Some kids are naturally more adventurous while others are more tentative – especially when it comes to food and eating. A respected colleague, Dr. Dina Rose, argues that focusing on habits will naturally lead kids to choosing healthy foods, in healthy proportions, and that one of the things that prevents kids from establishing these good habits is fear: fear of tasting something new.
As my kids have grown, they have gone from willingly putting anything in their mouths (including crayons!) to being slightly choosier, and I've watched even my most adventurous eater stop eating foods she once liked. Given that I also know that kids need multiple exposures to a food before they "like" it - or even willingly consume it - and that this number increases as children get older, I wanted to have strategies in place to promote and support the skill of tasting. Here are some that I use:
- Think small. A "taste" is not a forkful. It's not "bite-sized." It's not even "a little bit." A taste, especially if your kids are afraid of tasting (or just not really into the idea), should be TINY. Pea-sized. Or smaller.
Note: If your child is really resistant to tasting something new, the amount you give him should be the size of a pinhead. I'm serious. The goal of tasting in these cases is to help your child get over his fear of putting something unfamiliar and new into his mouth. It has nothing to do with whether or not he actually tastes the food. Eventually, you can work your way up to an amount that would actually impart flavor!
- Describe it. Imagine if someone handed you something and just said, "Here. Taste this," Would you? Or would you ask some questions first? Questions like, "What does it taste like?" More often than not, this is exactly what we do to our kids: hand them something and expect that they will just eat it. Instead, try giving your kids something to go on. Help them know what to expect. In addition to giving them words to describe and understand the experience, it'll dampen anxiety about the unknown.
- Process her experience. Once she's put the food in her mouth, ask her about it. Ask her to describe the texture and flavor. Describe the smell and make comparisons to other foods that she knows. "Is it crunchy like a cracker or soft like cheese?" "Is it salty like an olive, or sweet like a cookie." The processing does two things: (1) it helps her identify what she is experiencing which can help her identify the aspects of it that she likes and does not like (I like the favor, but not the texture), and (2) it gives her additional vocabulary to use when processing other food experiences. (If you struggle with how to describe the various aspects of foods, check out this list of more than 200 descriptors!)
- Don't make him eat it. Tasting does not mean eating, so let go of the expectation that the food is finished, or even swallowed. Of course, if he wants to eat the whole thing, let him!
- Create a rating system. My kids can tell me that they don't like something I've made - in fact I regularly ask for everyone's feedback - but they are not allowed to just say, "YUCK." We use a thumbs up/thumbs down rating system as a first pass and then describe something about the food that we do, or DO NOT, like. And, if it's a "thumbs down" I also ask for a couple of reasons why they don't like it - using the list I mentioned above - and we think about how to change it for next time.
- Taste between meals. Particularly for kids who are really opposed to trying something new, tasting should be done outside meal times (and maybe even away from the table). There's a lot of pressure to actually eat at mealtimes, which, again, is not the goal here.
- Have taste-tests and food pairings. Put out 5 different types of tomatoes, or a variety of cheeses with sliced pears and let your kids explore the combinations and variations offered by these experiences.
- Be patient. This is the most important and hardest strategy to implement (and it's not even a strategy, really). Kids often need multiple exposures to a flavor (or food) before they like (or willingly consume) it. This number is estimated to be somewhere around 15, and gets higher as kids get older. Your daughter's persistent rejection of broccoli (or milk or almonds or yogurt or wheat bread or pasta that isn't in the shape of a wheel) can be extremely tiresome, nerve wracking, and disheartening. But hang in there and remember that to keep your focus on the long-game. As my kids would tell me (as Dory tells them), "Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming." You might be going upstream right now, but it won't always be this way.
Did you find this post helpful? Look for more practical strategies around the following good goals:
- To eat a variety of foods.
- To provide the skills necessary for them to listen to their internal signals of hunger and satiety.
- To involve them in meal planning and food preparation.
Kiyah J. Duffey, PhD
Director of Global Scientific Affairs at LA Sutherland Group
Adjunct faculty, Virginia Tech
Kiyah Duffey received her degree in Nutritional Epidemiology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is now Director of Global Scientific Affairs and LA Sutherland Group. She is also a freelance nutrition consultant, blogger, and mother to three. In her day job, Kiyah’s research aims to understand the association between diet, obesity and heart disease. She is the author of numerous scientific articles on these topics, and her work has been featured in Men’s Health Magazine, USA Today, and the BBC News and on NPR’s Morning Edition, Good Morning America, and the NBC Nightly News. But her true passion is food: reading and writing about it, shopping for it, talking about it, cooking it and sharing it with others. Someday she’ll figure out how to marry her passion and expertise more fully; in the meantime you can follow her efforts to do so at www.ourregularlyscheduledprogram.com where she blogs about family, parenting, career, and the search for a healthy, balanced life. Or connect with her via facebook or Twitter.