If you want your kids to try new foods, you might have to let them spit, not swallow.

I’m not suggesting that you let your kids hurl huge goobers like Grandpa (though if your kids tend towards the dramatic they may be inclined to go that way).   But if you don’t encourage young children to spit out food they don’t want to swallow, why would they ever put something new into their mouths?

Think about it:  Tasting unknown food is a risky proposition if swallowing is your only option.   Especially if you’re not an adventurous eater.  Or you tasted something last Tuesday that was absolutely disgusting.  Or you like to razz your parents for no apparent reason.

You have to give your kids a way out.  And guess what? Research shows that sometimes kids spit out stuff even when they think it tastes good!

“Just taste it. You don’t have to eat it if you don’t like it.”

This just isn’t the same thing as giving your kids permission to spit.  In fact, while most parents think this strategy lets their kids off the hook, it doesn’t.  The initial taste (no matter how gross) still has to go down the hatch.

Plus, what if your children don’t want to eat something you ask them to taste, even if they like it? They’re stuck. Sometimes it’s better not to taste that tidbit at all.

It’s tempting to think of spitting as failure, but it’s not. 

Remember, it is tasting, not swallowing (or eating) that counts.  Look at what happened in a recent study.

Researchers wanted to figure out whether kids would grow to like food over time so they exposed a group of 4th and 5th grade students in New Orleans to a selection of vegetables 9 different times.

The students were each given cups with the following vegetables: green bell peppers, tomatoes, carrots and peas.  The children were told they should taste each vegetable, but that they didn’t have to swallow them.  If they wanted to, they could spit the vegetables into a napkin after each tasting.  Afterwards, the researchers asked the children how much they liked each of the four vegetables.

On the first tasting some of the children refused to even taste the vegetables.  But of the kids who did taste them…

  • 23% of the children spit out the carrots.
  • 33% spit out the peas.
  • 39% spit out the tomatoes.
  • 52% spit out the green pepper.

Maybe the proportion of spitters doesn’t surprise you.  This probably will: In each case, some of the spitters reported liking the vegetable after the first tasting. 

Yup.  Even though most of the kids who spit out the vegetable said they didn’t like it, some of the spitters actually liked the vegetable they spewed.  For instance, 31% of the carrot-spitters said they liked the carrots.

Over time, even spitters are more likely to like what they taste.

By the end of the study (after the 9th tasting) the children were:

  • 5.5 times more likely to like the carrots.
  • 5.6 times more likely to like the peas.
  • 2.8 times more likely to like the tomatoes.

Sadly, there was no statistically significant change in the liking score for bell peppers (but if you look at the chart below, you’ll see that even peppers made a comeback).

Here are some other takeaways from the study:

1) Progress doesn’t take a steady path, there are lots of ups and downs.

Look at the chart below. For each vegetable, the dark line on top=kids who liked the vegetable at first tasting and the light line on bottom=kids who didn’t like the vegetable at first tasting.

While the overall trend for kids who initially didn’t like the vegetable is towards liking it, progress is not smooth and steady.  In fact, it can be quite erratic.

2) The kids were given extremely small serving sizes to taste.

The kids were given one baby carrot, 1/32 of a medium tomato (a size I can’t even measure), ½ tablespoon diced green bell pepper, and ½ tablespoon of cooked green peas.

Extremely small offerings take the pressure off, and make the tastes seem manageable.  For more on the power of portion size read When Less is More.

3)The kids were never asked to eat any of the vegetables.

In fact, they weren’t given enough to eat, not even as a small snack.  Instead, the kids were simply asked to evaluate their tastes. For more on this topic read Unleash Your Toddler’s Inner Food Critic and Nix the Negativity.

You know that the key to new food acceptance is exposure.

But now you know that your kids don’t have to savor the flavor. Concentrate on getting your children to sample a sliver, and then ignore whether they choose to spit or to swallow.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits. ~


Source: Lakkakula, A., J. Geaghan, M. Zanovec, S. Pierce, and G. Tuuri. 2010. “Repeated Taste Exposure Increases Liking for Vegetables By Low-Income Elementary School Children.” Appetite 55: 226-31.