As I sat at the Thanksgiving table with extended family, I realized each person has a unique definition of what makes the much-anticipated meal delicious. Some are all about the gravy, others skip the meat and hoard the greens, while a different set piles on every carbohydrate. Each family member exhibits very different taste preferences, even though they share the same genes.
And those preferences can change. Yale nutritionist David Katz once wrote in U.S. News & World Report that when taste buds “can’t be with the foods they love, they learn to love the foods they’re with.” This makes “picky eater” an unnecessary label, as anyone’s tastes can adapt. It also means that we can all learn to love the foods we are with, even if they are healthy, green and sugar free.
Taste and flavor are complicated. Humans register five tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami, which is less common than the other four and means “delicious” in Japanese. Signals from taste receptors on the tongue travel to the brain to tell us that we find something delicious and should eat more of it, or that we don’t and should stop. The air we breathe while we eat goes to the back of our nose and registers additional flavors. Chewing and swallowing also signal flavors in the brain, adding to our enjoyment. Likewise, taste receptors in the small intestines, lungs and elsewhere in our body play a role in how we detect flavors. If we eat too quickly, we miss many of these impressions.
Our flavor preferences come from more than just these physical sensations, though; they also come from our mother and the foods she ate while we were in utero, the foods she ate while she nursed us, the flavors we ate as children, and the foods we witness others eat and enjoy. An obvious example of this is the kids in India who love curries, the babies in Japan who embrace wasabi and the American kids who prefer processed cereal.
Our enjoyment of food also comes from our environment. We are more likely to perceive food as delicious if we are happily sitting at a table with people we love rather than feeling stressed during a hurried meal on the go. Just the memory of a delicious food releases dopamine in the brain, making us more likely to register that food as delicious again.
The original job of taste buds was to help us stay alive. Before modern medicine, humans’ taste buds played a lifesaving role because toxic foods could kill. Our tongues contain just a few receptors for sweet, yet they house more than a dozen for bitter because sidestepping the poisonous (and often bitter) foods kept us alive. We tended to enjoy sweet because it was found only in the ripe summer fruits that delivered the carbohydrates we needed to hunt and harvest during long summer days. We required sodium to survive, so our taste buds responded positively the rare times we uncovered it. Fat was the most concentrated source of energy from food, so of course our bodies found fat to be delicious.
Familiar foods were usually recognized as delicious because they were safe; our subconscious logic told us that if they didn’t kill us the last time we ate them, they wouldn’t kill us this time. New foods were potentially dangerous, so we didn’t find them as tasty until they became familiar. It is no wonder some kids need to try new foods a dozen times before they enjoy them.
What does any of this mean for feeding a family?
First, it shows that our and our children’s tastes are adaptable: The more often we feed kids vegetables and whole foods (beginning in utero), the more their palates will perceive those healthful foods as delicious.
It also means that taste buds that are accustomed to our country’s high volumes of processed sweets can learn to adapt to less sugar. It may be addictive, but it doesn’t own us.
These facts also reinforce the importance of sitting down with your children for as many meals as is reasonable. Light a candle, use real plates, and make the environment as calm and pleasurable as possible. The happier the eating environment, the more positive memories your children will have around meals and healthy foods. Show your kids how much you enjoy healthy foods, because part of their perception of which foods are delicious comes from you.
Allow your taste buds time to enjoy the food. Let food sit on your tongue, triggering the receptors. Breathe while eating so the sensors in the back of your nose and throat can register those flavors.
And lastly, ignore the guilt this holiday season; if you and your kids are going to make your cake and eat it, too, or serve up seconds, then allow yourselves to enjoy every bite. So many of us search for something delicious but then forget to stop and enjoy it, even when it is sitting right there on our tongues.
First published in the Washington Post on Thursday, December 8, 2016.