Before a child gets exposure to food outside the home, his/her tastebuds are trained at home. When my kids were little, I forbade junk food. But I also made sure that as they got older, AFTER I had educated their palate, they got a taste of such things. We DO go out to McDonald’s as a family, but the kids know that it isn’t good food… and they can taste it.
Every one of the 4 races in Singapore has complex and long food traditions which use spices and cooking techniques that create music for the mouth. Once the palate has learnt to appreciate the richness and complexity of a taste orchestra playing in harmony, it will find the simple tastes of “very sweet” and “very salty” and “very oily” of junk food, crude and unrefined. It won’t like too much of it.
I spent many years in France and the French are proud of their food traditions. Burgers, fries and all such are considered food for a palate that is not adequately educated at home. I know this sounds so snobbish and I apologise. But even in French farm houses… and families of truck drivers… and plumbers… good food made from the produce of the season are prized. I somehow assimilated this aspect of the French culture. As a Singaporean, it is easy to learn to worship food. I was already predisposed by my own food culture to do that.
From the time my children were babies, I tried to educate their palate. I would hold a slice of lemon to my 6 month old’s tongue and nose… let them mouth small bits of strawberries… 2 drops of chicken soup. I let them lick whatever I was eating once in a while. Kids love to mouth things. Their tongues are a tool to explore the world. Why not let them explore the sensations of taste?
Of course, the elderly folks thoroughly disapproved.
Later on, I allowed them to taste different kinds of butter, olive oil… Analyze the chicken rice from different stalls. Deconstruct the shui jiao’s taste. Taste the difference between different kinds of rice. Taste the complex flavours of Chinese herbal soup. What is different in the beef stew when the meat has not undergone the Maillard reaction?
Food analysis can be a marvellous bonding activity.
For the end of year class party last year, my son demanded that I make a ham, mushroom and oregano quiche. In the end, he was the only one to eat it because the other kids wanted to eat potato chips and jelly sweets. My son came home and said “My friends dunno how to eat properly, Mommy”.
I have no potato chips at home… no sweets… no soft drinks. We have lots of chocolate, but they’re all Grand Crus. The term “grand cru” tends to be used with wine and cognac. The well-known Louis XIII cognac is a “grand cru”. It is a name given to any food product that has a proven record of consistent high quality because production parameters from soil composition to plant care to fermentation etc… are strictly adhered to. This was not my doing. However, early training of the palate predisposed my daughter to an expensive hobby. She is teaching herself how to differentiate chocolates from different cocoa plantations, all with “grand crus” product lines.
My son’s tutor wanted to feed him French fries for lunch one day, and she was so surprised when he refused to eat any, and he took a filet o’ fish only. It helped that he had watched the documentary on McDonald’s (Supersized Me) with me. And he consistently refuses her offers of packet sweet drinks, preferring plain water. I sometimes pack frozen Ribena on outings only to find that my son wants plain water. His palate is not just used to it. It is too sensitive and it does not like the onslaught of sweetness that come with heavily sugared drinks.
It’s really a lot like moral education, I guess. One should start early to talk about BGR, sex, money etc… and not wait till teens. When faced with an external stimuli (like junk food) without prior preparation, no child can resist. When faced with sexual temptation in the teens, without adequate preparation, no teen can resist.
Children need to be taught to discern good and bad. To teach them, we need to expose them to both good and bad, under supervision and early enough so that we can protect and guide them gently. Palate education can start from 6 months. The Chinese have long standing food traditions. We have hawker food that are an orchestra of tastes. A lot of good food doesn’t cost much… and when we cook at home, it’s even cheaper.
This said… there is some danger of food allergies with babies. The normal precautions with peanuts, egg etc… need to be taken. Limit exposure to one lick of a food perhaps twice a week or so. Every lick carries some degree of risk.