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Food For Thought: A Matter of Taste
Can you teach yourself to like new foods?
It may come as a surprise to you but I was once a pretty picky eater.
I had the not uncommon aversion to sauces and spicy things that many kids have, but it also extended to any kind of cooked tomato product, which had me avoiding most pasta sauce and pizza until I was a teenager. I’ve only been able to get my head around ketchup now that I’m in my 40s. I also had sensory issues with certain textures - crunchy and creamy were good, but squishy or even slight slippery were not good at all. Even the bubbles of a carbonated drink were too much. Add to that a teenager experimentation with vegetarianism and I’m sure I was a real treat.
But somewhere along the way something clicked into place and made me the adventurous eater I am now.
I suspect it wasn’t just one thing that clicked. Maturing tastebuds, peer pressure, and an interest in the wider world’s possibilities all had a role. Even today there are quite a few things I don’t exactly like (texture is almost always the reason), but there isn’t too much I’m not willing to taste, at least a few times.
So I always find it a little interesting when I encounter adults with severely limited palates. With kids, I get it. There are some pretty reasonable-sounding evolutionary reasons. And I’m not talking about adults who dislike shrimp cocktail, goat’s cheese, or really hate pickles. I’m talking about the folks whose their friends say “Oh, we can’t meet up at X restaurant because So-And-So is coming. They won’t like anything.”
Now, I’m not a doctor, an occupational therapist, or a medical professional of any kind and if you’ve got issues that limit your food intake to the blandest of the bland and/or the kids’ menu you’d best consult one of those. But I do know a thing or two about food and how I’ve been able to cultivate new tastes, even ones that initially made me a bit squeamish.
So here are some tips that work for me, and might just work for you too:
Consider the texture. This was a big one for me. Braised sweetbreads? Ewww. Crispy fried ones? Great! If you’ve got bad memories of a ingredient or a dish consider that it may have simply been a lousy recipe. Boiled brussels sprouts are terrible but roasted are delicious. Experiment with cooking methods because they can dramatically change the results.
Window shop. Pinterest in one of the best places to browse and find recipes that are similar to things you already like. A quick search of “chicken and rice” yields dozens of possibilities with both familiar and not-so-familiar flavours. Start a pin board of anything that even vaguely strikes your interest. Find something you might like? Search for more dishes from that cuisine and see if you like where it goes.
Look for similar flavours. If you like Italian food there’s a pretty good chance you’ll like Greek food, and from there you can easily broaden your horizons to other Mediterranean cuisines with similar, though notably different flavour profiles like Moroccan. Okay with some of the familiar dishes of Indian cuisine? Branch out to some from a different region. Consider the patterns of trade and colonial history and follow the flavours you like around the globe. The history of a spice like cardamom can lead in you many different directions.
Take the pressure off. Forcing a kid to sit at the table with a big portion of something new is going to result in tears, so why put similar pressure on yourself? Order something different as an appetizer (and share!), ask to try a bite of a friend’s dish, or even get the smallest portion of takeout and eat it in the privacy of your own home with no one to judge or stress you. You don’t have to commit to a whole meal of something or buy a pile of pricy ingredients you’ll never use again.
Make it a routine. Scope out your grocery store and commit to trying something new once a week. You probably have a smartphone in your pocket to find recipes or help with ID, so pick something unfamiliar and work it into a meal. New types of fruit are always an easy choice and different types of greens can often be cooked in similar ways. If you have kids this is a great way to get them involved and they are far more likely to try it if they get to choose it.
Use gateway drugs. Perhaps drugs aren’t the best analogy but sugar and salt certainly are compelling. The sweets, bakery goods, and snack aisles of different grocery stores can yield a treasure trove of new things to taste. Shrimp flavoured chips, salty tamarind candy, buns with sweet and savoury fillings, and fruit and floral drinks are great (and low-cost) ways to try something new. If you get a taste for the snacks you’ll be back.
But most important? Keep trying. It is said that it takes repeated exposure, often more than a dozen times, to get children to try a new food. Can you honestly say that you’ve tested your limits that often? Even if you aren’t a picky eater there are probably foods you’ve long since assumed you don’t like but that might deserve another chance. So whether your motivation is to enjoy a raw oyster or to simply survive takeout night with friends don’t be afraid to try something brand new or revisit an old nemesis. You might even find something delicious.