Discovering & Developing Taste

by Chef Bobo on December 9, 2009

Chef BoboI’m in my 8th year of feeding kids lunch. This is amazing to me. To think that it has already been 10 years since I took early retirement from “The Corporate World” where I worked as a Human Resources executive for 30 years is absolutely unbelievable to me. Feeding kids is the most rewarding work I’ve ever done. Here’s why – we are actually developing kids palates and having an impact on what they choose to eat. It’s our own version of health reform!

Many of the kids I’m feeding now in our Upper School I was also feeding when they were in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th grades when I first started the EatRightNow program. At The Calhoun School we call them “lifers”, students whose entire education, from 3’s through high school, has been at Calhoun. Everyday I watch them in their choices when they come through the lunch line and I’m sometimes overwhelmed to see how well they’ve “gotten it.” They are willing to taste new things. They have embraced the concept of eating only whole grains, the braising greens and root vegetables during the winter months. And they have begun to ask about certain seasonal fruits which they have learned should be coming at a certain time of year.

I compare this “experienced” student population today to students who have come into the school as new students for Upper School. New students are less likely to go for the whole grains, green vegetables and fish during the first few months or even for their first year. They don’t quite trust that these healthy foods are going to taste good and thus are reluctant to try new things. Their palates have been built on a more traditional American diet that is high in processed foods. So their expectations are quite different.

Eventually they may start eating well. Their observations now are more in witnessing their peers enjoyment of the all natural foods. I think of one student who is now a senior. During his first three years here he would come to lunch only when we had pizza, pasta, chicken or red meat. Vegetables were not something he would even discuss. In this his last year, I am noticing him eating fish, broccoli, brussels sprouts and certain vegetarian entrees. Basically if the food is roasted or has cheese on it he will eat it. His palate has not yet developed an appreciation of complex flavors and bold taste. However, he has come a long way. His experience eating at home has been to eat whatever he wanted to pick up. Family meals are not a frequent occurrence in a home where both parents work. He was lacking education, experience and support in making healthier food choices and developing his palate in his younger years.

The message here is that kids need to be taught about food and nutrition as early in their lives as possible. If you think of a newborn baby’s palate as being almost neutral (except for those predisposed tastes passed on through the mother), early flavors may be a foundation on which a more interesting and healthier life experience can be developed. When an artist prepares a canvas for oil painting he must apply a foundation of gesso on the canvas so that the paints which will eventually be added will have a lasting and more textured expression of his inspiration. The painting is then developed using a variety of hues, tints, colors, values, tones, shades and even intensity.

A similar thing happens in developing the palate of a child. The foundation of the palate needs to have a basic experience of foods that are pure and natural in their flavors and unprocessed. From that point the various ways of cooking foods, the seasonings and the combinations of ingredients will develop a more complex acceptance and appreciation of tastes. Those are the colors of taste. We are finding that by the 4th grade some kids are already looking to intensify the flavors by adding certain condiments (hot sauce and pepper). The more they experience the natural flavors of foods the more they turn away from the artificial flavors of processed foods. The standards and expectations for taste are much higher. The painting becomes more interesting.

On the other hand, if refined sugar and processed foods (high in sodium) are introduced early when the child begins to eat solid food those foods will also develop the palate for those flavors – sweet and salty. If you read the labels of foods which have been processed you’ll find an abundance of sugars (in various forms) and sodium, not only for taste but as a preservative. A popular diet program for people who want to lose weight provides frozen meals for their clients as part of the diet program (I know of an overweight high school student who is on the diet trying to lose weight). Here is a list of ingredients for one of the lunch items, a Chicken Sandwich on an Oat Bran roll with Creole Mustard sauce:

ingredients: boneless and skinless chicken breast with rib meat, oat bran roll (enriched flour [wheat flour, malted barley flour, reduced iron, niacin, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin folic acid], water, whole wheat flour, margarine [partially hydrogenated soybean oil and liquid soybean oil, water, salt, carotene, vitamin A palmitate], sugar, nonfat dry milk, dough conditioner [wheat flour, diacetyl tartaric acid esters of mono and diglycerides, l-cysteine, enzyme, ascorbic acid, azodicarbanoamide], oat bran, yeast, salt, calcium propionate), Creole mustard sauce (water, cream [cream, nonfat milk solids, stabilizer (polysorbate 80, mono and diglycerides, dextrose)], tomatoes, horseradish [grated horseradish, distilled vinegar, soybean oil, salt, natural flavors], Creole mustard [water distilled vinegar, ground mustard seeds, salt, propylene, glycol anginate] olive oil, modified corn starch, chicken base [chicken meat with natural chicken juices, corn oil, autolyzed yeast extract, sugar, salt, maltodextrin (from corn), onion powder, potato starch, spice extractives, turmeric], sugar, apple cider vinegar, salt, lemon juice, xanthan gum, chives, spices), water, contains 2% or less of sodium phosphate, carrageenan, sodium orthophosphate, garlic, salt onion powder, garlic powder, spice extractives, spices.

contains: milk, soy, wheat.”

You think that is hard to read? Try typing it!

The point is, what has that food done to educate the eater’s plate on tastes and nutrition? It teaches that artificial tastes are what should be eaten to lose weight. Just the opposite is true. I think the real purpose of diet programs like this is to teach portion control. It’s just being done with the wrong food and so the results are temporary. At the end of the day or the end of the program the palate hasn’t been satisfied and thus the hunger in the dieter is still there. Also, because the food in meals like the above is so loaded with sugar the palate becomes a bit confused and looks for it in food away from the diet. Too often that craving for sugar and salt in food results in going back to old patterns of eating sweets, too many sweets, and processed foods.

Helping kids to develop taste for a healthier diet is such an important part of their education. If parents aren’t around to do it at home then it is up to our schools to develop this part of education as well. In any school the “whole” education of a child must include developing their knowledge and experience in eating in a healthy and delicious way. Think of the future savings this would mean in health care!

About the Contributor: Chef Bobo is a regular contributor to the NYC Firm Schools Blog in the area of school lunch and children’s food.

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