If you’re the kind of guy who has a cupboard of chilies alphabetized from “Aleppo” to “Zimbabwe Bird” (or who just dreams of one), you probably want to introduce your kid to the wonders of spicy food. But go about it wrong, and you’re not just putting their gastrointestinal system at risk — no small thing if they’re still in diapers — you’re also dooming yourself to a life of bland family dinners.
Self-described spice head Ed Lee isn’t going down that road with his 3-year-old daughter, Arden. The Korean-American chef is a 4-time James Beard Award nominee, owns 610 Magnolia and MilkWood in Louisville, Kentucky, and has earned widespread acclaim for his appearances on Top Chef and Mind of a Chef.
Despite his full plate, Lee tries to cook his family dinner 3 nights a week — and in each dish he sneaks a little heat for Arden’s pallet. But how does he get a toddler to willingly feel the burn? What’s too spicy? Lee’s got you covered. Here are his 8 tips for raising a “spice head.”
1. Don’t Give Them Any Warning
Never tell your child there are pepper flakes in the pasta sauce or warn them that the jalapeño ketchup you put on their hot dog might make their tongue tingle. “We just say, ‘Dinner’s ready. Eat,'” says Lee. “If you start to explain shit, kids start asking questions, which can derail their interest.” Basically, it’s the same way you approach eating Taco Bell.
2. Show Them It’s Delicious
Young children mimic their parents, so they’re more likely to eat what you’re eating, even if it isn’t initially appealing. “We made escargot the other day,” says Lee. “When we served Arden some, she said, ‘It looks like poopy.’ We explained what it was and began to eat. Ultimately, she ate 4 of them.'” That same tactic works when Lee is trying to get her to eat a spicy dish for the first time. Because if there’s one thing parents are unafraid of, it’s poop.
Flickr / Jamie Frater
3. Big Chunks Mean Big Heat
“We’ve all been eating a dish with peppers and taken the wrong bite,” says Lee. “Suddenly, you have a 5-alarm fire going off in your mouth.” To avoid these meltdowns, don’t cook dishes featuring big chunks of habaneros or serve sandwiches packed with pickled jalapeños. And definitely don’t use raw peppers — the seeds pack the most heat, and if any of that oil gets on their skin … just don’t use raw peppers.
4. Make Sure Your Spice Is Consistent
Lee likes using sauces and powders because they spread the spice evenly throughout a dish. His pantry includes harissa, Sriracha, and cayenne pepper. But the one he actually endorses is a version of the sweet Korean chili sauce gochujang. “It plays nicely with other flavors and adds an umami component,” he says. Because 3-year-olds in the Lee household appreciate a nice umami component.
5. Slowly Raise The Stakes
When you’re making a stew or braising meat, add up to a tablespoon of a spicy component. If your kid accepts the dish, add a teaspoon more a couple of months later. “You don’t want it to burn on the tongue at first, but you should be able to taste it,” says Lee. “Spicy ingredients shouldn’t be introduced as something really hot; they’re just another flavor.” And, if your kid doesn’t accept the dish but, rather, chucks it against the wall, maybe try a different spice.
6. Kids’ Tastes Aren’t Complicated
“As adults we’re always looking to up the spice and try complex flavors,” says Lee. “Kids are just happy with one note dishes.” If you’re braising a red meat, he recommends using nothing more than chicken stock, red wine, vegetables, salt, pepper and a little chili paste. This will give your kid a baseline of flavor. Save the more complicated stuff, like curries or your famous bacon-wrapped habanero pancakes, for when they’re a little older.
7. Have Some Backup Blandness
In case a dish is too hot – or simply not to their liking – Lee recommends always keeping tried and true favorites on hand as a backup, so your kid doesn’t go to bed hungry. Keep some mashed potatoes or mac and cheese ready on Scotch Bonnet chili-amped jerk chicken night.
8. Keep An Eye On Your Stash
“When my wife and I weren’t looking, my daughter stuck her finger in the gochujang sauce, because she thought it was ketchup,” says Lee. “She ate a giant glob of it and started crying. All I could tell her was, ‘The burning will go away.'” This advice also applies to grown-ups and things non-food related.