A few weeks ago I wrote about the long-term food goals that I have for my kids and promised to share some of the strategies my husband and I use to achieve them.  Then last week I felt like my long-term food goals could just take a hike and we all but lived on macaroni and cheese and strawberries. This made writing about said food goals rather difficult.

In an effort to get back on track, today, I’m going to unpack one of these goals:

Raise kids who are willing to taste new foods. 

Duffey grapefruit

Wanting my kids to be willing tasters is not really my own idea. In fact, in Laura’s first annual Smart Eating for Kids Reader Survey, many of you shared that this is a similar goal for you.

My personal goal was sparked from time spent listening to and talking with Dr. Dina Rose, who writes a fantastic and EXTREMELY useful blog called It’s Not About Nutrition. Dina argues that focusing on habits will naturally lead kids to choosing healthy foods — and that one of the things that prevents kids from establishing these good habits is fear: fear of tasting something new.

This makes a lot of sense to me. As my kids have grown they have gone from willingly putting anything in their mouths (including crayons!) to being slightly more choosy, and I’ve watched even my most adventurous eater stop eating foods she once liked.

Can you relate?

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 9 helpful strategies I use:

1. 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 pin head. 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 taste the food. Eventually, you can work your way up to a tasteable amount.)

2. 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, oh, “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.

3. 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!)

4. 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!

5. 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.

6. 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.

8. 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.

9. 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.

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