Free Resource Sheets to Teach Healthy Eating Habits


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Why Some Kids Should Spit

If you want your kids to try new foods, you might have to let them spit, not swallow.

I’m not suggesting that you let your kids hurl huge goobers like Grandpa (though if your kids tend towards the dramatic they may be inclined to go that way).   But if you don’t encourage young children to spit out food they don’t want to swallow, why would they ever put something new into their mouths?

Think about it:  Tasting unknown food is a risky proposition if swallowing is your only option.   Especially if you’re not an adventurous eater.  Or you tasted something last Tuesday that was absolutely disgusting.  Or you like to razz your parents for no apparent reason.

You have to give your kids a way out.  And guess what? Research shows that sometimes kids spit out stuff even when they think it tastes good!

“Just taste it. You don’t have to eat it if you don’t like it.”

This just isn’t the same thing as giving your kids permission to spit.  In fact, while most parents think this strategy lets their kids off the hook, it doesn’t.  The initial taste (no matter how gross) still has to go down the hatch.

Plus, what if your children don't want to eat something you ask them to taste, even if they like it? They’re stuck. Sometimes it's better not to taste that tidbit at all.

It’s tempting to think of spitting as failure, but it’s not. 

Remember, it is tasting, not swallowing (or eating) that counts.  Look at what happened in a recent study. 

Researchers wanted to figure out whether kids would grow to like food over time so they exposed a group of 4th and 5th grade students in New Orleans to a selection of vegetables 9 different times.

The students were each given cups with the following vegetables: green bell peppers, tomatoes, carrots and peas.  The children were told they should taste each vegetable, but that they didn’t have to swallow them.  If they wanted to, they could spit the vegetables into a napkin after each tasting.  Afterwards, the researchers asked the children how much they liked each of the four vegetables.

On the first tasting some of the children refused to even taste the vegetables.  But of the kids who did taste them…

  • 23% of the children spit out the carrots.
  • 33% spit out the peas.
  • 39% spit out the tomatoes.
  • 52% spit out the green pepper.

Maybe the proportion of spitters doesn’t surprise you.  This probably will: In each case, some of the spitters reported liking the vegetable after the first tasting. 

Yup.  Even though most of the kids who spit out the vegetable said they didn’t like it, some of the spitters actually liked the vegetable they spewed.  For instance, 31% of the carrot-spitters said they liked the carrots. 

Over time, even spitters are more likely to like what they taste.

By the end of the study (after the 9th tasting) the children were:

  • 5.5 times more likely to like the carrots.
  • 5.6 times more likely to like the peas.
  • 2.8 times more likely to like the tomatoes.

Sadly, there was no statistically significant change in the liking score for bell peppers (but if you look at the chart below, you’ll see that even peppers made a comeback).

Here are some other takeaways from the study: 

1) Progress doesn’t take a steady path, there are lots of ups and downs.

Look at the chart below. For each vegetable, the dark line on top=kids who liked the vegetable at first tasting and the light line on bottom=kids who didn’t like the vegetable at first tasting.

While the overall trend for kids who initially didn't like the vegetable is towards liking it, progress is not smooth and steady.  In fact, it can be quite erratic.


2) The kids were given extremely small serving sizes to taste.

The kids were given one baby carrot, 1/32 of a medium tomato (a size I can’t even measure), ½ tablespoon diced green bell pepper, and ½ tablespoon of cooked green peas.

Extremely small offerings take the pressure off, and make the tastes seem manageable.  For more on the power of portion size read When Less is More.

3)The kids were never asked to eat any of the vegetables.

In fact, they weren’t given enough to eat, not even as a small snack.  Instead, the kids were simply asked to evaluate their tastes. For more on this topic read Unleash Your Toddler's Inner Food Critic and Nix the Negativity.

You know that the key to new food acceptance is exposure.

But now you know that your kids don't have to savor the flavor. Concentrate on getting your children to sample a sliver, and then ignore whether they choose to spit or to swallow.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits. ~


Source: Lakkakula, A., J. Geaghan, M. Zanovec, S. Pierce, and G. Tuuri. 2010. “Repeated Taste Exposure Increases Liking for Vegetables By Low-Income Elementary School Children.” Appetite 55: 226-31.

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Reader Comments (10)

I have found this to be true with my eldest fussy eater. Once I gave him permission to taste only a tiny bit and spit it out (nicely) if he didn't like it the range of foods he would eat increased. And now (after nearly a year of this method) he is constantly asking to taste everything - to the extent of wanting me to buy strange foods for him to taste wherever we go.

December 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCatherine


I love it! Thanks for sharing the fantastic experience you had with this technique.


December 7, 2010 | Registered CommenterDina Rose

Awesome post. Thank you!


December 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterM

We have an alternate that can be a bit more polite (I have one of those dramatic spitters. Don't get me started on watermelon seeds.) My son is encouraged to "wash down" any bite he doesn't like with as much of his drink (usually water, definitely water if he needs a second cup) as he likes, and to follow it up with a food he does like. This may not work for everyone, but it's worked for us: while he has likes and dislikes, he now eats a reasonable portion of whatever he is served.

Another piece of the puzzle - I don't try to pretend every food is likeable, I just say he needs to taste every food, and remind him what to do if he doesn't like it. I think parents get themselves into trouble saying things like "try these delicious carrots" etc. Kids don't know that your tastes may be different from theirs.

December 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMichele Hays

Washing it down is a fine additional skill to have for adulthood, but I think both strategies being available is helpful.

Our eldest was in a feeding clinic for extremely picky eating, and the strategy of teaching them to spit it out discreetly was pretty helpful (into a napkin, into a spoon, or leaving the room and into the appropriate trashcan). It let the child who was relatively concerned with dignity also still protect his personal integrity regarding food.

One way to practice the spitting out was to have him help me cook, and taste for 'fixing' the flavor blends. In the kitchen, it wasn't as weird to spit it back out after tasting, it was more like wine tasting (where spitting out is required at the professional level). And it wasn't tied to 'yuck', either - it was 'taste, spit, think/experience, assess, explain, adjust food/spices, repeat'. So the picky eater, who is still very limited in taste range (he's a supertaster, plus a whole slew of other issues/challenges with regard to food), becomes an ally in the kitchen. He won't eat most of it still, but he can assess whether the other kids will, and tell me how to adjust it to their preferences. It's then a skill rather than an annoyance. :) Oh, and he added salads to his range because he was comfortable tasting-but-not-eating, and tried one my mom was having. He doesn't like most flavors, still, but that he can try them to find out if he does or not is fantastic!

December 10, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterhedra

Michele and Hedra,

Thanks to both of you for sharing your experiences. Michele, I agree with Hedra that washing food down is an important skill for kids to have (and, surprisingly to most parents, kids don't automatically know to do this -- so maybe I will write about that as its own post), but it's a different skill than knowing it's ok to spit. Many parents really pressure their kids to swallow their food and for some kids, that's a deal breaker. Hedra, I love your suggestion to incorporate the spitting as part of seasoning/cooking, especially because, as you say, it helps to maintain your child's dignity.

Thanks to you both for adding to the conversation,


December 10, 2010 | Registered CommenterDina Rose

Thanks, Dina.

I'll add my mom's strategy for us as kids: not being "old enough" to like something. The house rule was we had to taste it once a year (though usually it was more often than that), to find out if we were old enough to like it yet. Caveat (openly stated) was that some things you will never be old enough to like. BUT, you never know if you are now old enough unless you try it. This INCLUDED the adults! So my stepdad had to try Brussels sprouts periodically, even though he was pretty sure he wasn't going to like them now, either. (good parental modeling!) I still try things for the same reason, even though I know I detested something before - tastes change over time and with age, and by cooking method, of course.

My mom also taught us how to dispose into a napkin, because she was taught that at her Protocol class in DC (embassy training, she used to take all the embassy classes she could just because they were so much fun). Gulping a drink to swallow something awful is not always socially appropriate (depending on how much would have to be swallowed to manage it, and the cultures of the other guests), but a very discreet disposal into the napkin can be done while wiping the mouth. Small bites for new things was also always recommended as socially appropriate, to make a polite response more likely to succeed. That also requires small bites for the rest of the food so as to not alert anyone that something was new or suspect. (I failed on that part, I'm afraid!)

So, you could call discreet spitting out an international social skill of a high order (hey, they have to teach diplomats how to spit discreetly, we call that a useful skill!).

December 10, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterhedra

Dina - great post -- I featured it on The Lunch Tray today:

December 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBettina at The Lunch Tray

I need to teach my 4 year old daughter, who has Trisomy 21 (known as Down Syndrome), how to spit out her toothpaste. She doesn't feel the need to spit it out because she likes it (she actually eats it right off of the toothbrush.) :) I obviously need something that is edible, or non-toxic at the least, in case she swallows it, but not just anything lest she decides it's ok to drop any interesting thing into her mouth. Any ideas?

May 13, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterVicky

I think you should reach out to a speech therapist who specializing in feeding issues. Try Melanie Potock, aka My Munch Bug. She's on facebook and knows her stuff. Good luck. Dina

May 14, 2015 | Registered CommenterDina Rose

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