From Yuck to Yum: Taste Training You Can Try At Home
I spent my summer teaching kids how to taste.
Through the Yavapai College Summer College for Kids in Prescott I taught four sections of a class called Edible and Delicious Science. Each and every cute kid—all 50 of them, from ages 6 to 14—came with their unique set of taste buds and prejudices resulting in their own personal “yuck” factors. My job was to push the kids beyond the yuck and towards recognizing flavor complexity, and if we were successful, turning yuck into exciting, delicious and yummy.
DAY 1: IDENTIFYING BASIC TASTES
The class starts with all students learning Class Rule #1: “Don’t yuck my yum.”
Which is to say, “If you don’t like it, keep it to yourself.” Kids are very vocal about their preferences and everyone has their own and different yuck. We don’t want to hear any of them.
The Five Tastes
We then begin with an awareness exercise on the five tastes—sweet, salty, sour, bitter, umami—the tastes that our tongues have specific receptors for. All the kids know sweet and salt. And they love sour, especially when it is paired with sweet. Bitter is almost a universally disliked and total yuck for kids. This preference is a remnant of our distant past, when human beings were foragers. Kids come programmed to avoid bitter, which is the taste of poisonous plants. Adults, however, seem to love bitter—coffee, tea, chocolate, hops and kale chips—the taste of healthy antioxidants. Umami… what is that? The name means “delicious” and it is the rich taste of the amino acid glutamate. This is the fifth taste and your tongue has special receptors for it. It wasn’t discovered until 2000. That’s why you probably haven’t heard of it. Call it the savory taste of protein.
We give the kids a weak solution of each of these tastes in isolation so they will learn to recognize them in foods. Here’s the taste exercise setup:
• A list of the Five Tastes
• One small tasting cup for each person.
• One pitcher of water
• One medium mixing bowl for dumping unused solutions
• Five half-liter distilled water bottles, numbered from 1 to 5, with the following additions, well shaken:
° SALT: ½ teaspoon salt
° SWEET: 1 teaspoon sugar
° BITTER: 1 teaspoon unsweetened cocoa powder
° UMAMI: 4 tablespoons soy sauce or 2 teaspoons finely grated Romano or Parmesan cheese, mixed well with water and then strained into the bottle
The five tastes are reviewed. Then students get a very small amount, just a taste from each bottle, one at a time without knowing what to expect. They taste, dump out excess, pour some water, wash out their mouths and cups and try the next bottle. They talk and identify each flavor. They write their reactions. This is one powerful experience and it’s surprising to see who likes or dislikes what. We follow it up with a discussion of what foods contain these tastes and which foods are combinations of tastes.
Muffin Tin Lunch
Next we have a muffin tin lunch to encourage experimentation with real food. Here’s the setup:
• A list of the Five Tastes
• Journal sheets for recording their reactions
• Six-hole muffin tins lined with cupcake papers and the following items in each hole:
° SALT: Tortilla chips
° SWEET: Watermelon and cherries or other seasonal fruit
° BITTER: Walnuts and chocolate chips
° UMAMI: Salami and cheese
The kids have to first identify which muffin tin hole represents which taste. Then they are introduced to shakers of sugar, salt, unsweetened cocoa, chili powder and soy sauce and have to identify which shakers are associated with each taste.
As lunch begins it’s cautious nibbling all around. One of the more daring students starts experimenting: putting salt on the watermelon, sprinkling tomatoes with sugar, testing cheese with cocoa powder. As it goes on, they get excited; they tell everyone about their new tastes; they start new mixes and new combinations. The excitement is contagious. New combinations are proclaimed—chili powder on cherries, cocoa powder on salami, walnuts and cheese with a sprinkle of sugar. They write down their ideas and make plans to try them out on their families. That’s Day 1.
DAY 2: NEW TASTES AND SMELLS
On Day 2 kids are introduced to a progressive tasting using cucumbers and apples, sliced thinly. The setup:
• Thin slices of cucumbers and apples
• Lemon wedges, cheese slices
• Shakers of soy sauce, salt, sugar, unsweetened cocoa powder
• Paper plates, napkins
• Journal sheets for recording reactions
The exercise starts with tasting cucumber and apple plain. Next cucumber and apple with a squeeze of lemon… then a bit of cheese… then a drop of soy, then salt, sugar, cocoa… working through the entire list without mixing any flavors.
Then students are encouraged to start mixing. This is where the excitement starts. Combinations are tried, shared, enhanced, discarded, recorded. As the buzz builds I remind them that this is what chefs do—this is how chefs make food taste great.
Now that the kids have a good concept of basic tastes it’s time to tell them that something is missing. Smell accounts for about 80% of a flavor. Humans have five taste receptors but 450 different smell receptors. Wow!
So, I actually get the kids to pinch their noses and taste onions versus apples in small slivers. And with lots of water, because once the nose is opened, a flood of strong onion scent punches in.
The smell sensation olfactory bulb in the brain is the real flavor center. It assembles and stores very complex, specific and clear taste/smell memories. We are full of them. That’s how we can tell the difference between Grandma’s apple pie and the store-bought version. It’s a glorious part of the brain.
To balance the pungent smell discovery we indulge in a fantastic salsa buffet, a kid’s concoction delight. The buffet setup:
• Small bowls, spoons, napkins for each student
• Tortilla chips
• Separate bowls and shakers filled with a selection of the following ingredients:
° SWEET: Chopped mango, pineapple, watermelon, strawberries, grated carrots, sweet corn, sugar shaker
° SOUR: Cut limes, cut lemons, chopped tomatoes, chopped tomatillos
° SALT: Chopped ripe or green olives, salted roasted pumpkin or sunflower seeds, soy sauce, salt shaker
° BITTER: Oregano, cilantro, mint, chopped chilies, onions, mild chili powder shaker, unsweetened cocoa shaker
Students are encouraged to mix small test batches to see what they like and then encouraged to change yuck into yum by adding another ingredient(s) to those items that are not their favorites. They are allowed to dump failures and try again.
This exercise creates a surge of concentrated energy. The room gets quiet! The abundance of choices is challenging but no one complains. A few tastes are dumped and restarted. A lively interchange of ideas goes on. Students assemble their favorites and munch them down with chips. The recipes are shared, recorded and named. They make up to-go samples for home. Amazingly, the Yuck Factor has vanished. The Yum Factor has been planted and is growing. The kids just can’t wait to get home and roll out their new flavor skills on the family.
THE TAKE-HOME LESSON
Teaching kids to manipulate flavors gives them the power to control their diets. It’s fun and creative to make what they like, but kids also actively see how much sugar, salt and fat goes into their food. They learn how to transform something they don’t like into something yummy. When the challenge is to eat healthier, these kids will have the skills to make those choices delicious.
Try This at Home
My inspiration for these activities came from the Slow Food School Gardens Good, Clean and Fair Curriculum.You can order a copy or download many of these exercises and others at: gardens.slowfoodusa.org/curriculum