Project Mushroom. One family’s quest to get their four year old to eat mushrooms.

Given the recent success story of our 4 year old converting to eating eggs ( I have been looking into other ways to broaden his palate. The catalyst for his conversion to eggs was largely due to following the crowd and the excitement of collecting his own egg from a chicken coup. None of the persuasion, bribery or threats that we had attempted at the kitchen table had had any positive effect, if anything he might have become increasingly wary of the mighty egg.

It turns out that it was no surprise that our efforts had failed. We had tried all the traditional methods, turn out the traditional methods are as obsolete as floppy discs and overhead projectors! We broke a multitude of guidelines that paediatric nutritionists would consider the corner stones of a child having a healthy relationship with food. As a kid did you ever hear your parents utter the phrase “you are not leaving the table until you have eaten xyz!”? How did that turn out? A positive settlement with an immediate love of xyz? Or a battle of wills, a fight to find a winner and a loser and a teary stand off resulting in the immediate demonization of xyz!? For most, it was the latter.

There has been a huge about of research and writing in the field of kid’s nutrition and the psychology of a peaceful and successful meal time. Unfortunately, it seems to have yet to become mainstream and is directed predominately at ‘fussy eaters’, when in reality many the principles could be applicable to some extent to every family meal time in the land.

Back in the late 90’s, the Journal of Nutrition Education published an article (Toddlers’ Food Preferences: Concordance with Family Members’ Preferences) which essentially said that if the family eat / like a certain food there is a higher chance that a child will follow suit and also eat / like that food too. Similarly, foods that never featured at the dinner table were generally disliked. Sounds logical but the featuring of food at a dinner table is referred to as an “exposure” and research suggests that children may require up to 20 exposures to accept a new food. Up to 20!? In context, that’s a lot. How many parents are still serving unappreciated food having had it rejected numerous times? But would parents be more likely to persevere if they knew that their efforts might not be in vain?

Fortunately, our kids are not what I would consider fussy eaters. Sure, they push their greens around their plates. Some days they eat lettuce, the next day they might not.  They are after all kids and pickiness around food is normal… and often it is more about asserting their authority in a situation when they have the opportunity to, rather any serious discrimination again lettuce. They are not fussy but there are definitely foods that they dodge, pick out, call ‘yuckie and generally frown upon.

So, given the knowledge that we might need 20 exposures, can we get our four year old to like something he is currently not keen on… say… mushrooms? Fortunately, there are a number of strategies out there to help us in our quest. These include:

·         Including mushrooms in a food that they already enjoy (without ruining it for them!!).

·         Subtly using pear pressure, either through eating with friends who already enjoy mushrooms (this might need a lot of asking around!) or through having a non-parent who is liked by our son who will prepare a meal containing mushrooms.

·         Familiarising our son with mushrooms: different types, textures, sizes, etc. Letting him play with them, smell them, break them up.

·         Which leads nicely to… growing them at home. (Mushroom kit already ordered!)

·         Which leads nicely to…. letting him help cook with them.

·         Making sure that his plate consists of a variety of foods (including mushrooms).

·         Consistent repetition of mushroom exposure!

One thing that does not seem to feature too much in the literature, which seems obvious but is too important to assume, is to make the mushrooms tasty. Kids palates are just as sophisticated as ours, so it is vital that the mushrooms are served in an appealing manner. Repeatedly serving sweaty garlic mushrooms is unlikely to end well so I have plans for raw mushrooms in salads, mushrooms in risottos, mushrooms in pasta, in omelettes, in spag bol, in pies, on quiches, in soup, on kebabs, in stir frys and even on toast. I should add, it is important that the mushrooms are there for all to see. Loud and proud. Sneaking things into food may send the message that it is being hidden as it is bad. Not the message we are after.

So, if we are after up to 20 exposures and served mushrooms twice a week we could be looking at a 10 week experiment. There will be no bribes, no threats and no staying at the table until the mushroom is eaten! I will also be prepared to admit defeat. It just might not work at the moment. That is not to say that in a couple of year time he might love mushrooms but the worst result would be putting him off mushrooms for life.

I will update this post, hopefully with a positive result in the coming weeks. In the mean time, I will post updates on Project Mushroom on Twitter.

Wish me luck.

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