How to get more variety in your diet

Do you want more variety in your diet? Read on for tips to start branching out.

“Variety is the spice of life”

Perhaps you’ve heard this expression before; what emotions or thoughts about variety… or spices… come to mind? Do you crave novelty at lunch, or feel like your family dinner menu is limited? If so, this article is for you!

When it comes to food and eating, we can easily get stuck in a rut—due to time constraints, cooking confidence or dietary habits. For many of us, January signals a time to revamp our food, but we know that fad diets and food restrictions are not sustainable healthy choices.

In 2020, try (and taste) something new—make variety your New Year’s resolution!

General principles to increase food variety:

Make a plan:

  • Without planning, any shift to our food habits won’t last long. Making a plan about what you want to eat for meals and snacks can simplify grocery shopping and cooking. Use recipes to determine the amount you need to purchase and minimize food waste.

  • When you explore a new or less familiar food, plan to try it in a few different ways. Think of carrots: raw carrot sticks and dip, carrot soup, cooked carrot coins with butter, and roasted carrots wedges with a creamy sauce have very different tastes, textures and aromas.

  • Keep an open mind when trying new foods—it is OK if you don’t like a new food or flavour to start. Keep exploring! In fact, research shows that it can take between 10-15 times of trying a new food before one ends up liking it.

Start from where you are:

  • Start with the easiest changes—begin with swaps or substitutes in meals or snacks you already have regularly. Try adding frozen edamame instead of frozen peas to a casserole. Substitute marinated tofu for chicken breast on taco night.

  • Pair less familiar foods with familiar ones, so there will still be something for dinner if one dish doesn’t appeal. Resist the urge to make separate meals for the pickiest eaters—this will only reinforce their pickiness.

  • Increasing variety doesn’t mean looking to foods from far away. There are many local foods you may have never fully explored or appreciated. Be sure to check out your farmers’ market next spring, too.

Have a positive attitude:

  • Include everyone; make appreciating new foods and recipes a goal for the whole household. Ask for suggestions from young and old, because novelty and diversity are relative traits.

  • Pressure doesn’t help. Keep the mealtime mood pleasant using the division of responsibility with children.

  • Be prepared for failures, and have compassion as you learn and grow with new foods. Some meals may not be to your family’s taste, but contain a great lesson: we don’t need to love or even like every food, but when we are hungry we will eat what’s on the menu.

Tips for eating “a variety of healthy foods each day

To increase variety of grains, especially whole grains:

  • Choose a whole grain to explore each month—check out the full list here. When purchasing grains, you can keep this ratio in mind: one cup of uncooked grains becomes about 3 cups after cooking.

  • Mix ¼ to ½ whole grain rice (brown, black, red or wild) with white rice, and use as is, or add to your favourite rice dishes.

  • Try whole grain or legume-based pasta and noodles, or serve your favourite pasta sauce with creamy polenta instead.

  • Make a batch of mixed grain granola for a quick weekday breakfast, or try whole grain toasted bread made with buckwheat, rye, barley or wheat relatives (kamut, einkorn, spelt).

To increase variety of protein foods:

  • If you eat animal proteins, choose various cuts of meat, and look for different local products when possible. Substitute ground bison for ground beef in chili; use lingcod instead of chicken breast in a Thai green curry; or try organs, if you are up for a nutrient-dense adventure.

  • Use 50% meat and 50% cooked pulses in a variety of family recipes: ground meat and cooked lentils in a pasta sauce or meatloaf, slices of poultry and firm tofu in fajitas or a stirfry. Or, go all the way, with a meatless meal each week or month. Check out vegetarian recipe ideas here.

  • Diversify your probiotics: substitute kefir for yogurt or buttermilk in recipes, or try a new Canadian cheese at your next celebration.

  • Pair diversity with simplicity: complement your meal with a cool glass of milk.

To increase variety of vegetables and fruits:

  • Shop for vegetables by choosing what’s fresh or on sale:

    • leafy greens for stir fry or salad,

    • roots and squash for roasting or mashing,

    • flavour-packed alliums, like onions, shallots, leeks and garlic

    • versatile cole crops (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, brussels sprouts)

  • Move beyond tomato-based sauces and dishes: mix it up with this butternut squash skillet lasagna, and cauliflower alfredo sauce.

  • Use these handy regional charts to find out what’s in season.

  • Make use of frozen and canned fruits, especially in the winter, and explore the wide variety of local apples and pears still in season.Try your favourite fruit-based desserts (fruit salad, crisp, cobbler, pie, parfait…) with whatever is in season.

A variety of benefits from a balanced diet

There is no perfect food or perfect diet. However, when we eat a wider variety of foods, we are more likely to meet our nutrition needs. This has been shown in a number of recent studies, where measures of dietary diversity (how many different foods—or types of food— you eat) were linked with lower risk of malnutrition (1, 2) and reduced risk of heart disease (3).

There are debates over the effect of increasing variety on weight and food intake (4). Some of this evidence is focused around increased choice at one eating occasion—whether it’s at a buffet or comparing seven vs. four colours of candy. I think we can all agree that when we talk about increasing food variety, that does not mean eating seven flavours of candy! While choice may increase intake in isolated events, remember that your body knows how much food it needs. Listening to our body signals of hunger and fullness can help us feel nourished and satisfied no matter what the situation is.

Of course, the power of food is so much more than the nutrients they contain! Trying and enjoying a wider variety of foods also exposes us to new tastes and textures, introduces us to new stories and cultures, and forms new memories with food and the people we share it with.

There are so many benefits to explore when increasing the variety of foods we eat. What’s the first ‘new’ food you will try this year?


  1. Lachat, C., et al. 2018. Dietary species richness as a measure of food biodiversity and nutritional quality of diets. PNAS. 115 (1) 127-132; accessed 18 Dec 2019 from https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1709194115

  2. Cano-Ibáñez, N., et al. 2019. Dietary Diversity and Nutritional Adequacy among an Older Spanish Population with Metabolic Syndrome in the PREDIMED-Plus Study: A Cross-Sectional Analysis. Nutrients, 11(5), 958; accessed 18 Dec 2019 from https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11050958

  3. Fanelli Kuczmarski, M., et al. 2019. Aspects of Dietary Diversity Differ in Their Association with Atherosclerotic Cardiovascular Risk in a Racially Diverse US Adult Population. Nutrients, 11(5), 1034; Accessed 18 Dec 2019 from https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11051034

  4. de Oliveira Otto, M. C., et al. 2018. Dietary Diversity: Implications for Obesity Prevention in Adult Populations: A Science Advisory From the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2018;138:e160–e168; accessed 18 Dec 2019 from https://doi.org/10.1161/CIR.0000000000000595

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