It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Walking the Talk

I have written on many occasions of the thrill of teaching children to enjoy new foods. Repeated exposures is the key! The adult gets to choose what, where, and when, the child gets to choose how much and even whether to eat! Be cheerful, be upbeat, be casual!

Repeated exposure is the key! I love the way “French Kids Eat Everything” describes the reaction of French parents to a child’s declaration, “I don’t like this!” They don’t, apparently, get worried. They don’t try to force the kid to eat it. They certainly don’t offer alternatives. No, they are quite nonchalant about it. This reaction is normal. It is only to be expected.

“Well, no,” they will say, matter-of-fact. “Of course not. You haven’t tried it enough yet.”

Because, you see, in the French world view, it is a given that it takes a few attempts before you begin to enjoy a new food. That’s just normal. But in time, you will. No biggie. Everyone does.

This is a large part of my approach to feeding the children. I feed them what I feed them. I do not worry about “kid-friendly” food, which is so often so nutritionally void, or even outright unhealthy. (It is ironic to note that so-called “kid-friendly” food is about the un-kid-friendliest edible substance out there.) I feed them interesting, varied food, heavy on the vegetables, moderate on carbs, light on meat. And yes, they eat it, without tantrums (them or me), because I just keep putting it out there. Over and over again. Expecting initial resistance, but also confident that, with repeated exposures, they will first observe, then taste, and eventually learn to enjoy the food.

I do this with the children every single working day. Food education — by example and experience, not by words — is part of my job description. I don’t know why it took me so long to have the thought, but about six weeks ago, I thought to myself, “If it works for the kids, I’m betting it’ll work for adults.”

Further consideration pointed out we adults do it, too, only we call it “developing a taste” for something. And then there’s that whole “acquired taste” idea. What else is that, if not learning to like something through repeated exposures?

That’s when I decided that it was time for me to put my money where my mouth was — or, perhaps, my mouth where my principles were — and learn to like something. Try it on. See if it really works. I mean, I know it does. I can cite things the kids didn’t like initially, but loooove now. But for myself? What would it be like to start with something I genuinely didn’t like, make myself eat it time and again, and see if I could find myself actually enjoying it? (Research suggests that 7 – 15 tastes is sufficient to accomplish this. Really! That’s all! I wouldn’t be forcing food down my revolted throat for months on end.)

The problem is, what don’t I like? Not many things, really. My mother did a great job of teaching me to embrace new foods, but despite her very best efforts, I have a few genuine dislikes. Liver and lima beans I’ve mentioned before, I’m sure. Not a huge fan of shrimp, though that’s absolutely a texture thing, not a taste. Blue cheese.

Hmmm. Now, I love cheese of all descriptions. Mild, strong, hard, soft, flavoured, herbed, garlic-ed, rolled in nuts. Mmmmmm, cheese. Except blue. Have never liked it. At all. At a restaurant, I once inadvertently ordered a poached pear dessert with a Stilton cheese dressing, because pears! walnuts! cheese! I would LOVE it, right? Yes, well. Too bad that Stilton is a blue cheese. Who knew?? I actually gagged when I tasted it.

So. Blue cheese? Bleah.

The perfect project!

Off I go to our local produce-and-cheese specialty shop. They have a hundred different kinds of cheese, I’m sure. All manner of them. I approached the fellow behind the counter, told him of my project, had him suggest a couple of mild blues. “Here. Try this one. It’s not a true blue cheese, more just a brie with veining.” Okay. I love brie! That was my first attempt. Veining. I can manage a little veining, right? (And, please note, I’d decided I wasn’t going to mask it in any way. Smearing it on crackers and eating it is about as unadulterated as it gets, short of licking it off my fingers.)

I let the kids in on The Great Blue Cheese Project, of course. I pointed out how, in recent memory, Jazz had learned to like kiwi, and was currently learning to like carrots. Josh had learned to like beets. Rosie had learned to like beets, too, and is currently tackling zucchini. Poppy has just learned that while she doesn’t like cooked asparagus (yet), she does like it raw.

So. Lots of food-learning happened and happening in this house, every day. And now MARY was going to learn to like something! THIS was the cause of much fascination. And hilarity, as Mary made much of that first bite of blue cheese with her avid audience.

I sniffed it. And pulled a DISGUSTED face.

“I don’t want to eat this! I don’t like this!”

“You can’t learn to like it if you don’t try it!” Grace is a word-perfect imitation of me. (Grace, who, it turns out, actively likes blue cheese, and politely pines for the small piece I had purchased for myself. Oops. I should’ve bought enough to share.)

“Do I have to??” They’re LOVING the role reversal here. Loving it. They gather around to encourage.

“Yes, and then you will get to like it, and it will be one more good thing to eat for you!” Jazz hasn’t got the words quite down pat, but she obviously gets the gist.

“Oh, okaaaaaay,”, and with great reluctance, I take a teeny, tentative bite. The kids wait, mouths open, eyes wide with delight. My revolted face causes them to scream with laughter. I play to my small gallery.

“BLEAH! I don’t like it! Blue cheese is YUKKY!”

“But you tasted it! Good for you!” Grace pats my back, her small hand offering comfort.
“It was hard, but YOU DID IT!” Jazz has heard that one often enough.
“Yay, you are tasting it, and soon it will be yum-yum-YUMMY for you!” Poppy, my eager little cheerleader claps, then throws her hands in the air.

Boy, these kids are good. They have heard and absorbed all my messages. This is GREAT!!

The blue cheese … is not so great. I don’t like that musty scent up the back of my mouth and into my nose. I tamp down visions of mold spores percolating into my brain. My revulsion may be exaggerated, but I am not enjoying it.

Yet.

But the project continues. Over the next few weeks, I went back to the cheese store several times, each time going for a stronger cheese. I have blue cheese once a day or so. And you know what?

It got easier every time. Really and truly. Even as the cheese got stronger. It went from gross to neutral to pleasant. And then there was the day I’d bought some blue and some asiago (I love asiago, and this was a new, softer version) had both on lovely crisp rice crackers … and liked the blue better!

Good heavens. It actually works! You know, I had done this with kids, I believed it works … but experiencing it myself was another whole world of conviction. I’m an adult. My tastes are more established. I am likely, much as I hate to admit it, to be ‘set in my ways’, at least a bit. And here I am, a whole new realm of taste opening up to me.

How’s about that?! This is so cool!

My next step? I’m going to go back to that restaurant, and order that poached pear dish! And you know what? I’m betting I will love it. :D

Meantime, the kids have been observing every step of the way. Laughing at my theatrics, and being drawn along the process, this time as observers. It’s been a learning experience for everyone.

Cool!

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August 2, 2013 - Posted by | food | , , ,

9 Comments »

  1. You’re wonderful, really. And it works for experiences, too.

    Why, thank you! Yes, I can see how it would work for experiences. First, have an open enough mind to be willing to make the attempt, repeat until it feels natural and even, enjoyable. Makes sense to me! People are eminently adaptable … if we let ourselves.

    Comment by Z | August 2, 2013 | Reply

  2. I didn’t like fish for years, except for deep-fried with chips on the side. Shellfish, white fish, pink fish – I thought it was all horrible. Then I married a fish-lover and had to learn to like it. I kept trying. I experimented with different ways of preparing it. I learned that much of the fish I’d had as a child was overcooked.

    Now seafood is one of my favourite things. So I can attest that this approach definitely works!

    Isn’t it great? Instead of saying “I hate [whatever]!” and letting it end there, you can, with a little time and effort, add it to your life list of “things I enjoy”. Who wouldn’t want to increase the number of small pleasures they experience in life, the things that make them happy?

    (Little housekeeping issue – your whole blog seems to have gone to italics.)

    So I noticed! An unclosed … oh, what are those things called, anyway? … an unclosed italic command in my post italicized everything, even the sidebars! Fixed!

    Comment by Hannah | August 2, 2013 | Reply

  3. Excellent post Mary. Congratulations. Perhaps I’ll be inspired to start trying some of the foods I don’t like. There’s quite the list, I certainly wouldn’t lack for options. :P

    Thanks! Maybe you could pick something you’re neutral-to-negative about, rather than something that revolts you? Just for starters! A whole world of happy taste sensation awaits!! :D

    Comment by Sheri | August 2, 2013 | Reply

  4. Intersting! Do you think the exposures need to be fairly close together to work best? I know I have eaten dill pickles, usually on burgers or sandwiches, for years and I still haven’t learned to like them. But I haven’t been trying to learn to like them either. On the other hand, I have learned to like curry. I didn’t use to like it all all, even the mildest curries and now I like most curries. DH likes them and I will always try his.

    Good question. My feeling would be that, yes, they would, otherwise it’s the first time, every time … but I have no idea if the science backs me up on this one. I further suspect, with no science I know of to suggest this, but it seems reasonable to me that there would be one or two things that a person may never learn to like. (And for something like dill pickles, which aren’t even good for you, why go to the trouble? Sez me, even though I love the things! But really, why bother to develop a taste for something that’s bad for you?)

    Comment by Katherine | August 2, 2013 | Reply

  5. Damn. I need to start eating eggs. I have always wanted to like eggs.

    Cheap, nutritious, and soooo many ways to serve them! Yup, a good learn-to-like-it food choice. I like eggs, but I’m not a huge fan of them scrambled, would much rather have them once-over-lightly. Maybe you could start with the kind you dislike the least?

    Comment by IfByYes | August 2, 2013 | Reply

  6. This is interesting. I wonder if I ever would learn to like “awful” food like celery and dill. I always thought part of my increased tolerance was dulling of the taste buds with age. Maybe the repeat exposure is also a factor.

    Taste is a funny thing. I love celery and dill, but I’m sure there are things I loathe that you quite like. Who knows why these things develop … but it seems I’ve found at least part of the cure!

    Comment by neuro | August 4, 2013 | Reply

  7. Great post! I’ve thought of doing this with liver, but… ugh… it’s just not a very appetizing idea.

    Hee. I seriously considered tackling liver for this project, because it really is top of my Ick List, but … as you say, ugh. But maybe I’ll get there??

    Comment by rosie_kate | August 4, 2013 | Reply

  8. Bravo! I admire your fortitude in voluntarily taking on increasingly repulsive (sorry… I mean *strong*) varieties of blue cheese. Let us know when (and if) you make it up to stilton, munster or gamalost! I’ve not yet graduated to those… and may never.

    Taste is, well, a matter of taste. Does the difference between “like” and “appreciate” apply here, like it does with, say, music or art? I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect everyone to *like* everything at a table. But it’s very good practice to try to know *why* you don’t like something. And that usually means you’ve tried to learn about the food, including sampling it enough to get past the “Gross!” or “Eeuuww!” responses which, to me, are not acceptable by themselves (in fact, to me they’re downright rude). I don’t know how you can get your tots to avoid the reflexive “eeuuww” response when so many adults — to say nothing about teenagers — seem programmed to automatically say it when confronted with some unfamiliar food.

    Well, that’s precisely it: train them when they’re toddlers, and they won’t be doing it when they’re teens and adults. All those ‘ew-ing’ teens? Were not properly taught when young. (Also, even if your response is ‘ew’, you don’t say it out loud. Jeez.) So, I proceed, training them in good manners and venturesome eating. It’s my strategy to improve my small corner of the world, one toddler at a time! Or even five.

    Comment by zerolatitude | August 5, 2013 | Reply

  9. I’ve been sort-of trying to teach myself to like seafood for a long time…but I think it’s not taking because the exposure are too far spaced. My 3 favorite seafoods ever were a basic fried cod in Iceland, an amazing mussel dish in Paris (!), & my husband’s Chilean sea bass at a FANCY seafood restaurant. So, I know there’s hope! :)

    Comment by MsHuisHerself | August 13, 2013 | Reply


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