How to boost a kid’s brain health with 'weird' foods

From purple potatoes to pickled fruit, 'weird' foods can be packed with kid-friendly health benefits. Here’s how to get your picky eater to give peas a chance.

Katie Anderson knew her six-year-old might not be receptive to "weird" foods, so she hatched a plan. Leaning into her daughter’s YouTube obsession, the Memphis mom would pick a "weird" fruit, then video her daughter talking about its look, feel, and smell before tasting it.

"She’d talk about its flavor and texture and rate it with a thumbs-up, sideways, or down," Anderson says. Her daughter’s favorite so far: horned kiwano melon. "If I had just put these on plates, I likely would’ve gotten nowhere."

Behavioral and cognitive psychologist Katherine Dahlsgaard says that trying unfamiliar foods can invoke a kid’s curiosity and learning. But as Anderson and lots of other parents know, kids aren't always willing to chow down. And that’s normal.

"We all have a healthy sense of disgust—it was evolutionarily useful for us back when we were hunter-gatherers," Dahlsgaard says. "Primitive disgust saved humans from poisoning because they thought, 'This looks different, it might be dangerous for me.'"

The thing is, many of the foods that kids call "weird" are not only safe, but they’re also packed with health benefits and even psychological pluses, such as feeling brave for digging in. Fortunately, parents and caregivers can do plenty to entice kids to sample new things. Here are some beneficial "weird" foods—and tips on getting your kids to take a taste.

Why it’s important for kids to try 'weird' foods

Dahlsgaard says that when kids dare to take a bite of unfamiliar food, they can feel a sense of accomplishment for having tried—even if they didn’t love what they tasted. And that can make them more confident around other foods. Here’s what else eating offbeat foods can do.

It builds a broader palate. Although kids may not love all foods now, introducing them to different tastes will help them embrace those foods as they grow older. "I encourage parents to introduce those foods as early as possible, and with great variety," says pediatrician Shawnda Johnson of Kaiser Permanente Oakland. "When you increase the variety, you increase the chances of kids finding something that they’ll like."

It boosts brain health. Certain "weird" (or at least, weird-to-kids) foods are essential for brain health. Healthy fats from sources like fish and other seafoods, for instance, are important because, though most of the brain is made of fat, our body can’t produce the right kind of fatty acids to optimize brain health. “We need to consume it so that it can be delivered to the brain," says Janet Colson, a registered dietician with Middle Tennessee State University.

It boosts gut health, which boosts brain health, too. "The brain-gut connection is real," Johnson says. "Foods that foster healthy bacteria in the gut foster a role in cognitive function and mood." Fermented foods can supply the healthy bacteria called "probiotics" that build gut flora. Pickled foods like sauerkraut (or even DIY pickling) will provide the widest variety of healthy "bugs."

If you have a kid who doesn’t like sauerkraut (and really, who doesn’t?), Johnson recommends pickling foods they do enjoy, like cucumbers, carrots, or even homemade ketchup. "Kefir milk and yogurt are great alternatives that can go in a fruit smoothie," she adds.

It teaches planet protection. About one-third of all edible food around the world is wasted; that also wastes the water, land, and energy used to produce it. The unused food usually goes into landfills—and creates greenhouse gases that add to climate change. Kids can help by choosing "weird-looking" fruits and veggies that might not sell, like two-pointed carrots or wacky-shaped tomatoes.

It can replace supplements. "Today’s generation of parents thinks that supplements are a requirement, but they’re not," Colson says. "If you give a child a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, you don't need them."

And there’s more. "We absorb nutrients better when they come from whole foods," Johnson says. "Unless kids have a defined deficiency like an iron deficiency, the best thing is to encourage them to eat the actual food."

It introduces other cultures and perspectives. "Here in Tennessee, we dig up the dandelions and throw them away, but in other areas, they're a delicacy," Colson says. The yellow flowers and their leaves—which can be found in farmers markets and many grocery stores—are thought to have been eaten in China and by some Native American tribes. (In fact, the greens might pack more nutrients than kale or spinach.) Learning about different foods and where they come from can help kids feel a connection to cultures other than their own—and spark their curiosity to learn more.

How to get your kid to try 'weird' foods

How can you get your kid to give peas a chance—or any other food they deem weird? Dahlsgaard says the goal is to get kids to taste the food, not necessarily to love it. "Kids decide either 'I liked it,' or 'I didn’t like it, but I didn’t die. I was able to be resilient,'" she says. And that sets up kids to fearlessly try more things. Here’s how.

Be a good food model. Model that food is joy, and try not to tell kids you dislike a food. Without that "learning history," as Dahlsgaard puts it, kids will be less likely to assume they won’t like something, too. When serving a "weird" food, try saying, "Oh my gosh, I bet it’s going to be delicious!'"

Don’t expect love at first taste. Kids aren't necessarily going to lick their chops and ask for more of something they’re not a hundred percent sold on. And that's OK. "I always tell kids, 'You don’t have to like foods that you try,'" Dahlsgaard says. '"But I want you to approach them with a sense of adventure.'"

Ignore the "yuck." Dahlsgaard says parents often give up after two or three attempts at serving an unwanted food, but research shows that most eaters need eight to 15 tastings before accepting it. "If parents are able to add it to their kid's regular rotation," she says, "this makes life bigger and easier for the child."

Get kids involved. "When kids make something, they’re more likely to eat that food," says Colson, who ran a "Fun With Foods" class at a local hospital, where kids decorated a rice cake or plain bread with veggies to make "pizza." Hard-boiled eggs and avocados work especially well because kids can cut them into different shapes. "They can arrange them on a piece of bread or on chopped salad," she says. "Kids may be much more receptive."

Don’t ask the obvious. Avoid asking kids, "Did you like that?" Their answer might be 'No,' which psychologically might lock them into 'and I’m always going to dislike it.' "Instead,” Dahlsgaard says, "give praise such as, 'What an adventurous eater you are. What a classy eater you are. I love what great taste you have. Wonderful job trying that.'"

Try not to hide foods. Dahlsgaard says she has no judgments on parents who try to sneak weird foods into other munchies. But "no kid in the history of the world says, 'Oh! I like carrots now that I’ve found out they were in this muffin!'" she says. "I just don’t think it’s a good long-term strategy." So keep introducing tastes of the actual foods, and kids will eventually become more accepting.

Play the long game. If your kid still refuses to try certain foods, try not to stress out. "Many picky eaters grow up to become adventurous eaters," Dahlsgaard says. "If your kid won’t try something now, no big deal. Life is long. Just keep modeling that food is joy, and that trying new things is awesome."

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