Picky Eaters or Picky Tastebuds? Eight Strategies to Create Positive Feelings Around Food.

As a parent, one of the great pleasures we witness is seeing our young children enjoy food, especially when they make healthy choices. What they choose to eat might actually be hard-wired into their brains.

The average human has approximately 10,000 Tastebuds. That’s ten thousand microscopic Tastebuds that live in clusters around Papillae, which are the little bumps on our tongues. We replace our Tastebuds about every two weeks, which explains how we can burn our tongues and not permanently lose our sense of taste. As we age, we stop replacing our Tastebuds at the same rate. Which may explain our love of bitter foods, like coffee, green tea, cruciferous vegetables and red wine. Also, some of those foods have Mood and Energy Adapting impacts, which obviously, we Love, but if you ask the average adult what they enjoy about coffee, taste will likely be on their list.

Tastebuds, if you think back to your days of High School Cellular Biology, are Microvilli. Microvilli are very sensitive minuscule “hairs,” that send messages to the brain. They increase the surface area of the cell and have absorption and secretion functions. When broken down food particles, travelling in saliva touch our Microvilli, or in this case, “taste receptors,” we quickly assess what “taste” we are experiencing. The Human Tongue has been mapped to explain where we taste different flavours. Though some feel the Tongue Map is oversimplified as we taste all flavours, on all parts of our tongue, there are certain areas that light up with the five taste sensations. These taste sensations include:

  1. Bitter
  2. Salty
  3. Sour
  4. Sweet
  5. Umami / Savoury

Taste is a very complicated sensory experience, it not only involves flavour, but also, our sense of smell, our sense of touch (how it feels in our mouth), and whether or not the food is visually appealing. Food is also deeply connected to our emotions and our memory. This is why lecturing during mealtime is never the best approach to building Healthy Eaters. Young children tend to seek out Sweet and Umami flavors, as opposed to Bitter and Sour flavours. Sweet and Umami flavours tend to have a higher density of calories, which feeds our natural quest for survival. Bitter and Sour flavours may indicate toxicity. The developing Tastebud requires exposure without too much parental pressure, before a child can actually truly have an opinion on their food. Typically, children need to experience a food ten to fifteen times before they develop an opinion on whether or not they enjoy a food. Understanding that children are simply following natural instincts, as opposed to being choosey or difficult, may allow for more empathy and less disruption at dinner as we grow our kids into Healthy Eaters.

How we get our children to try foods 10 to 15 times, without frustration, is a task in and of itself. Here are some simple tactics I have used successfully with my own kids:

  1. Start with sniff. If your child refuses to taste a food, encourage them to explore the food. Look at the food, touch the food, sniff the food and finally, lick the food. Just touch it once, with your tongue. Then celebrate this good choice!
  2. Involve your child in the kitchen. Even toddler can help with prep work, tearing the lettuce for the salad, washing the vegetables, using the salad spinner. Make sure you use your words of gratitude when you have a child present in the kitchen. This will encourage your child to join you again during meal prep.
  3. Cook to taste. While you prep food, encourage your child to taste the components of the dish. Smell the seasonings, taste the ingredients; if something is off-putting to your child, add it to the dish later, after you have removed their portion. This act stimulates creativity, promotes positive interactions and builds confidence. It also increases the likelihood that the child will being willing to try a new dish at dinner.
  4. If a child doesn’t enjoy a casserole, that’s ok. Leave the foods separate on their plate, but encourage them to try components together. “Can you put a few pieces of rice in your mouth with one of those beans, just to see if you like the taste?” Every meal is an opportunity to create a new love for a new food. If your child tries something and they don’t like it, that’s Ok! Tell them you’re proud that they tried something new and allow them to eat the components of the dish separately. They’re still enjoying the same level of nutrition that the casserole has to offer.
  5. You decide what, they decide how much. Serve your child a balanced meal, make sure their plate is full of colour and nutrients. If they don’t complete everything, make up for it at the next meal. If they were lacking fibre at lunch, serve their favourite version of fibre at dinner, be flexible. Encourage them to try everything on the plate.
  6. Set a good example. If your plate is not balanced, why should their’s be? Make sure your food is nutritious and delicious. Speak positively about what is on your plate. Educate your children about protein and what it does in the body, explain that carbohydrates give you energy, teach them about Minerals and Vitamins in Fruits and Vegetables. Eating is Science and kids love Science.
  7. Get creative! Make pizzas with vegetable faces, serve tiny appetizers that can be picked up with little fingers, serve meals with toothpicks (I’m not sure why, but kids will eat almost anything on a toothpick). Why not serve a pasta or a salad bar at dinner? Allow for your children to choose their sauce, their veggies; all of these leftover ingredients can find there way into other dishes, to be consumed later in the week.
  8. If you’re really up for a challenge, host a Blind Vegetable Taste Test. Blindfold your kids, place small bites into their mouths. See if your kids actually recognize the foods that they are consuming. Perhaps they will find a new love for a veggie. Perhaps not, if nothing else, you’ll create a fond memory.

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