The family table: trying new things

Categories: Expert guidance

In this new series, Nicole Pisani, formerly of Nopi and now a school chef at Gayhurst Community School in Hackney, answers food questions asked by parents and offers a family-friendly recipe to try out

Dear Nicole, I always end up giving my children the same foods as I know they will eat them. Can you give some tips for encouraging them to try new things?

As a child, all I ate was eggs. I have fond memories of my mother and our family friend Doris soft-boiling an egg, breaking it open with a fork on the plate and giving me a hunk of Maltese bread to soak up the yolk. I would eat all the soft bread, leaving the crust, and dip it in my egg for what seemed like hours on end.

I think I was a fussy eater until I became a chef. Needless to say, now I’ll eat everything, from bone marrow on toast to ants at the restaurant Noma in Copenhagen. My favourite thing of all is smoked eel—not exactly an easily acquired taste.

What we eat tends to balance out for the vast majority of us as we become older; we still have our favourites as adults but most of us will eat more than we were willing to as children. What I do believe is important with children is building a good relationship with food, making it fun and exciting, teaching them a little of where food comes from and how it is grown and cooked.

Tasting sessions
I have found at school, where I now cook for 550 primary school children each day, that there are a few really good ways to introduce new foods and flavours to children. One of the ways is to learn about and taste foods in situations other than meal times. We have tasting sessions at the school where children aren’t expected to eat things up but are just given the chance to try things and tell us what they think.

We have a kitchen garden now, so the children can be involved with growing, and of course if children can be involved in the preparation of food in any small way they become more excited to try the fruits of their labour. 

I recently met Lucy Cooke, who works for Great Ormond Street Hospital and specialises in children’s eating. After meeting Lucy, when we introduce a new food at school we will pair it with a favourite of the children’s, so that they have something familiar on the plate and something new they might like to try.

Willing to try
It takes quite a few tries for children to really know if they like a food or if they are just saying they don’t like it because it is unfamiliar. That’s why we give stickers to children who are willing to try it five times, and then they can give us their verdict!

I have been at the school over a year now, and although there are lunches when I feel we haven’t got it right, I can tell the children are generally more adventurous and open to different things. They are less scared of food, especially the ‘green stuff’.

In terms of flavours and ingredients to try out, I have noticed lots of the children like olives, miso, mild spices and the taste of anchovies blitzed into pasta sauces (just a little). They enjoy the different marinades we use for chicken, such as honey and brown rice vinegar; soy sauce, orange peel and star anise; and coconut milk with a little red Thai curry paste.

Read Nicole’s recipe for a family-friendly dish of za’atar lamb with giant couscous & windowsill leaves