, siblings, peers and people in ads — but in the early years, it’s mostly their parents. “Childhood is when you’re developing eating habits that will carry you throughout life,” says New York City nutritionist Shira Isenberg.

So if you don’t eat healthful foods, there is a strong chance your children won’t either. In fact, one study has shown that when parents offered food to young children without tasting it first, the children were less likely to give it a try.

Charles Stuart Platkin is a nutrition and public health advocate, author of “The Automatic Diet” (Hudson Street Press, 2005) and founder of Integrated Wellness Solutions. Copyright 2005 by Charles Stuart Platkin. Write to info@thedietdetective.com