These five strategies will help your child be confident around new foods and taste them willingly, without preassure, bribes or rewards.
My 10 year old announced a few days ago: "Mom, I LOVE chicken curry". Then, looking at my slightly shocked expression, she corrected herself a little: "Well, maybe it's not my favorite food, but it is really good."
Rewind a year. We moved to London and the girls started a new school where chicken curry, a staple for many British families, was served weekly. Everything about it—the spice, the aroma, the look - was very foreign to my daughter who promptly decided that she and curry were not becoming friends any time soon. She didn't even try it, and chose a sandwich or baked potato instead... for a whole year.
I asked her why she hadn't tried it before, and her answer made sense. She does not like a lot of spice and wasn't sure what to expect from this new food. And since she had only one chance to pick from the cafeteria offerings and could not change her mind later, she obviously went with what she KNEW she could enjoy, like the familiar sandwich or baked potato.
I am sure the staff in our school cafeteria is doing its best to feed a bunch of hungry students in a limited time. Probably they do not always have the time to provide tastes of food or explain more about it. All the kids are typically served a regular sized portion. They are also, unfortunately, often required to eat a certain amount of it before they can go play in the yard. This, on top of my daughter's cautious attitude to new foods, may explain why it took her so long to finally give the curry a chance.
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However frustrating it may be, the way the food is presented at schools is currently outside the direct area of influence of many parents. But we can definitely help our kids learn to taste and like a bigger variety of foods at home, in a less rushed environment. Here are some of the strategies that may help raise good "tasters".
- Serve food family style, in the middle of the table, instead of plating it. This way, kids do not have to make the important decision about what they want to eat at the very beginning of the meal. They also get to see and smell all the food without the pressure to eat it. And even if they fill their plates only with their favorites, the new food is still on the table and they can "sneak" a taste of it at any point during the meal.
- Think small and expect setbacks. When kids are ready, they will probably serve themselves the tiniest amount, like a few drops of sauce or the smallest piece of chicken. It is still a big step for them although it does not guarantee that the food will become their favorite now. Learning to enjoy eating something new is a process, just like learning any skill, and it is full of setbacks.
- Teach them to spit food out discreetly. Let's be honest, our kids will not immediately like everything they taste for the first time. And if they know that swallowing is optional, they will be more willing to actually place the new food in their mouth. So keep a pile of napkins handy and teach your child to use them as needed, without making a big fuss. This important skill will help him be more comfortable around new foods at home, at school, and in his friends' houses.
- Describe the food without trying to "sell it". If you are serving a new food, provide some neutral background information, but avoid being too pushy. For example: "This is chicken curry. I made it using chicken meat and a special sauce with Indian spices which give it a specific aroma and flavor. One of the spices, turmeric, has a very mild taste but it makes the sauce bright yellow. You can mix a few drops of the sauce with some rice on your plate to taste the flavor." Avoid comments like: "This is chicken curry. It is so delicious and good for you! Please eat some, you need some protein and I spent a whole afternoon in the kitchen putting this meal together. No, it does NOT smell funny. C'mon, just try some for me." Sadly, this approach rarely works with kids.
- Use a tasting plate. Smaller kids and those who are very sensitive to new smells, tastes and textures may avoid any interaction with anew food because they do not want it to touch other things on their plates. In this case, keep a little "tasting plate" next to their regular place setting. They can choose to put the new food on it and just keep it close without tasting or even touching it. It still counts as the important exposure they need before they are ready to try the food.
As grown-ups, we have a lot of experience with all types of food. Based on our extensive background knowledge, we know, at least most of the time, what to expect when we try something new. Our kids, on the other hand, are still eaters in training. They are novices in the world of food and they need a supportive and trusting environment in order to explore it safely. Help them become good "tasters" to feel confident around new foods and keep expanding their eating repertoire now and throughout their lives.
Natalia Stasenko MS, RD, CDN is a pediatric dietitian based in London and New York. She offers an online, one-on-one support program for parents of picky eaters called Feeding Bytes, and is the mother of three. Natalia is the cowriter of the cookbook Real Baby Food, and when not writing, teaching or consulting, she is in the kitchen cooking and eating with her family.