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Building an Adventurous Palate: Introducing Cultural Foods to Kids

Image of a plate of food next to a bright green fork. On the plate is a piece of chicken schnitzel decorated to look like a hedgehog on top of a bed of lettuce as grass with cut cheese flowers. The hedgehog's spines are made of sliced olives and it has a cute face and small feet also made of olives, with a cherry tomato on top.

Do you remember the first time you tasted international cuisine? As a first-generation American of Chinese/Thai heritage, my childhood cuisine consisted of Kid Cuisine meals, the occasional Happy Meal, and a variety of traditional and fusion-styled Asian dishes. I distinctly remember the first time my mom gave me a small bowl of green chicken curry with rice for dinner.  I was only five years old

My mom will be the first to tell you that I did not take kindly to the introduction of green curry (lots of tears were had). But guess what? This is a completely normal reaction. 

Research shows that children need to be exposed at least 12 timesand sometimes up to 30 timesbefore they can truly determine whether or not they enjoy a food. Take a moment and think about your own culinary journey as an adult. Sometimes a new dish will be an immediate hit with your palate, and it’s forever on your “loves” list. On the other hand, there are likely plenty of dishes you’ve tried that you initially did not like but grew to appreciate with time and continued exposure. The process is no different with little ones. Developing preferences and healthy, successful relationships with food takes time and patience⎼for ourselves and our kids.

If you’re looking for inspiration beyond the chicken nugget/macaroni and cheese combination (which is of course totally fine and delicious!) or are hoping to introduce global cuisine to your children, we’re here with a few tips to kick start your family’s culinary quest.

1. Journey around the world through books

Reading is a great way to both connect and engage with your kids during their early years, and it’s an easy way to show them different types of food from around the world. Many children’s books showcasing food will explain what a dish is in a way that children will easily understand, and you can leverage story time as a way to review colors, shapes, textures, and tastes with your child. And who knows? Maybe you’ll learn about a new dish or two along the way (which is a meal planning win!). 

Image of book cover of "Asian Adventures: Delicious Asian Food from A to Z!" showing two illustrated children trying noodles and soup dumplings. On the table with them is dim sum, sushi, boba tea, and more Asian food.

Here are several food-focused children’s books available for you and your children to take a deep dive into. We’d love to hear if you have other suggestions so please share them with us!

2. Let your kids grocery shop (really!)

The next time you and your little ones take a trip to the grocery store, let them pick out a few items that pique their interest while exploring the produce or international food sections. Then use the items they selected and search for recipes that incorporate those ingredients. This approach may sound like it belongs on a cooking show competition but it’s actually an amazing way to engage with your children and help them develop healthy relationships with food. 

You can also take it up a notch (see what we did there, Emeril fans?) and allow your child to safely participate in preparing the meal. If your child is comfortable with taking an active role in preparing ingredients, grab some child-sized utensils and safe cutting tools (we linked some recommendations below) and let your favorite sous chef join in on the culinary fun. Ultimately, you and your child both end up with a happy core memory and a delicious meal to share as a family⎼talk about a win/win!

Here are a couple product recommendations to get your mini chef cooking in the kitchen:

3. Host a potluck

If you are unsure about tackling new recipes, there is no harm in reaching out to your family and friends to invite them to a casual potluck-style meal. You can ask folks to bring a dish from a specific country or go big with a “around the world” theme. This reduces the pressure on you to cook while offering a variety of foods for your kids to try. If there are other kids in attendance, a potluck meal also provides a safe environment for your child to exercise their curiosity and try dishes that they see other kids enjoying. 

4. Let kids explore new foods (and get messy doing it!)

In preparation for this article, I asked my mom abouthowshe introduced new foods to me when I was a child. She explained that she would usually give me two bowls: one filled with food and one without food so I could self-serve my desired portion to build a comfort level at my own pace. Or, she would fill one with rice or noodles, and the other with a curry, stew, or sauce so I could gradually introduce the two. Going back to the green curry introduction, my mom shared that she wanted me to figure out how much curry sauce I wanted on my rice, whether I wanted to scoop some rice first and then grab curry, etc. In spite of many messes made during the process, I was able to build familiarity and a decent tolerance for spicy foods by the time I was approaching six years old.

With that being said, every child is different and will have their own unique food journey. The key takeaway here is that meal time with a new food should enable your child to explore different textures, try various combinations with the components of the dish, or give them an opportunity to try each part of the dish individually. Should a mess occur⎼and there is a high likelihood that it will⎼give yourself some extra grace and a friendly reminder of how much your child is learning about food and that they are simply exercising that beautiful, limitless imagination of their childhood. 

5. Turn mealtime into a sensory experience

This is a piggy-back tip to #4 but providing your child with a sensory eating experience is a standalone element when introducing new foods. Toasting pita bread and serving it with hummus one day while serving a soft pita with tzatziki another day fosters sensory experiences that will further develop a child’s cognitive development, fine motor skills, and curiosity. It’s also a great way to continue working on language skills by engaging with your child and explaining what they should expect from the new dish.

Another great way to incorporate sensory exposure to cultural foods is to present them in a way that allows your child to self-select what they want to eat. An effective and fun way to do this is using GoBe Kid’s Original Snack Spinner  or our brand-new Large Snack Spinner  to present new fruits, vegetables, snacks, and other foods to your kids.  The possibilities are truly endless and your child gets to exercise their independence and try new foods in a safe way. What’s better than that?

Photo by Mae Mu. Closeup image of a bowl of noodles in broth on top of a wooden board

With these tips in mind, here are a few culinary adventures for you and your family to try courtesy of a recipe compilation from Tinybeans:

Introducing diversity into your family’s palate can feel overwhelming, and it is common for children to be more receptive to “comfort” foods that they easily recognize versus trying something completely new to them. However, adding new dishes to the weekly rotation ensures that your children are receiving optimal nutrition from a variety of sources while fostering a heightened sense of cultural awareness that they will carry into adulthood.

Last but not least, if a new dish doesn’t work out and it’s back to dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets and mac n’ cheese for the evening…remember that this is perfectly alright, and you can always try again. You got this, and you’re doing great!

- Alissa, from the GoBe Team

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