In my last STEM for Kids post I introduced the Exploring the Five Senses for Babies, Toddlers, and Preschoolers Series with the Sense of Touch. My kids and I enjoyed the sense of touch activities, especially because they were simple and age appropriate for my kids. The five senses are a great way for young children to begin to understand their bodies and the world around them.

This month we are doing an experiment for our preschoolers, toddlers, and babies to explore their sense of taste. I’m interested to learn more about the senses of taste because I love food! I love sweet and juicy fruit, I love salty and crunchy chips, I love sour and crisp pickles, I love bitter and hot coffee, and I love savory and rich sharp cheddar. I bet you noticed how I combined my sense of taste with my sense of touch to describe those flavors. 😉

So far my kids are not very picky eaters so I’ve been able to introduce them to many of the delightful flavors of food. 

Let’s talk about the Sense of Taste

We taste the food we eat using our tongues. The tongue’s surface is covered in small bumps we can see called papillae. Each papillae has hundreds of taste buds. We have thousands of taste buds on our tongues. When we start to chew our saliva begins to break down the food and this allows the taste buds to recognize different tastes. They then send signals to our brains to let us know how foods taste different. 

There are five basic tastes that our tongues can recognize. These five tastes are: Sweet, Salty, Sour, Bitter, and Savory (Umami). Below I’ll go into more detailed explanations of each taste. 

Sweet

Sweet taste is one of the most pleasing to most people. It makes sense biologically that sweet is a desirable taste because sugar is a core source of energy for the body. Some examples of sweet foods are: sugar, berries, grapes, desserts, maple syrup, honey, jam, and sweet potatoes. 

Salty

The sodium chloride taste receptor is the most simple taste receptor in our mouth. Salt intake is crucial for a healthy body, so we are programmed to like small amounts of salt but dislike large amounts. This preference can change with increased expose to salt, but it can also be reversed. Some examples of salty foods are: table salt, crackers, pretzels, chips, processed meats, fries, and bacon.

Sour

Sourness is how we taste acidity in foods. When we taste acidic solutions our taste buds are identifying hydrogen ions from acids found in our foods. It can cause you to feel a puckering sensation in your mouth. Some examples of sour foods are: lemons, limes, pickles, sourdough bread, yogurt, vinegar, green apples, sour cream, buttermilk, and rhubarb.

Bitter

Bitter taste is the most sensitive of the five tastes. Bitter foods are often off-putting. I was fascinated to learn that this was important in evolution to help avoid eating poisonous plants which were often bitter. Now we have evolved to enjoy safe bitter foods, especially because they can be cooked and processed to more pleasant taste. Some examples of bitter foods are: coffee, raw cocoa (and very dark chocolate), some leafy greens such as kale and arugula, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, hops in beer, olives, and citrus peels. 

 

Savory (Umami)

This is a taste that is not as well know as the first four. It’s named umami (Japanese word for pleasant savory taste) because it was discovered by Japanese scientists. It is caused by glutamic acid or aspartic acid. Glutamic acid is found in ripe tomatoes, meat, and strong cheese, and soy sauce. Aspartic acid is in asparagus. Some more examples of savory foods are: shiitake mushrooms, fermented foods, green tea, seafood, carrots, and potatoes, nuts, and legumes. 

 

I was surprised to learn that spicy is not a taste. It is actually a heat and pain signal and transmitted through the same nerves that send the touch sensation to your brain. 

Another interesting discussion around taste is flavor. Many distinct flavors beyond the five tastes actually are differentiated not by taste, but by our sense of smell (and also possibly touch/texture). So to learn more about flavors we will have experiments in our sense of smell post that will combine these two senses. 

You can read and learn more about the science behind the sense of taste at these helpful resources:

“How does our sense of taste work?” from the U.S. National Library of Medicine

“Taste” from Wikipedia

“The five basic tastes” from Newly Weds Foods

Below, are three experiments for your babies, toddlers and preschoolers to learn about their sense of taste. The experiments are: “Learning about our tongues,” a fun way for kids to learn about their body part that helps them taste;  Which taste?” an experiment to introduce the five different tastes to your child; and “Blind tasting,” an experiment to identify foods using only our mouths.


Learning about our tongues

This is a great silly experiment to learn about tongues for babies and toddlers, and preschoolers will get to practice lounge twisters too! 

Materials needed:

  • Mirror

Safety:

You and your children will be touching your tongue with your fingers in this experiment. Make sure your hands are washed and clean before beginning the experiment and also wash them again after finishing the experiment to prevent the spread of germs. 

Procedure: 

  1. Help your child wash their hands.
  2. Sit or stand in front of a mirror. 

    This is going to be fun!

  3. Stick out your tongue, point to it and tell your kids this is a tongue. Then ask them to stick their tongue out with you.

    I love our matching moon shirts (my husband has one too)!

  4. Play around by trying these activities to help your kids learn more about their tongues:
    • How far can you stick your tongue out? 
    • Can you move it in a circle? 
    • Can you move it up, down, left, and right? 
    • How does it feel?
    • What color is your tongue?
    • Can you see the bumps (papillae) on your tongue in the mirror and feel them on your fingers?
    • Can you curl your tongue into a tube?
    • Can you touch your nose with your tongue?
    • Can you turn your tongue over?
  5. For preschoolers: Can you say a tongue twister? 
    • Sally sells seashells at the sea shore
    • If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers, how many pickled peppers would Peter Piper pick?
    • How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

What happened:

Your child learned all about their tongue. The tongue has many muscles which allow it to move in all directions. They could see and feel the papillae which hold our taste buds and the saliva which keeps our tongues moist and helps break down food. They learned how the tongue moves when we speak to help us talk. 


Which taste?

In this experiment you will explain the five basic tastes to your child. You will then give them five foods and help them identify which taste the food represents. 

This experiment is appropriate for children age 1+. Preschool age children will be able to attempt to identify the taste category on their own. The babies and toddlers will have fun tasting the foods and you can explain to them the category where it belongs. 

Materials needed: 

  • Sweet food – examples are: raw sugar, maple syrup, honey, cookie, berry, candy
  • Salty food – examples are: table salt, pretzel sticks, chips, crackers
  • Sour food – examples are: lemon, plain greek yogurt, sourdough bread, pickles
  • Bitter food – examples are: dark chocolate, olive, kale, broccoli
  • Savory food – examples are: cheddar cheese, soy sauce, ripe tomato, shiitake mushrooms
  • 5 index cards
  • Pen or maker

Safety:

Food allergies and choking are the two safety concerns here. If your child has a food allergy to any of the foods I suggested, please avoid that food and select something else that is safe for your child to eat.

Choking hazard – Choking is a risk whenever our young children eat. Make sure the foods are cut into small portions and that the children know to chew the food well before swallowing. If your baby does not have teeth yet or can’t chew well, use only soft foods and/or purees. 

It is important, especially as a parent, to know CPR and First Aid. I take refresher courses regularly and it has come in handy. I once had to do the Heimlich maneuver on my son when he was choking on popcorn. My training and quick response helped save his life.

Procedure: 

  1. Write Sweet, Salty, Sour, Bitter, and Savory (Umami) on each on individual index cards.
  2. Place the cards on the table in front of your child, then explain each taste to your child (below are examples of how I explained each taste to my children):
    • Sweet taste is caused by sugars, when you taste sweet it is usually pleasurable. Some examples of sweet foods are: sugar, syrup, honey, cakes, and cookies.

      My kids started off interested in my lecture…

    • Salty taste is caused by salts. When you taste salty usually you want more and become thirsty. Some examples of salty foods are: salt, pretzels, chips, processed meats.
    • Sour taste is caused by acidity. When you taste sour it can make your lips pucker. Some examples of sour foods are: citrus fruits, sourdough bread, yogurt, and sour candies.
    • Bitter taste comes from many plant based foods and originally helped humans avoid eating poisonous plants. We only eat safe bitter foods now. When you taste bitter foods it often unpleasant or disagreeable at first. Some bitter foods are: coffee, unsweetened cocoa, olives, citrus peel, and kale.

      I quickly lost my audience…but the explanations are important!

    • Savory (also known as umami – the Japanese word meaning “pleasant savory taste”) means a pleasant, full flavor. Umami taste is found in meats, cheese, soy sauce, broths, and fermented products. 
  3. Bring a plate with your 5 prepared foods to the table in front of your child.
  4. Ask your child to taste the foods, one at a time, and then identify the taste (or you can identify it for them) then place in front of the card correct card. 
  5. Repeat with all 5 tastes.
  6. You can also do this more than once, choosing different foods in each category for the second round.

    My kids loved tasting everything, and my son did great picking the correct taste for each food. They immediately wanted to do it again!

What happened:

Your child learned how their tongue can help them differentiate between tastes. They are also starting to learn what they like and don’t like to taste. Some kids might prefer the sweet taste, and some the salt or the savory. This is a great way to introduce new foods and learn how their body and mind work together to identify taste. 


 

Blind tasting

Now that our kids understand the five tastes, let’s test their skills by letting them taste a food with their eyes closed and nose plugged and guessing what it is! This experiment will work best for preschoolers, but younger kids will like playing along too (with our without their eyes and nose closed). 

Materials needed:

  • Blindfold (optional)
  • 3-5 foods that your children know well (examples: cheese, yogurt, banana, apple, pretzel, cracker, cookie)

Safety: 

Food allergies and choking are the two safety concerns here. If your child has a food allergy to any of the foods I suggested, please avoid that food and select something else that is safe for your child to eat.

Choking hazard – Choking is a risk whenever our young children eat. Make sure the foods are cut into small portions and that the children know to chew the food well before swallowing. If your baby does not have teeth yet or can’t chew well, use only soft foods and/or purees. 

It is important, especially as a parent, to know CPR and First Aid. I take refresher courses regularly and it has come in handy. I once had to do the Heimlich maneuver on my son when he was choking on popcorn. My training and quick response helped save his life.

The children may be uncomfortable closing their eyes and plugging their noses. If they do not want to do one or both of these two things, then please don’t force them. They can proceed with the experiment without their eyes closed or nose plugged and just enjoy tasting foods and guessing what they are. 

Procedure: 

  1. Blindfold your child or ask them to close their eyes (covering eyes with hands worked best for my kids).
  2. You or your child will place the first food in their mouth.

    My son kept peeking so my husband helped cover his eyes while I fed him. 🙂

    Then my son wanted to help cover my daughter’s eyes (I think she’s still peeking!)

  3. Ask what food they think it is? 

    Crackers were easy for my baby girl to guess (my kids got comfortable closing their own eyes after a few rounds of tasting food).

  4. Add in some Sense of Touch fun by asking them to move the food around in their mouth and try to describe the texture (ex: a carrot is hard, cheese is firm but chewy, pear is soft and slippery, grape is smooth, etc..) 

    “This is a cracker! It’s salty, hard and crunchy.”

  5. Can your child identify which of the five tastes the food represents?
  6. Repeat steps 1 through 5 with your child plugging their nose.

    My kids had no trouble identifying the taste of a strawberry with their nose plugged.

What happened:

Your child is learning to use the sense of taste alone (without the help of their sense of sight and smell) to identify foods. This also can help picky eaters who sometimes decide they don’t want to eat something based how it looks. When they see what they’re going to eat they can immediately make a judgment.

This experiment also teaches your child how their sense of smell often plays a huge role in identifying and tasting foods. In this experiment the children are forced to let their tongue decide what the food is and if they like it or not, without the help of smell.


 

My family had so much fun tasting foods and learning about how they taste differently. This was definitely one of my kids favorite STEM for Kids experiments we’ve done in awhile.

I tried to think of which of the five tastes I prefer, but I honestly cannot choose. I love sweet treats, but I enjoy eating them when I have something salty to counteract the sweetness. I really enjoy bitter coffee and savory cheeses. I drink lemon water every morning and enjoy the sour flavor. I am grateful for all five tastes and that I can enjoy each of them daily. 🙂 

The in the next post for the Exploring the Five Senses for Babies, Toddlers, and Preschoolers Series we will explore sense of smell. The sense of smell is closely tied to the sense of taste, so it will be fun for the kids to put the two senses together. 

Did you learn something new about the sense of taste after reading this post? What is your favorite taste? 

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