I set a bottle of hot sauce on the table with almost every meal. One day, I hope my little ones will enjoy spicy food as much as I do. To get their taste buds hopping, I knew I had to start small and build flavors from there. But it wasn't all smiles from day one. Here are a few of the steps I've taken to raise adventurous, open-minded eaters.
Andrea Carpenter, registered dietitian and owner of Nutrikidz, shares that it's perfectly fine to add small amounts of spice starting at six months. Introducing spices is the same as introducing any new foods, she explains. Start with one new flavor every 3-5 days to watch for your little one's reaction or tummy upset. If your new solid food eater spits it right back out, you might try using a little less next time, but don't give up. Not only will starting young encourage your toddler to like spicy food, but it may also help with overall pickiness along the way.
Good vs. Bad Spicy
Not all spice is created equal! Delicious, flavorful heat is the goal—not melt-your-mouth, beg-for-milk spicy. A traumatic introduction to hot food won't help down the road. If your kiddo asks if their taco is spicy, they'll learn to trust your answer if spicy equals delicious. Our grown-up taste buds are conditioned to enjoy our preferred heat level, while their tiny taste buds are still waking up. Celebrate when they enjoy a new food with a kick, and always go for "good" spicy when trying a new recipe.
Try, Try Again
After reading the book, French Kids Eat Everything, I quickly realized I wanted to follow in the footsteps of our European counterparts. Author Karen Le Billion notes that the French believe there are very few instances of a child actually not liking something. If they loudly declare, "that's yucky!" more likely than not, it's because they just haven't tried it enough times. Research suggests that a two-year-old needs to try a new food 10-15 times before they'll happily eat more.
I took this one step further and started small with each new taste. I added very little spice in the beginning and stayed away from large bites of heat-packing ingredients. Also, I didn't explain a lot about what was on the plate. My husband and I would start eating, express how yummy it all was and encourage our kids to try it (even if they didn't eat much). We stopped short of anyone melting down or throwing a tantrum. Food fights look fun on TV, but they're awful at the family dinner table.
Get Them Involved
I started inviting my kids to help me shop for and prepare meals very early on. They wear special aprons, use kid-friendly knives and stand beside me on a kitchen stool. Together, we touch, smell and test new ingredients, spices and flavors. They help me chop veggies and carefully stir them all together. After the whole sous chef experience, my kids are always more excited to dig in at the dinner table—and that goes for spicier dishes as well. They're beaming with pride and can't wait to share what they helped to prepare. Of course, meal prep takes more time, but it is much more rewarding for all of us.
It's a Journey
I'm a big fan of what Jennifer Anderson, a dietitian and the mom behind Kids Eat in Color, has to say about the goal of getting kids to love spicy food. The journey to a delicious spicy taco starts with a tiny bite of tortilla, she says. And that's just it; it is a process, a journey. It won't happen overnight or over one dinner. She emphasizes that it's important to keep serving the whole meal, even if kids only try one bite. Our kids will keep learning and keep trying, she says. We'll get there one bite of tortilla at a time.