The Importance of Allowing Children to Explore Food

Children are naturally curious beings who are open to exploring the world and learning about everything as they grow up. Food plays an important role in children’s development, which parents often have concerns about.

From a young age, many parents have concerns over the mess that children make with food as they go from drinking only milk to eating solid foods. Beyond the cleanliness aspect, a child is learning much more than just how to eat during this period. The sensations they are learning through the textures of food (hot/warm/cold, smooth, sticky, etc), the experiments that they are learning when things fall (hello gravity!), and the coordination skills of feeding themselves are huge developmental steps.

I was reminded recently of the importance of allowing a toddler or child to try their own concoctions when my little one asked for maple syrup with his omelette at breakfast. My initial response is that maple syrup does not go with omelettes, but caught myself before I said anything and watched my son put maple syrup on his omelette and then proceeded to eat it. I realized that people have different tastes – for example, some people choose to consume French fries/chips with mayonnaise, ketchup, or just salt.

Children learn all about taste – sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami (savory) when they are young. Every new food presents a different taste, texture, and maybe temperature. They also during this time may test how things taste together. A lot of toddlers love dipping foods into sauces. They may try things plain and not like it, but when dipped, may enjoy it. When this occurs, many parents have automatic instincts to try to protect their children from wasting food or tasting (perceived) yuckiness. Parents often don’t realise that they have developed taste preferences throughout their life. These preferences have developed not only from what was tasted, but the experience that was had when a food was consumed and comments that they hear from parents/caregivers/friends all played a role in their preferences.

Many adults assume that children do not enjoy spicy foods. This is likely because they were told that as children, and assume all children do not like spicy foods. In reality, some children may enjoy spicy foods, others may not, but they need to try. They will also adapt their taste preferences on what they see their parents consuming. This has been seen in studies in Mexican families, that toddlers from 1 to 3 years old are exposed to spicy foods and start accepting them by age 5. (1)

Parents may also worry that if their child enjoys certain tastes as a child, it predicts their eating as they grow up. This often is not the case as our tastes can change during our lifetime, so even if you enjoyed something as a child, it does not mean you will later in life.

What are your worries/fears regarding your child’s eating? Do you have concerns over your child’s tendencies toward certain foods? Do you think your children consume foods that do not go together? What is the strangest flavours you have seen consumed together?

Works cited:

  1. Mennella, J. Inf Feed Pract., J Am Diet Assoc 2005 Jun; 105(6):908-915.

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