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What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever tasted? Do you remember how you felt as you put it into your mouth? Hold onto that feeling. Chances are, that’s exactly how your reluctant taster feels each and every time you ask him or her to sample something new.
The scariest thing I’ve ever tasted is a fried cricket. I was exploring an African food market last summer with my husband and 12-year-old daughter when we noticed a basketful of fried crickets. “Try one?” the vendor asked, offering up his bounty. The three of us looked at each other and said, “Sure.” Only I wasn’t thinking, “Sure.” I was thinking: Really? Eat crickets? Are you nuts?
One reason the idea of tasting crickets left me shaking in my boots is that I had absolutely no idea what they would taste like. It’s not like I could steel my shaky nerves by thinking back to the time I’d eaten locusts or grasshoppers … because that had never happened. In fact, nothing in my eating life had prepared me for this moment. So I had to wonder: Would the crickets taste pleasant? Would they have a strong and overpowering taste? Would they make me gag? (And if that happened, would I completely embarrass myself by losing my lunch in the middle of the market?)
My husband was the first to select his specimen. “Not bad,” he reported. And with that, I took a deep breath, screwed up my courage—“When are you going to get another chance like this?” I asked myself—and then, before I could back out, I popped that little pest into my mouth. It was crunchy and a little salty. Most importantly, though, that cricket was swallowed. It was gone. Down the gullet. And I’d never have to conquer a cricket again.
I know, you’ve never asked your child to taste anything as out there as fried crickets. But roasted chicken? Asparagus? To you, these foods probably seem like a walk in the park. To a reluctant taster, though, roasted chicken might as well be a cricket. They’re both unfamiliar, intimidating and potentially lethal.
Here’s the way to turn a reluctant taster into an adventurous eater. Start by educating your child about foods. Then, eliminate pressure by focusing on tasting, and not eating.
Adults rarely have to taste things blind, because we have a large collection of food experiences to draw from. We’re pretty good at sizing up a new food and guessing whether it will be sweet, sour or spicy. Or whether the texture will be crunchy, smooth or mushy. When we’re totally at a loss for how something will taste, we ask. (Notice that I waited for my husband’s report—“Not bad”—before jumping in.)
But for kids, making accurate predictions isn’t so easy. Putting something into your mouth when you have absolutely no idea what to expect takes a lot of guts, or a lot of blind faith, or both. (Particularly if you’ve had a couple of experiences where you thought you were going to eat one thing—cheese ravioli, for instance—but bit into something different—such as mushroom ravioli—instead.)
It doesn’t take a lot of information to arm your child. Just connect a new food to something he has already experienced. “This chicken tastes a lot like the kind you eat at the Japanese restaurant because it has the same kind of teriyaki sauce.” Even simple statements like “This is sweet” or “This is salty” can work wonders.
Instead of worrying about what your child eats, concentrate on teaching him or her to be an excellent taster.
Imagine what would have happened that day in the African market if I had been asked to eat (not just sample) the fried crickets. I can tell you with absolute certainty that I wouldn’t have even tasted one of those crawly critters.
In fact, even if someone had said, “Just taste it, and if you don’t like it you don’t have to eat it,” I wouldn’t have budged. I simply was not open to the idea of eating crickets.
Most parents I know think that they are giving their children a safe option when they encourage their kids by saying, “Just taste it, and if you don’t like it you don’t have to eat it.” Hear this statement from your child’s perspective, though, and you can see the problem. Eating is the ultimate goal. If you do like it, you will have to eat it.
But what if your child doesn’t want to eat—or thinks he might not want to eat— whatever you’re offering? The safest course of action is not to take even the tiniest taste.
The more resistant your child is to trying new foods the more clearly you have to separate tasting from eating. That’s why your local farmers’ market is the perfect place to introduce new foods: a single taste never turns into a meal. But even if you conduct your taste tests at home, make tasting, not eating, the end product.
I know it’s hard to believe that your child will ever like new foods, but it happens. As kids grow less fearful of trying new foods, they end up trying even more new foods. Once you have “grown” a confident taster, you’ll have laid the foundation for your child to become a confident eater as well.
Dina Rose, PhD, is a sociologist, parent educator and feeding expert. She is the author of “It’s Not About the Broccoli: Three Habits to Teach Your Kids for a Lifetime of Healthy Eating” (Perigee). Dina’s work has been featured on TV, radio, and in both print and online news sources such as: NBC Connecticut News, Martha Stewart Radio, HuffPost Live, Good Parenting Radio, Babble, The Globe & Mail, Mamapedia, Parenting Magazine, and Spirituality & Health. In addition to writing her blog, “It’s Not About Nutrition,” Dina also writes for The Huffington Post and Psychology Today.