Babies and young children are largely a blank slate when it comes to eating habits. While they may have innate taste preferences for sweet over bitter, their palates are nonetheless quite malleable in the first years of life. Therefore, the real challenge for those tasked with feeding children – and helping them develop flexible, healthy eating habits for life – is to avoid passing along our own food prejudices.
This, of course, is far easier said than done. It’s tough for parents to expose our kids to a broader variety of foods than we ourselves enjoy eating. We tend not to buy foods we don’t like, nor do we know how to prepare them. I know okra is nutritious and my kids might very well like it, but I’m pretty sure their first exposure to it won’t be at my hands.
Since it can be challenging to get past our own food blinders and even imagine what other foods our children might possibly enjoy, I find it helpful to talk to other parents about what surprising foods their children have shown a yen for. Here are three such examples; feel free to share yours in the comments section!
(Still) frozen fruits and veggies. I stumbled upon this one when making blueberry pancakes one morning. As my daughter watched, she asked to eat some of the still-frozen wild blueberries I had in reserve. I obliged. My kids have been begging for still-frozen fruit since.
I subsequently consulted a variety of online discussion boards and confirmed that my kids aren’t alone in their penchant for still-frozen produce. Some moms wrote of older toddlers and young kids chowing down on frozen bell pepper slices, cut green beans, diced carrots and petite peas. Other moms of infants reported offering frozen peaches, mangoes or bananas in a safety mesh for their teething babies to gnaw on. As it turns out, our children haven’t gotten the memo that frozen veggies “should be” cooked – or frozen fruit thawed – prior to enjoying.
Intrigued, I’ve since sampled a variety of frozen fruits and vegetables to help understand what it is these kids might find so appealing about them. For starters, their cold, creamy texture is quite novel. The temperature also seems to dull their flavor – which may explain why some kids find typically bitter vegetables to be more acceptable in frozen form. An additional benefit of serving still-frozen produce to your kids, apart from the time saved in actual cooking, is that organic versions of fruits and veggies are far more economical in the frozen form than in the fresh. So if you’ve got a kid who likes to chew on ice, eat snow or enjoys ice pops, you may be surprised to learn that frozen produce appeals to him or her, too!
Brussels Sprouts Recipes.]
Pass the Umami, Mommy! Umami is considered the fifth flavor – alongside sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Literally translated as “delicious taste” from its Japanese origin, umami is best described as “savory.” It’s the flavor profile of foods rich in glutamate and certain food compounds called nucleotides, like cooked meat (and meat-derived foods like gravy or meat stock), wild mushrooms, and fermented foods ranging from sauerkraut and soy sauce to salami and bacon. Our taste receptors for umami flavors explain why monosodium glutamate makes certain takeout foods literally mouthwatering.
Newborns are exposed to umami flavors in glutamine-rich breastmilk, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that kids instinctively love some of the most umami-rich foods. Case in point: ketchup and Parmesan cheese. It’s no coincidence that some of my winningest dinner recipes are all umami bombs, whether they feature fish, steak or chicken. (I use gluten-free Tamari soy sauce to keep them gluten-free.)
Young kids’ natural attraction to umami flavors suggests they may accept a variety of foods you hadn’t thought to even introduce. Roasted seaweed sheets, grape tomatoes and edamame (boiled soybeans) are umami-rich snacks that your children may enjoy. Allowing kids to sprinkle their own Parmesan on bitter veggies like asparagus, broccoli or Brussels sprouts can help increase their palatability. Similarly, baking grated Parmesan cheese into “frico” (Parmesan crisps) makes a crunchy umami garnish that might facilitate acceptance of pureed veggie soups like cauliflower or tomato. Other umami-rich foods with possible appeal to young palates include tuna fish, shellfish (try cute, kid-sized bay scallops), miso soup and wild mushroom soups or risottos.
[Read: Best and Worst Fast Food Kids' Meals.]
Dinner ... after dessert. If your feeding dogma holds that eating dessert first will spoil your child's appetite for dinner, you may be in for a surprise. Under certain circumstances (see more on this below), allowing some flexibility as to when a child eats dessert can ease the tension at mealtimes and facilitate better eating all around. After all, kids aren't born knowing that dessert is “supposed to” come after a meal, so taking bites of savory meat or veggies while sweet cookie crumbs are still lingering in the mouth may not offend a child’s sensibilities nearly as much as it would our own.
I was first introduced to the idea of presenting dessert along with dinner as a student dietitian reading Ellyn Satter's "Child of Mine," long before I had children of my own. When I enacted the strategy at my family's dinner table this past year, however, I confirmed that it can indeed work.
When my twins turned two, we started a weekly ritual of traditional Friday night family dinners. Like the Sabbath dinners I grew up with, our meal ends with a special dessert of cookies from a local bakery. It didn't take more than a few weeks before my sweet-toothed son got wise to the fact that when the table was set for Friday night dinner, there were certain to be cookies at the end of the meal. And when he did, his meals became more and more abbreviated, until after just a bite or two of dinner, he'd announce he was finished and start agitating for dessert. Soon, I decided to test Satter's teachings, and offered my son his two cookies as soon as he (politely) asked for them. Lo and behold, once the cookie distraction had been eaten away, he became calm enough to sit and finish eating a proper dinner. After all, there was no more incentive to rush through the meal, his appetite had not fully been sated from the two smallish cookies I allotted, and there was no power struggle over dessert to divert him from eating.
For this tactic to work, two conditions need to be met. First, dessert must be decided upon as part of the menu in advance, and offering it cannot be made contingent on whether a child eats dinner. In other words, don't make dessert a reward, or you risk reinforcing the notion that real food is drudgery that requires bribing in order to be eaten. Second, the portion of dessert must be appropriately moderate such that it will not fully satisfy a child's appetite. (In my household, I only even buy two cookies per kid, so there's no room for begging or negotiating for more once they've been eaten.)