Children often don’t like spicy food – or, at least, they think they don’t. So what’s a chile-, hot-sauce-, wasabi-loving parent to do? Resign yourself to bland meals until they move out of the house, or to making two versions of every potentially spicy-hot meal?
There’s a third option: Judiciously, gradually exposing your children to spicier, hotter flavors, so they learn early on to love a wide world of foods.
See, I don’t necessarily buy this idea that kids can’t handle spice. Yes, it’s a fact that taste buds grow less sensitive with age. Things that don’t taste very hot to us may really zing a child’s young, fresh taste buds, and they can sometimes pick out, and object to, undertones of flavor that our jaded palates miss.
But I’ve also traveled a bit, and have seen toddlers in Mexico eating fresh fruit sprinkled with chile powder and spicy-hot salsa, and young kids eating scalding Thai and Indian curries. Not to mention all the young American kids I’ve seen chowing down on salsa and chips, Sour Patch Kids, and flaming-hot Cheetos.
This tells me two things: Aversion to spicy food is both environmental, and situational. Kids who are exposed to spicy foods consistently from a young age are more likely to not just tolerate them, but like them. And, since many children do like some extreme tastes, if you can figure out what part of the flavor profile of things like spicy chips appeals to them, you may get them to try new things as well.
Start gradually: Begin by introducing some favorite dishes, but spiced at a mild to moderate level. (If you usually use three jalapenos in your pico de gallo, tone it down to one).
Provide cooling sides: Always serve a spicy dish with some cool, bland side dishes and condiments, such as rice, yogurt, sour cream, cucumbers, mashed potatoes. The Middle Eastern yogurt sauce, raita, is especially good for cooling off dishes.
Milk, please: A glass of cold milk makes a better accompaniment than juice, soft drinks, or even water. Many liquids just spread the heat of chiles or spices around your mouth, but the protein and fat in milk actually relieve the burn.
On the side: For very young children, or those who have shown they can’t tolerate heat, add the heat for yourself at the table instead, by spicing things up with hot sauce, salsas, or pickled peppers after cooking.
No pressure: This is true for any new dish you’re trying to introduce to children. Enforcing a clean-plate rule, in my experience, just leads to food fights. Instead, try the one-bite method. The child needs to take an actual bite – not just the tiniest of nibbles – of any new food offered. But if it doesn’t appeal, that’s it. Try again later. Kids have a whole lifetime to learn to enjoy new foods.