My five-year-old daughter has declared that ketchup is “spicy.” She prefers foods in shades of beige. Her ideal dinner rotation would be something like chicken nuggets and peas, cheese pizza and peas, plain udon noodles and peas, tater tots and peas, and ice cream and peas.
As a mum who was once a food writer, one who heads straight to the spice section at local markets while travelling, one who delights in bold flavours and daydreams about them long after finishing a meal, I can’t help but wonder: Where did I go wrong?
I mean, I have some ideas. With the busyness of life, expanding my child’s culinary palate admittedly hasn’t been a priority—I often find myself rushing through mealtime and am mostly satisfied as long as my kid eats something green (thank you, peas). But I want to be better. How do you introduce flavour into your kid’s sad, bland diet? Parents of more adventurous eaters shared some tips.
There’s no reason that baby food must consist solely of mashed bananas and avocado. Even the youngest eaters can mostly have what you’re having. Kimberly, a parent in the Offspring Facebook group, says that when her daughter was a baby, she would add different spices to her food “just so she would get used to the flavours.” She’d sprinkle turmeric and paprika into eggs, cinnamon into fruit, and curry powder into peas and other bland veggies. “I pretty much would go through my pantry in search of anything to use,” she says.
There’s no need to make baby food from scratch—Kimberly would sometimes add seasonings to premade food from the store. But if you want to save even more time, a number of baby food delivery companies will send fresh, flavour-packed meals to your door. Yumi, for instance, has interesting “farm to face” options such as the classic French dish ratatouille and the Indian-inspired mulligatawny.
You might also check out Baby-Led Weaning (BLW), a way of introducing solids to infants without feeding them purées with a spoon. Many parents say the method has helped their kids become curious about new flavours rather than suspicious of them.
Avoid ‘Kid Food’
“Kid food”—mac and cheese, chicken fingers, quesadillas, pizza bagels, grilled cheese, plain hamburgers and other status quo fare—is hard to avoid. It’s what’s on kids menus, what’s served at birthday parties, what’s on many family dinner schedules because of how reliably kids will devour it. There’s a reason why kids love the stuff: Basic biology. Leann Birch, a research psychologist with the University of Georgia, tells NPR that children are “born preferring salty and sweet,” and it’s up to parents to help them overcome neophobia, an “inbuilt response to something that’s new.”
Clovis, another mum in the Offspring Facebook group, says that in her home, kid food is “special occasion food,” like when other kids come over. I like that. One mistake we’ve been making with our child is regularly presenting her with her own dishes. Hey, I like to eat what I like to eat—spicy curries, noodle dishes packed with peppers, anything high on the Scoville scale—and it’s easy enough to make my kid whatever she wants (noodles, nuggets, pizza—her desires are pretty limited). But experts suggest limiting kids’ meal options. At schools in France, where kids apparently eat everything, there’s always only one choice on the menu. With this method, you can introduce your child to a variety of new foods and flavours, day by day.
It’s All About Attitude
Kids should feel like they’re getting to try flavours—not that they’re being forced to try them. Says Michelle, a mum in the Offspring Facebook group: “I always let my son try whatever I am eating and I try not to comment. Once I started paying attention, I noticed that a lot of adults say things like, ‘You won’t like that’ or ‘It’s too spicy.’ I just hand the food over. He likes a lot of things I thought he wouldn’t.” You might offer your kid a low-pressure “taste plate”—one filled with new things that they may or may not want to try. Samantha Barnes, founder of the kids’ cooking club Raddish, tells me that food often tastes better to kids when they’ve had a hand in creating it. They might try making hummus or Spanish gazpacho or salsa—and then having a ceremonial tasting session in the end.
Clovis adds, “I think the main thing though is that my kids see me eating and enjoying foods that are spiced, and I simply expect them to eat it with me. “It’s not ‘spiced” food, it’s just dinner.”
Introduce Flavours Gradually
Not all kids are going to drizzle their plates with Sriracha, and that’s ok. It’s up to them to find their own comfort level. So introduce flavours gradually. A dad named Andrew says it helps to have some basic mild-medium spicy sauce on hand, like sweet chilli. “I made it clear my daughter should dip her food into it a little bit rather than eat a spoonful of it on its own,” he says. One of my friends says her kids enjoy kimchi but she always rinses it a bit before feeding it to them.
Clovis’ children love the fermented Korean staple, too. But getting them there took some parental effort. With kimchi jeon, a type of pancake, Clovis says, “I would say things like, ‘DON’T TAKE MY KIMCHI JEON! YOU CAN’T HAVE ANY.’ And I’d eat them and be very exaggerated in my enjoyment, which is not hard to do. And obviously, they had to steal them, and now they’re a special treat. Like chicken nuggets.”