Want to see the future? Your kids do. Not the BIG future – family, fortune, fame – but the immediate future. What will that strange food taste like?

Predictions. Being able to make them is the key to trying new foods.

It makes sense. No one wants to try food completely “blind” – without having any idea what it will taste like. Adults rarely have to because we’re pretty good at making predictions: will the food be sweet? Sour? Spicy? Will its texture be crunchy, smooth, mushy?

And because we have a large collection of food experiences to draw from, not only do we make fairly accurate predictions, but we’ve eaten enough different foods that a bad experience with one flavor or texture doesn’t usually turn us off a whole category of food. (OK, maybe there was that one experience in college that ruined strawberries forever… but even then it probably left your appreciation for other fruits intact.)

But for kids? For them, making accurate predictions isn’t so easy.

Research shows that most children go through 3 steps when deciding whether or not to eat something new.

1. They begin with their eyes and their noses. Children build up an idea of how an acceptable food should look and smell. Foods that are not sufficiently close to this idea are rejected.

2. They decide whether or not to give it a try. If food is recognized and accepted visually and through smell, it will be tasted.

3. The taste is paired with the visual image and the smell. If the taste is acceptable, foods that look and smell the same will be too. If not, then similar looking and smelling foods will also be rejected.

Here, then, is what your kid is worried about: food that looks strange or that has a “different” odor will taste bad. It not rocket science.

So what can you do? Help your child make better predictions by teaching them to use all their senses BEFORE tasting a new food.

  • Make a habit of asking your children what they see, hear, smell and feel. Does the food have a sound? Is it soft? Gooey? Sticky? What color is it?
  • Teach your children to identify the difference between the odor a food puts into the air, and what it smells like up close.
  • Ask your children to identify what the food reminds them of.
  • Actively practice making predictions: What do your children think the food will taste like? Why?
  • Help your children explore how they feel about their sensory experiences and identify associations that are being made.

This may seem like a lot of work before even getting to the taste test, but when a research team in France used these techniques to reduce food neophobia (fear of new foods), they found kids more willing to try new foods… even kids with substantial neophobia.

Finally, teach your children practical stuff like having a something they really like handy, or a glass of water (or both) so that if they decide the taste is not what they want, they can quickly remove/replace it. You probably think your kids already know this, but chances are, they don’t.

Remember, it’s not so much what you feed, as what you teach, that matters.

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Source: Reverdy, C., F. Chesnel, P. Schlich, E. P. Koster, and C. Lange. 2008. “Effect of Sensory Education on Willingness to Taste Novel Food in Children.” Appetite 51: 156-65.