Before she was a year old, Zoe LoSasso was introduced to the sharp, earthy taste of white truffle purée. Now 10, she doesn't remember that, but it hardly seems an accident that she loves yuca-crusted snapper with kimchee aioli, roasted broccoli with garlic and pizza topped with crushed red pepper. Like a growing number of American kids, the fifth-grader is being raised as an adventuresome eater.
"It's a fatal mistake to assume kids like bland food," says Zoe's father, Dewey LoSasso, chef-owner of the North Miami restaurant North One 10. "Just the other day, I ordered steamed clams for my kids at a little place on the Hollywood Broadwalk and the waiter acted like I was a crazy. He was expecting me to order mozzarella sticks."
Judging from a wave of new books and an increasing number of restaurants with creative children's menus, a junior foodie movement is coming into its own. It's all about thinking outside the Happy Meal box.
For many parents, exposing children to an eclectic range of dishes is a way of sharing a personal passion, but research suggests it's a way of developing healthful eating habits, too. There's evidence that food preferences are formed at an early age and that kids can be taught to favor the flavors of vegetables and other good-for-you foods.
READ ABOUT ITThree new books that aim to make kids' palates more sophisticated:
- My Two-Year-Old Eats Octopus: Raising Children Who Love to Eat Everything, by Nancy Tringali Piho, due out in November ($16.95, Bull Publishing)
- The Gastrokid Cookbook: Feeding a Foodie Family in a Fast-Food World by dads Hugh Garvey and Matthew Yeomans (Wiley, $22.95)
- Hungry Monkey: A Food-Loving Father's Quest to Raise an Adventurous Eater, by Matthew Amster-Burton, ($23, Houghton Mifflin)
Humans are born with a preference for sweet, high-energy food, such as mother's milk and fruit, the researcher says. A taste for salt develops at about 4 months of age, but acquiring a taste for bitter foods, such as spinach and broccoli, requires repeated exposure.
Mennella's research shows that our first food experiences occur even before we begin eating. In a 1995 study, she found garlic odor in the amniotic fluid of expectant moms. In another study, published in the December 2007 issue of the journal Pediatrics, she found that babies were more accepting of foods their mothers had eaten while nursing.
There are signs that kid-food diversity is making its way to mainstream tables. More kids' menus include items like fresh fish and grilled chicken along with vegetables and fruits, according to a report this year from Technomic, a food service research and consulting firm in Chicago.
The National Restaurant Association, which picked "healthful kids' menus'' as one of its 2009 trends, reports that today's young eaters show a liking for ethnic food like pad Thai, Peruvian-style chicken and other dishes not traditionally deemed "kid-friendly."
"A lot of parents approach food with trepidation -- ‘Oh honey, you need to eat this, it's good for you.' Just put high-flavor food down in front of them and let them eat," says Jonathan Eismann, chef-owner of Pacific Time.
The father of two girls under 10, Eismann offers an enterprising children's menu at his Design District restaurant that includes teriyaki grilled salmon, panko chicken paillard and Indonesian beef satay. He's a firm believer in serving kids the same colorful, flavorful food as adults.
"If they see after two or three times that they're going to get something different, then that is what they'll expect," he says. "You should not keep feeding kids rice and chopped up chicken. It's not nice. The parents are having a lovely meal and the kids are having beige and white food."