My daughter is a toddler. She is a fantastic eater. Her favorite foods: dill pickles, muckmul babba (mussel pasta), tzatziki, apples, oranges, and of course, the lemony tasting wild plant Oxalis pes-caprae, commonly called sourgrass. Was my child born a good eater, or made a good eater, or both?
I spoke at a conference on taste at the French embassy in Washington, D.C., when my daughter was still too young to eat. One of the speakers pointed at that at birth children can taste all five tastes — but they have no cultural associations with those tastes. An American baby, for example, doesn’t know that Americans tend to add sugar to their yogurt, that they don’t eat liver, that they think shell fish is for adults, and etc., etc., etc..
Looking through the scientific literature, I found an article written by an English researcher who said that based on interviews that it appeared that there was a correlation between the number of flavors infants were exposed to and older children’s openess to eating a wide variety of foods. In other words, a narrow diet as an infant makes for a picky eater.
So. Here is what my wife and I have done. We have focused on both introducing a wide range of flavors AND in offering positive feedback in the form of broad smiles and supportive words for foods that cause an initial reaction, for example, puckering when first tasting yogurt.
For my daughter’s first meal at six months we had dinner party. She had no teeth. We served her boiled potatoes tossed with a little garlic, thyme, and salt.
The first time she had yogurt, around the same age, it was again at a party. She tasted it and puckered her lips. I told everyone at the table to smile. She took another taste, and puckered her lips. We all smiled. The third time she didn’t pucker her lips. Given our American cultural bias against unsweetened yogurt, it would have been easy to decide, based on her facial expression, that she didn’t like yogurt.
Stella loves fried eggs. The first time my wife made fried eggs for her she ate the yolk of two eggs. She still loves runny egg yolks. When I make fried eggs for her, which I do often, I add flavor. In fact, this drive for flavor has given me a new appreciation for fried eggs. Lately, I sauté a sliced garlic clove in butter, remove it when it is cooked, break in two eggs, and sprinkle them with dried thyme and gray sea salt. I like the use of a coarse salt because it means explosive flavor on the tongue. Sometimes, I add grated Parmesan cheese to the eggs. If I don’t sauté garlic in the butter, and I don’t always, I might add some chicken stock, or the water from steaming mussels. The point is that a fried egg can, itself, be a carrier for flavor. One might add cumin, or a little chili — follow your own tastes.
Another component is to involve your child in cooking. Stella watches everything being cooked. And when there is something she can help with, she helps. As her salt sprinkling is uneven, she puts pinches of salt in my hand, and I add them to the eggs. She helps strip branches of dried thyme, and puts leaves on the eggs. She sprinkles grated cheese on top. Being involved in the cooking helps build positive associations for ones child, as it does for us!
Overcome your own dislikes for the sake of your child.
Don’t take an initial rejection as rejection forever. Children can be erratic eaters. The first time I served Stella chicken liver she spit it out. The second time, two weeks later, she ate half a liver, a heart, few thin slices of gizzard, and wanted more, but there wasn’t any more.
Don’t fight over a meal. Children don’t eat when they aren’t hungry. Unlike us! There are days when my daughter, basically, doesn’t eat anything. She makes up for it the next day, or the day after. If she doesn’t touch a dish — and sometimes, even after helping, she won’t even open her mouth. So, she doesn’t eat. No fight. No bad associations.
I think it is helpful, in working through ones ideas about what children will, or will not like, to think about children living in other culinary cultures. A little ginger in those lentils, a hint of chili in those eggs, good eaters are made from good tasting food.