Our 4-Year-Old Loves to Explore New Foods — Here's How We Taught Her to Eat Everything
The smell of Ghanaian peanut soup fills our house at least once a week, spice and peanut butter waving through the air. We've offered this dish out to many guests, neighbors, and friends, and I am starting to believe it's why people come over for dinner. While it's a bit too spicy for most children, this soup is perfect for our 4-year-old little girl. She will eat countless bowls with rice.
Her palate is almost unbelievable: spice, seasoning, and bold flavor are a must for her. She'll turn her nose up at foods that are bland and simple, or ask to add some "shito," a very spicy sauce that consists of tomato, hot peppers, shrimp powder, and fish powder. (For the record, it is freaking delicious.) These fun flavors are from my husband's home of Ghana, West Africa, and are a way we bring the culture into our house daily. And when we aren't cooking a dish from Ghana, we focus on other foods that are full of flavor — daal, shakshuka, curry, or even pasta with a ton of garlic. Our 4-year-old eats all of it. Some say we are lucky, and I do feel lucky that she loves flavor. But I also think we have played a role in helping her learn to love flavorful food.
Throughout my pregnancy and while breastfeeding our baby girl, I ate tons of hot and spicy foods. Research has shown that the strong flavors a person eats while pregnant can pass to the baby through amniotic fluid. It is also said that babies can taste flavors in mother's breast milk. There's even a study that found babies whose parent ate carrots while pregnant were less likely to make negative facial expressions when eating carrot flavors after birth. So I feel like it's entirely possible that my daughter began liking this food before she was born. Before the age of 1, she didn't really like any foods, and I used the time to introduce her to a variety of things (as they say, "food before 1 is just for fun"). Once she was a bit older — and I stopped nursing around age 2 — I noticed her love for flavor-filled foods.
When she started eating more solids, we didn't change what we cooked and she ate what we ate. We never made her a special meal with less spice or seasoning. When we went out for dinner, she ate off our plates. In fact, I don't think we have ever ordered off the kids' menu. But while we didn't make her special meals, we never forced her to eat something she didn't like. We encouraged her to try new things once, but if she said she didn't like it, we left it at that. I believe giving her that choice empowered her to try new things without feeling forced to eat something she didn't like. Even now, if she is introduced to a new food and flavor, we encourage her to give it a try, and let her decide the rest. It is so exciting to hear her say, "You are right. I do like that," and continue on eating a plate of spinach with garlic and black pepper (our most recent foray).
Another way we have let her lead the way with food is that we never, ever, ever force her to eat more. If she says she's full, she can stop eating, no matter what is left over. If she hasn't eaten a part of her meal we would have liked to see her eat, usually the "healthy part," we don't allow her to then go eat something else. But honestly, in our home, I work to make sure the entire meal is pretty healthy, so we rarely worry too much about this. We always make stews and soups and meals with tons of vegetables. It makes pizza night or a night out filled with pasta and sweets a fun night without worry of where the healthy part is. We eat healthy on the daily so we can splurge and enjoy other times.
I believe this approach is how we've gotten her to try just about anything and enjoy diverse foods. We exposed her to these flavors even before she was born, then again when she was very very little and continued to have her join us in our dinner without making her something different. I believe she feels empowered by having her choice to tell us what she likes and doesn't and never feels forced to finish her meal when she is full. So when I hear her ask for another serving of fish tacos with spicy salsa and salad, my answer is almost always, "Of course."