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Guess what? If you don’t make your child into a good eater by the time he or she is 2, a precious window of opportunity closes. The clock begins ticking in the womb, when the child’s gustatory world is taking shape. Sucking away at amniotic fluid, a fetus learns the flavors and odors of the foods the mother consumes. Female chefs who are pregnant tend to develop good eaters as they taste their way through the seasons of their pregnancy. All mothers can learn from their example.
Let me clarify. It’s not just that pregnant chefs are more likely to eat the exotic and expensive foods they may be serving at their restaurants. What’s important is that they are eating a broad array of ingredients with varied flavors. Studies show that women who consistently consume a particular food, say fennel, in their pregnancy, deliver infants who enjoy and savor the unique flavor of fennel — a flavor most babies initially reject. This early exposure help build the foundation for good nutrition after birth.
A spooonful of caviar
Chefs, men and women, will tell you that kids want to eat interesting foods, and they’ll tell you with honest surprise the dishes their own children favor — miso soup say, or smoked oysters. As a parent I don’t think I would even have attempted serving smoked oysters to my child, but I learned while working on my book, “What Chefs Feed Their Kids” that when you don’t restrict your infant or toddler to standard kids’ fare, when you give them morsels of the wide variety of foods you yourself eat, you will be surprised by what they enjoy and gravitate toward. Chef Colby Garrelts from the acclaimed Bluestem Restaurant in Kansas City stuck a petite spoonful of caviar into his infant daughter’s mouth while celebrating New Year’s with her on his hip. Down the hatch.
Children are inherently curious, their brains light up from new taste sensations. They constantly stick things in their mouths, food and non-food alike, because they want to discover with every sense, including taste. They like to touch and play with their food, to fully discover it, before finally swallowing it.
Kids have more taste buds than adults, and they’re spread around their mouths and inside their cheeks. (Adult taste buds are concentrated on the tongue.) No wonder they like to roll food around in their mouths! A child’s palate changes as he or she grows. Newborns aren’t repulsed by any food at all. Eating, it turns out, is a completely learned art. Infants do have preferences, however. All newborns enjoy sweet flavors and then move on to prefer salty flavors at about 4 months old. Older children tend to enjoy intensely sour foods, even fresh-cut lemon, and later develop a taste for bitter flavors.
Serving an infant a diet solely of bland purees is anathema to chefs I interviewed for “What Chefs Feed Their Kids.” They often bring their children to their restaurants — they are busy working parents after all — where a seasonally changing pantry is accessible for sampling. These children taste vegetables in various stages of preparation — raw fava beans from the shell, say, and then the sautéed version, then as a purée or in a soup. Their palates and knowledge of ingredients develop to the point that they can tell when a strawberry has passed its seasonal peak and become watery.
Making food magic
Successful meals are more than the food on the plate. Chefs are used to creating atmosphere, thinking about the art of presentation and even suspense. They can skillfully create magic around a dish. Chef Ana Sortun of Oleana in Boston sometimes serves her daughter lunch in the play teepee in her room because she knows her daughter doesn’t want to stop playing to eat. She’s also prone to entice her daughter with clever tricks, like playfully balancing the unwanted cucumber stick and proclaiming it a bridge. Chef Floyd Cardoz of New York’s North End Grill creates shares stories of his own father’s favorite foods and about where he grew up when he makes those Indian dishes for his children. Washington, D.C.-based chef Cathal Armstrong, taught his daughter to eat salad one ingredient at a time before combing them together in an ensemble. He’s also apt to use classic kid-friendly foods, like pizza in a culinary and educational way.
While not every chef is a master at feeding children each has a nugget of wisdom to share and collected, they can help us all. We can start by eliminating those carefully prepared starchy and sweet purees. Stop ordering from the kids’ menu. Instead create a little magic, build a bigger more flavorful savory palate for your child right from the beginning. Take your kids to the farmers market, show them what brussels sprouts on the stem look like, that beets can be yellow, orange or magenta, that the man in overalls grew the oranges from which you make your breakfast juice. If you want your kids to learn to enjoy vegetables, heed the advice of Atlanta’s Restaurant Eugene chef Linton Hopkins and stop botching your vegetables by overcooking them!
This week’s Zester Soapboxcontributor Fanae Aaron is a mom and the author of “What Chefs Feed Their Kids.” Her 5-year-old son Cody is a champion eater.
Photo: Fanae Aaron. Credit: Flint Ellsworth
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