Anyone who has tried to feed a picky, emotional toddler something he isn’t familiar with will understand why parents, for their own sanity, fall back on the usual “safe” food choices. But exposing your child to a variety of flavors is not only good for the palate; it’s also healthy, as it exposes a child to a wider assortment of natural, plant-based nutrients.
Humans are born with the ability to taste five flavors: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and savory (umami). Yet a cursory look at any children’s menu leaves one with the impression that children can only recognize two: sweet and salty.
“Child-friendly” meals are often composed of the usual oily spaghetti, fried chicken, fries or burgers. Children are capable of enjoying a wide variety of flavors, and, unlike hamsters, do not need separate, bland meals of their own.
With a little practice and a lot of patience, here are a few things you can try to open up your child’s palate to new flavors. Over time, he, too, might surprise you and blossom into a junior gourmand.
When my first child started eating solid food, I noticed that she was more interested in what I was having, pointing to it, asking to share, and ignoring her own food. Looking over at her bland carrot-and-pork mush, I couldn’t blame her. I realized that she would probably eat better and more heartily if we ate the same meals together. I changed my meals to incorporate her needs, and in the process I realized that I’d have to dump my baby-unfriendly junk food grazing, because she’d eye my junk food, too.
It makes evolutionary sense for babies to act this way. What better way to detect if food is poisonous than by having mom or dad try it first? (Thanks, children.)
Humans are a social species, relying on each other for survival, and behavior is learned through observation and imitation of peer groups.
If possible, expose your baby to the food you eat, and try to eat together, even if it is only for one meal. You can chop her serving into smaller, safe pieces and make sure that there aren’t any dangerous bones or hard bits. Let her get messy and examine her food. Eating then becomes less of a passive experience, and more of an active, curious one that is shared with a trusted loved one.
Don’t provide separate meals
So your child is no longer a toddler, and she seems set in her culinary ways. Don’t worry. It’s still possible to introduce new flavors to her ever-expanding palate. The key is to introduce them gradually, without pressure.
The British National Health Service’s (NHS) guide for picky eaters suggests gently introducing new types of food similar to those he already likes, and working your way outward. “If your child only eats chicken nuggets,” it advises, “try chicken burgers.”
Eating at home, at set times, and ideally together make it easier to introduce new flavors in a safe environment. If mom, dad or siblings are trying out a new dish, little ones may be open to trying it, too.
Ban sugar (at least during meal times)
In general, try to remove things that will draw attention away from your meals, like sugary treats and drinks.
In addition to being too distracting, the excessive sweetness from refined sugar overwhelms the palate, and renders every other flavor bland in comparison. Once refined sugar has coated the palate, then it’s game over as far as experimentation is concerned. The same goes for fast food and other processed food, which is filled with hidden sugar and salt.
Expand your palate, too
Of course, a great deal of your success depends on your own attitude toward food. You cannot expect Junior to indulge in new flavors if you stick only to sweet or salty dishes, think carbohydrates are evil, or are struggling through a Cohen diet and are shoving away plates of food in favor of matchbox portions (or air).
Ask yourself why you wish to expand your child’s palate in the first place, and be honest. Is it to boast about their sophisticated taste buds in your next family reunion, or to be at par with other seemingly worldly parents? If so, you probably won’t be successful. But if you are genuinely interested in food, or would like to be more adventurous taste-wise, indulge yourself in your culinary interests, push your palate’s boundaries, try new things yourself, and your enthusiasm and passion will rub off on your little one.
This is best done while your children are young and impressionable, and are still happy to follow your lead, food-wise.
Teenagers and toddlers are another story, but it’s still possible to influence their palate in a less direct way. Opportunities to try new flavors are abundant when traveling, not only abroad but locally, too; there are the local delicacies and native fruit in season.
Don’t stress yourself out about the whole process. Ignore your child’s complaints or dramatic, Oscar-winning protests over new food, and continue to try new things. Expanding your child’s palate, as with all things parenthood-related, does not come with a set of hard and fast rules. Be flexible in whatever works for your family and your children, whom you know best.
Breathe, relax and remember: Food, like life, is an adventure to be shared and enjoyed together. —CONTRIBUTED