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Nurturing a Preschooler’s Palate

By Janet Helm, MS, RD

Child Eating Fruit

Offering healthier kids’ meals is one of the top trends identified by the National Restaurant Association’s 2012 What’s Hot Survey, an annual poll of professional chefs affiliated with the American Culinary Federation. The food service industry is dramatically changing kids’ meals and a new initiative by the NRA called Kids LiveWell is helping to spark these changes.

That’s all great, because the typical kids’ meal in this country needs an upgrade. I’m not even sure at what point kids got their own food, but that’s the situation we’re in today. In virtually all other cultures in the world, kids eat what the parents eat. Yet, American kids tend to eat a beige-colored, deep-fried diet that’s often washed down with a neon-colored sugary drink–which is certainly one reason American children are gaining weight at alarming rates. But beyond the childhood obesity threat, this modern-day kiddie meal and sweet drinks may be doing something equally insidious to young kids: deadening their developing palates.

Barb Stuckey, author of the new book “Taste What You’re Missing: The Passionate Eater’s Guide to Why Good Food Tastes Good,” believes we’re growing a generation of kids with flabby palates — preferring sweetness over bitterness—and that’s one reason that our physiques have become flabby. With each new overly sweet food that we consume, whether it is high in calories or not, we dull our palates to other tastes and flavors, especially those of nutritious fruits and vegetables.

Too much sweetness and not enough bitterness makes food taste flabby, she says. To help kids avoid flabby palates, Stuckey thinks we should be teaching children about taste. With palate education comes the desire for palate stimulation. If we made this part of school curriculum, she says, we’d raise kids that not only appreciate the difference between bitter and sour, salty and umami, but actually seek challenging flavors to entertain and enthrall themselves at the table.

Expanding our palates is especially important for young preschool children. You’re helping to train their tongues for a lifetime of healthy eating. Keith Ayoob, pediatric nutritionist at Albert Einstein Medical Center in New York City, says our children’s palates are being dumbed down by greasy, salty and sweet foods and drinks. Once they get used to these flavors, the taste threshold is set so high that fresh fruits aren’t sweet enough and vegetables taste too bitter, he says.

Dr. David Ludwig, a childhood obesity expert in Boston and author of “Ending the Food Fight:  Guide Your Child to a Healthy Weight in a Fast Food/Fake Food World,” worries we’re stunting children’s taste buds. He said the extra-intense artificial flavors that dominate “kid food” interfere with a child’s natural tendency to develop a broader palate. Our taste preferences, by nature, are designed to broaden over time, but we’re short-circuiting basic biological pathways and warping children’s taste buds. We’re essentially putting the brakes on children’s palates and preventing them from appreciating more natural and healthful food, he says.

So how do you raise an adventurous eater?  Here are some tips to help you develop your child’s palate.

Take control. Remember, you’re in charge here. Parents need to play an active role in shaping their young children’s food preferences, which will serve them well for life. When you shop for a preschooler, your job is not to simply buy the foods your child likes, but to teach your child to like what you buy.

Cook with your child. Never underestimate the value of getting your kids in the kitchen.  Children are much more likely to try something new if they’ve had a hand at preparing it.

Bury your own food bias. Don’t let your own food preferences keep you from introducing new vegetables or other foods to your child. If you hate broccoli or Brussels sprouts, don’t pass on that bias to your child. Continue to expose your child to new foods, even if that means you need to “put on your poker face” and take a bite yourself.

Do not automatically default to the children’s menu. Consider other options when dining out:  share your plate, request half orders, or combine an appetizer with a side dish. Check out ethnic restaurants so your child can be exposed to wide variety of flavors and textures.

Be a role model. One of the best ways to get your children to eat a diverse diet is to see you do the same. That means you may need to examine your own eating habits, which may be one of the most powerful influences of all – for better or worse.

Sit down to dinner. Scores of studies show that children who sit down to family dinners (with the TV turned off) have better diets and are less likely to be obese. Children who frequently have dinner with their families eat more fruits and vegetables, drink more milk, consume fewer fried foods, and drink fewer sodas.

Aim for progress, not perfection. Don’t feel defeated if you find yourself heading to the drive-thru or resorting to frozen nuggets. Just look for ways you can enhance those meals with more veggies and fruits and lowfat milk in place of sugary drinks. Keep introducing new foods – it may take multiple attempts, so don’t give up.

Photo: Stockbyte

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