Give a young kid a bite of lemon and they will screw up their face, but they will still go for more if it is offered. Lemon is an intense flavour, but it’s not a terrible one – our aversion to it is learned over time. Our kids are gifted with a broad palate to start with, and it’s up to us to provide them with positive and varied food experiences to capitalise and promote what they started with.
As care-givers, we have the opportunity to allow kids to develop a sophisticated and broad-ranging palate that will give them access to health and happiness through food all their lives.
Here is the cheat-sheet for Taste Bud Training. I go into each of these points in detail below.
Taste Bud Training Guidelines
- Provide a variety of textures and flavours – not predominantly sweet or savoury
- Avoid mixing foods – give your child a sense of the variety of flavours, textures and colours of different foods
- Whole foods as soon as they are able. That is, don’t puree for longer than absolutely necessary. Progress to soft, steamed finger foods as soon as possible, and from there, to normal foods.
- No pouches: at least squeeze it out so they can see it. (Also, see above: move on from purees as soon as possible.)
- Get them to play with their food by providing finger foods
- End endless snacking – just keep mealtimes as mealtimes. A small morning tea or afternoon tea is the most they need. Avoid grazing.
- Sit down to eat
- Turn off the TV for mealtimes
- Don’t restrict diets unless necessary
- Mould their idea of a treat. Treats don’t have to be unhealthy, or even food! – it’s all in the presentation
- Model good food habits and talk about the difference between healthy foods and treats. Show them a love of good food.
- Give them choice and autonomy to create a healthy relationship with food
A blank slate
I like to think of our palate as something to nurture. Like anything, if we become comfortable with an extreme, we don’t notice subtleties as much. So if we bombard our kids with food that is very sweet or very salty, they begin to find that anything with a less extreme flavour is bland. As the foods that lie between the extremes tend to be the healthier ones, it is SO important to encourage their taste buds by making those super sweet or super salty foods a rare treat.
The slippery slope of unhealthy eating habits
There is more and more evidence that foods high in fat and sugar create similar reactions in humans as do highly addictive substances such as alcohol and narcotics. In particular, the part where sugar intake creates a dopamine rush – which sends a feel-good message to your body. With too much dopamine, the system shuts down, creating fewer receptors, and therefore needing more and more of the same substance to get the same feel-good message. This is a way of saying, the more we eat of these things, the more we need of these things. Read more about this in this National Geographic article (Why We Crave Sweet and Fat by Rebecca Rup).
But change is possible…
In another really great article in the National Geographic Beyond Taste Buds: The Science of Delicious , we learn from Julie Mennella, a biologist who studies the sense of taste in babies and toddlers, that we can change children’s taste sensations:
“The good news is that our inborn taste inclinations are not immutable. People who succeed in reducing salt in their diet typically find that their tolerance for highly salted food declines. And our natural resistance to broccoli, brussels sprouts, and other healthful but bitter foods can be overcome through experience—especially if it begins early. Mennella’s research has shown that babies’ flavor preferences are affected by their mothers’ diet during pregnancy and by their own diet after birth. “Babies can learn to like a variety of foods,” she said. “But they have to taste the food in order to like it.” Her main advice to parents is to set good examples and not give up.”
Guidelines for Taste bud Training
A variety of textures and flavours, without skewing fully toward sweet or savoury will prepare kids for a variety of flavours. As they get older, this preparation will mean they will be less likely to baulk at new foods. As flavour inclinations are set down through exposure when babies are very young, the more you expose them to, the more they will be inclined to eat as they grow.
Mixing foods may seem like you are giving them more variety in one hit, or even that you are creating a taste sensation for them, but allowing them to see that pumpkin is orange, and tastes sweet, and broccoli is green and tastes slightly bitter, is building up their little cache of flavour memories. They may spit things out first time, but continuing to expose them to the same foods and creating a familiarity is what allows them to build a tolerance to various flavour differences. If you have frozen cubes of different purees for your baby in the freezer, give them one puree at a time, or alternate mouthfuls from different bowls. For this reason, I tend to avoid convenience foods unless necessary (often Sunday afternoons!).
Finger foods are also important in those early stages of solid food. Picking up food with their fingers gives them an even deeper sense of what this food thing is all about. Watch your baby focus, examine and then taste their food, laying down important taste memories for later. Plus it’s great for hand-eye coordination.
Along the same lines, it is important to move on from these purees as soon as you think your child is capable. Which is much sooner than you think. Progressing from purees to very well steamed cubes or fingers of vegetables that they can try to pick up with their hands begins hand-eye coordination training as well as jaw development which is important for speech development and strength for chewing more solid foods later on.
At meal times, turn the TV off, and sit down to eat. Little ones need to concentrate to eat, and develop a relationship with the food they are eating. And this will hopefully turn into a habit your whole family follows as they get older. Family mealtimes are a really wonderful thing and it is said helps family bonding and security.
Mindfulness is a trend we are lucky enough to be in the midst of right now, and we know that to eat Mindfully is an important part of a healthy relationship with food and ourselves. If the TV is on, or kids are running around doing other things, they are not at all conscious of what they are eating.
Many children have intolerances to various food items, but I would encourage these intolerances to be formally diagnosed before embarking on a diet that excludes major food groups. If you suspect a problem, perhaps a reduction in the consumption of a particular food type would help. If you do eliminate a food type, make sure you are able to provide substitutes in your child’s diet. Keeping their diet as broad as possible is great for gut health.
Treats are absolutely fine when they are actually a treat. That means something rarely eaten, not daily, and probably not even weekly. In fact, treats don’t need to be unhealthy, or even food for that matter. Sometimes a hug is just as good a reward or special date out with grandma. Anything can be special if you present it in the right way. Read more in our article, Lunchbox Treats.
I truly think the best way to encourage a broad palate and a curious eater with good food habits is to model this behaviour yourself. And if you’re not that keen on trying new things – now is a great time to start! Talk about the food they eat, where it comes from, how it is grown, or baked. Tell the story of how it got to be here on their plate and encourage curiosity by making a fun thing about a new food – they don’t have to like it, they should be applauded for giving it a go. Reminders about foods that are healthy and foods that are not don’t need to be negative, just part of the narrative around what they eat. Explain why things are good for them and why some things aren’t. Teaching our children about healthy food is a hugely important skill – one they desperately need before we send them out into the world.
I also believe choice and autonomy around food is really important – up to a certain point. If they are choosing not to eat dinner and autonomously going straight to dessert, then they need some extra guidance. But putting healthy choices out and letting them try things and then say no is ok too. Just as important is recognising when they are saying no for other reasons than that they might not like that food. And if that’s the case, keep getting them to try it until a familiarity starts to develop, and they might just enjoy it after all.
Simply by caring and taking an interest in our child’s relationship with food, we are already winning. Take baby steps, and most of all, lead by example. This is a topic I care deeply about, and I hope this article will help.
Love, Ali x