Tips for encouraging kids to explore new cultures through cuisine

When it comes to food, all kids can go through picky phases, but travel is one of the easiest ways to get out of a chicken nugget rut. Encouraging kids to explore new cultures through their food is a valuable lesson they will carry with them for the rest of their lives. For advice on how to do that, we talked to Queens-based mom of two and Eat Your World founder Laura Siciliano-Rosen. Psst... We hear she's planning to launch a kid-focused food tour of NYC soon! 
Parennial Travel: What's your best advice for parents who want to raise adventurous eaters?
Laura Siciliano-Rosen: Start 'em young, show them by example that food can be fun, and don't force it! I can speak only to my own experience with my two kids, of course, but this combination is what's worked for us. It's never too early to start thinking about it: Research shows kids' palates begin to form in utero, depending on what the mom eats, and if you're breastfeeding, that continues. Then when it comes to solid foods, studies show kids are most receptive to new flavors between four and seven months. So what I did was nothing at first—I didn't really change my eating habits too much while pregnant or nursing, so definitely consumed a huge variety of foods and flavors—and then, when we started solids at six months, I tried to consciously introduce flavors too. I put cumin in the mashed avocado, sage in the pureed squash, dill in the potatoes. Anything I could think of—and I was lucky, because my first son was very receptive to it all, which only encouraged me to come up with more new things to offer him. My second took a lot longer to come around to eating solids, but it helped I had the experience of the first and didn't give up on putting new foods in front of him.
Aside from that early stuff, my husband and I love food, obviously, and so there's always a lot of excitement around food in our home. I might rave about a new food to my kids, and then they're happy to taste it. I cook during the week, and get the kids involved when possible, but we always go out food exploring in NYC on weekends. This is something we always did pre-kids; we actually give food tours in our Queens neighborhood. We've continued the tradition with them. We're fortunate to live in an extremely diverse part of the country, so we can literally "travel" every weekend to a new country via a meal. The kids love going to restaurants; it's an exciting thing for them, because it is for us. They also know that Sunday is farmers market (and park) day, year-round. A lot of our weekly schedule revolves around food!
As for not forcing it—we all do this sometimes, and it almost always backfires. You can't make your child eat something. We like to say: "Just taste it. I have a feeling you'll like it, but if you don't, you don't have to eat it." And we offer praise when they do taste it. If they don't like that food, it doesn't mean they will dislike it forever. Try again in a few months, maybe a different preparation.
What are some of the most memorable meals your kids have eaten while traveling?
In Nova Scotia, I'll never forget how quickly my older, shellfish-loving son, 5 at the time, devoured the lobster. We went to a market and picked out our own one day; he played with it briefly while we got the water steaming, and then had zero qualms about eating it 20 minutes later! My younger son, however, who had just turned 3, had it in his head that he didn't like lobster. He refused to taste it. Finally I said, Come try this delicious chicken, and offered a bite. He went for it, said "that's not chicken," followed by, "It's yummy!" We were like, Gotcha! You do like lobster, we knew it! He started singing around the house, "I like lobster, I like lobster!" I never trick my kids into eating something like that, I promise—but in this case I just knew he'd like the lobster if he tasted it.
Another time we weren't traveling, but I took my 5-year-old to Flushing (Queens' Chinatown) to one of the legendary basement malls, where little food stalls abound. We shared these amazing Chengdu cold noodles, which he loved until the tongue-numbing Sichuan peppercorns became too much for him (I got him a new, non-spicy noodle dish after that!), and on our way out he asked to try one of the stuffed baby squids we saw displayed at another vendor we passed. I was so proud!
Why do you think it's important for kids (and adults!) to explore other cultures through their food?
Food is truly a window into a culture's history and geography and way of life, but more than that it's in people's hearts. Eating the food of a place is the quickest way to connect with someone from that place. We all have our comfort foods, our nostalgic foods from childhood, or the things we eat weekly and cherish every time. Sometimes even just asking after one such food in another culture is enough to open a conversation with someone. It's like asking taxi drivers where they like to eat.
It also shows respect for that culture—like learning a few words of the local language. When we're not traveling, I love bringing my kids into our local restaurants in Queens, where there generally aren't American-style kids' menus, and we can all eat what everyone else is eating, whether a Bengali snack, Tibetan dumplings, Colombian soup, or Thai noodles.
Any tips for dealing with picky eaters?
Parents know their kids best, so if you're going out to a restaurant or want to cook something new, make sure there's something familiar on the table for them to eat, and just try to get them to taste the new thing once. Compare it to something they like, if applicable—tell them another kind of noodle is similar to spaghetti, for example. And start small at home: introduce almond or sunflower seed butter to a kid who loves peanut butter, an egg cooked a slightly different way, or a smear of avocado in a grilled cheese sandwich. It's never too late to try to introduce these things. But some kids just need time—years even. In that case, I'd just say don't give up. Kids' tastes change all the time. Keep trying every few weeks with something new; keep demonstrating your own love for food. You never know when they'll surprise you.
What are some of your favorite destinations for eating with kids?
Mexico for sure—all those amazing tacos, soups, jugos, rice and beans and meats are wonderful with kids. We are way overdue for a revisit! We loved Portugal, because one of my kids loves seafood and the other loves soup, and the Portuguese excel at both. We haven't brought them to Asia yet, but I know that would be a hit—like many kids, mine love all manner of noodles and dumplings. My older son has said he wants to go to China, though he'll also tell you his favorite food is Thai (even though he can't quite handle spice yet!).
When traveling, do you plan out everywhere you'll eat or wing it?
I do a lot of planning out meals before a trip, because if we're scouting local dishes for Eat Your World, I need to know where to find them in advance of getting there. But I won't plan every meal. Things change when we arrive and start chatting with people, getting new recommendations. And I'm happy to switch my plans to accommodate that. One thing I will say though: When traveling with kids, I bring a lot of snacks for them! Like, a lot. I bring stuff from home and find fruit and other snacks when I'm there—you can never have too many. We are heading to Iceland in a few months, and I have a feeling we'll be eating a lot of the local dried fish once my snacks from home run out!
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