How to Taste: Teaching Kids How to Experience New Flavors

If there’s one thing we love at Kalamata’s Kitchen, it’s a good food memory. Let me share one of mine with you: So many meals started the same way for me, with the sound of mustard seeds popping in hot oil, the smell of spices and coconut frying so fragrantly I could taste the air, the sight of my mother chopping and sautéing and whisking, my mouth starting to water in anticipation of whatever she was cooking… I learned early to taste with all of my senses, and it led to my most foundational food memories. I believe that it’s likely that this early awareness led eventually to my career in the food industry, but I know without a doubt that it definitely deepened my love and appreciation for food in general, and the places a great dish could take me. 

We’ve seen time and time again that kids will try new foods if engaged in a slightly different way than they’re used to. We believe that this engagement with food not only leads to kids trying new flavors and sensations, but opens them up to trying new experiences at large.

We don’t really believe in picky eaters—we believe that sometimes kids just haven’t been taught the excitement and adventure that comes with trying new things. 

With the right framework and an open mind, kids can get excited to have new experiences and maybe even make better decisions for themselves in the future. The decision to try something new is a brave one, and we applaud kids (and grownups!) for making it. 

One way that parents can get their children excited about new experiences is simply by framing conversations around food around their sensory engagement with it. Here are some thoughts on how to taste food with your kids. 

Tasting is not just about tasting—it’s about experiencing food with all of your senses. The vocabulary of sensory perception is used by adults and educators to introduce children to new sights, sounds, concepts etc.—it only makes sense to extend all of that vocabulary to food as well. Talking about food this way opens kids and adults up to entirely new opportunities for conversation, and also builds up what I call my mental rolodex of flavors, fragrances, and sensations, which makes tasting, memory and engagement much stronger overall. 

Ready to start exploring with your kids? Here are three ideas to get you started:

1. Explore a food with all five senses. 

The next time you sit down for a snack or a meal with your kid, start a conversation about what they’re eating. We all have five basic senses: Sight, Sound, Smell, Touch, and Taste. Every single one of them is used to taste food. Try questions like:

    • What color is it? Can you think of any other foods that are this color?
    • Does it smell like anything else you’ve ever smelled, food or non-food related? (For example, a friend’s daughter astutely picked out a “smell like flowers” component in a dessert which contained rosewater, though she had never associated roses with food!)
    • What sounds does it make when you bite into it?
    • What does it feel like to roll it around on your tongue?
    • Can you say whether it’s more sweet, salty, bitter, sour, or savory?
    • And of course—is it delicious?

    2. Explore a food while limiting one of your senses. Hold your nose and take a bite of something familiar.

    If you can’t smell your food, does it taste the same? Since you can’t smell your food, how else can you talk about it? Do you pay more attention to the sound it makes inside your mouth as you eat it? (Does it crunch?) Can you feel anything different about it? (Does it have little seeds? Is it stringy?) Is there anything that gives a food flavor structure, even if you can’t taste it properly—acid, salt, fat, heat from spice, etc? Now let go of your nose. Do it all again.

    Your tastebuds on your tongue can tell you what the basic category of a taste is, but it’s your sense of smell that reveals the flavor. It’s like your tongue gives you an outline, and your nose and other senses color it in. It’s pretty astonishing, even with something as familiar as a strawberry or an apple—now think about how wild it’ll be to try with new foods and flavors! 

    3. Keep a record of all the new things your child tries. 

    At our tasting events, we give kids passports on which they receive stamps for trying different bites of food. Try keeping a list of every new food your child tries at least two times, whether they end up liking it or not. It’s not so much about the food itself, it’s about the act of trying it. Reward each attempt with a sticker, stamp, checkmark, or acknowledging mark of any kind. Treating “trying something new” as an accomplishment leads to feelings of pride and validation for their actions. It will also likely lead to a desire to grow that list. Trying something new is an adventure. Adventures are fun! 

    If you can, resist asking if they like the food before you’ve asked them to describe it in terms of taste, texture, aroma, appearance, or even temperature. Exploring foods in different ways gives kids language to describe their food in words that aren’t “good” or “bad”, “yummy” or “yucky”.  In addition to strengthening their ability to identify and remember different sensations, we’ve also seen that regular engagement in this way could make them more curious to experience new sensations, rather than fearful of them. 

    There’s no guarantee that talking about your food and experiencing it in a different way will make your kid eat more broccoli, or garlic, or spice. Sensory engagement isn’t a cure, but it’s a great tool. I know how much I cherish my food memories with my mother, and I would love to hear about some of the conversations, stories, and memories you create with your little Taste Buds. May all your adventures be delicious.

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