The new school year is an exciting time for kids (and parents!). They are another year older and will be spending the next nine months learning and trying all sorts of new things! They will try new games and sports. They will grapple with new scientific concepts and solve math problems. They will read new books and write new words. But what they probably won’t do is try new foods.
Most children (and some adults) have a hard time trying new foods. However, this is not a universal problem. Americans, in particular, have a hard time getting their children to eat new foods, especially those that are actually good for them. But why?
There two primary reasons.
The first is biological. Children are predisposed to prefer salty, sweet, and fatty foods. And if these flavors are present in their food, they quickly learn to prefer them over dishes that doesn’t, especially if it’s new. Bitter, sour, and spicy take a bit of getting used to. You would be hard-pressed to find someone who can honestly say they enjoyed these flavors the very first time they tried them. Bitter, in particular, is a biological recognition of something that is poisonous, albeit only in large doses. You could never eat enough radicchio for it to harm you. But a child’s taste buds are far more sensitive to these things, and realistically their bodies are less capable of processing them. So their brains will tell them “stay away,” upon the first taste. But a few repeated tries will eventually teach their brains and taste buds, that this food is OK, and now I actually like it!
The second challenge is the food environment itself. Everywhere you turn in America, someone is trying to sell sweet, salty, and fatty foods to children. Look at the “kids menu” at any restaurant. What’s on it? Sweet. Salty. Fatty.
So what is a parent to do? Simple. Ignore the kids menu and give them the foods you eat. (That is if you aren’t just eating grilled cheese and hot dogs as well.) Sound a bit crazy? Well, that’s what cultures all around the world have been doing for thousands of years. Do you think your grandparents got to eat from a kids menu when they were a child? Probably not. It’s more likely they ate what their parents ate.
Easier said than done, right? Of course. Parents are endlessly busy. But like with many things, hard work, in the beginning, will pay off in the long run. Getting your child past their aversion to new foods will set them up for a lifetime of good nutrition and easier meal planning for you. Back to school is the perfect time to get kids started expanding their palates.
Here are a few tips to help along the way:
- Start early. That isn’t very helpful to those with older children. But the earlier in life you introduce children to varied foods, the easier it will be for them going forward. The biological curve is the easier challenge to get through in this case. You as the parent, however, have to avoid the daunting food landscape that is attempting to convince you that salty and sweet is the way to go.
- Start small. Like really, really small. A single bite. This is helpful in two ways. For one, you won’t end up wasting food getting them to try new things. At the same time, a single bite is a much smaller challenge for any child and you can phrase it as such: “One bite and you’re done!” But don’t put a whole scoop and say, “just one bite.” Literally, put only one bite on their plate. Next time, make it two bites. Remember, you are up against biology here. Their taste buds have to learn just as much as their minds.
- Familiarity. The natural aversion to new things is anything but new. There is even a term for it, “neophobia.” So familiarity can be key. Take a new food and add it to something familiar. Adding broccoli to macaroni and cheese becomes macaroni and trees!
- Make it fun. Food shouldn’t be boring, and there are several ways to increase a child’s engagement with food. Gardening with kids and cooking with kids are two proven ways to increase a child’s interest in different foods. Obviously, this doesn’t work for everyone. Another way is to set goals. The new school year can be an excellent time to do this. But don’t use bribes like sweets as a reward. Encouraging a child to achieve by trying new things will yield surprising results.
- Make your own environment. Don’t bring home the sweet and salty foods. If it is in the house, the child will want it. You’ll probably fight about it. So save yourself some grief and keep these foods out of the house.
- Be a role model. This applies to all of the above. Don’t want your kid to eat a lot of junk food? Then you shouldn’t either. Want your kid to try new things? Then you should too. Set goals together. Stick to them together. Don’t expect your child to do something you wouldn’t do yourself.
- Stick with it. Expanding the palate takes time, just like learning any new skill. A lot of time in some cases. There will be setbacks. Probably a lot of them. For some foods, no matter how many times a child tries it, they just won’t like it. Which is OK. We all have those foods we just don’t like!
- Don’t stress. The bigger of a deal you make out of the new foods, the stronger aversion they may have to it. So relax. Make this experience fun. Remember, there will be setbacks!