Parents play airplane games with their toddlers to encourage them to eat their dinner. But sometimes it’s important to teach children about the sense of taste without a plan, such as wanting them to eat their carrots or sweet potatoes. Through sensory play, toddlers learn to appreciate the gift of taste.
Dr. Alan Hirsch, the neurological director of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago, Ill., says about 90 percent of what people perceive to taste is smelled. “If you hold your nose and eat chocolate it tastes just like chalk,” he says. “It has no taste at all. When we say taste, we really mean smell. To tell if a toddler has a true taste disorder as opposed to a smell problem is going to be a real, real challenge.”
Play Taste Games
By providing a toddler with a wide range of taste experiences and playing games related to taste, parents can help develop their toddler’s sense of taste and gustatory system. This sensory system uses taste buds on the tongue’s upper surface to provide information about food taste to the brain.
“Make them aware of smell and taste and how they are different,” Dr. Hirsch says. He encourages parents to play taste games. “Take apple juice and take food dye and color it purple or orange,” he says. “Let them taste it. Let them play with it. Take them out of the box of what would be surprising, so purple liquid won’t taste like grape juice, but apple juice. By manipulating other sensory modalities, it makes them aware of the gustatory sense.”
Michelle Lacey, the mother of Ashleigh, 3, and Luke, 1, from Lutz, Fla., says her children are at the opposite end of the spectrum regarding their food preferences. “[Ashleigh] is not picky at all,” Lacey says. “Her brother is picky. He does not like anything wet or mushy. I can’t feed him with a spoon.”
Infants and toddlers often explore their world by putting items in their mouths. Luke is no exception, as he puts little toys in his mouth, but he is not fond of vegetables. “He does not like any vegetables,” Lacey says. “He makes faces and spits them out. It’s a battle. He eats pancakes and other carbohydrates. He will pig out on that. He likes cheese and milk.” She says her daughter likes chocolates and sweets.
Studies based on the fetus gulp rate of amniotic fluid increasing in the presence of sweetness suggest a child may detect differences in taste and may perhaps indicate a sweet tooth at as early as 13 months.
Dr. Hirsch says it is not unusual for toddlers to avoid new foods, a problem called neophobia. He says the problem can be solved by exposing toddlers to different foods in small concentrations over some time. “You can discourage your children from eating new foods by making it a conditioned response, telling them if you eat your spinach you will get dessert,” he says. “That discourages them from eating the spinach. You don’t want to do that.”
Dr. Hirsch advises parents to feed their toddlers new food at the end of the meal. “At the end of the meal their endorphins are elevated as a result of having eaten,” he says. “What you eat at the end tastes better. Your body perceives it as being better than at the start. The reality is you have a greater ability to smell and taste at the start, but your body perceives it as being more pleasant at the end.”
Infections, sinusitis, or even a nutrition deficiency may cause your toddler to have a taste or smell disorder. “There are certain things you can watch for,” Dr. Hirsch says. “For instance, are they indiscriminately eating? Are they not very picky? If they have a taste disorder or smell disorder they may eat foods you would not expect them to eat.”
Preventing Loss of Taste
Dr. Hirsch says head trauma may also cause taste loss, which is why toddlers need to be placed in car seats. Also, by avoiding secondhand smoke, you may prevent smell and taste loss in your toddler.
Researchers have found that breastfed children tend to grow up to be less picky because breast milk has multiple flavors depending on the mother’s diet, according to Dr. Hirsch. If you did not breastfeed, make sure to expose your toddler to as wide a range of flavors as possible while meeting dietary requirements.
“Some taste disorders occur from birth,” says Dr. Hirsch. “About 15 percent of the population have an inability to taste one form of taste or another, and you would never know it until they die. People compensate for their taste loss by smelling. The most common cause of true taste disorder is the genetic one.”
Angeline Lillard, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and author of Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius (Oxford, 2005), says sensory education is one of the fundamentals of the Montessori method. Maria Montessori, the first female physician in Italy, devised a method based on her belief that children learn best through active experience.
Lillard, the mother of two children, says parents should engage their children in sensory play and encourage their children to play pretend. “People learn better and do better when they are doing what is interesting to them and have more choice and control over it,” Lillard says. “Pretending is one of the only times in Montessori schools where you give children a lot of choice and control over what they are doing and let them pursue what is interesting to them.”
While some people believe intelligence is first developed through sensory education, Lillard says she is skeptical. Nevertheless, having a pretend tea party and a real tea party during which toddlers experience the different aroma and flavors of teas are positive experiences.
Finally, you don’t need to enroll your child in a Montessori program to help him develop his senses. Help your toddler at home by identifying the location of taste buds. Your toddler has taste buds in his cheeks and under his tongue. Encourage your toddler to notice how the tip of his tongue identifies sweet foods while the side of the tongue picks up sour and salty tastes, and the back of the tongue is his bitter taste radar. In a few years, your toddler’s understanding of taste may evolve into their first science project.