Taste Psychology: Learning To Love Foods You Don’t Like

I generally don’t like to cut and paste posts word for word, but I can’t seem to find a link to this one! It’s written by Darya Pino, aka Summer Tomato, and I received it directly from her via email at darya.pino@summertomato.com. Her blog is summertomato.com, but when I try to go there, I get an odd placeholder screen. So please, check her out – maybe later when the technology issues have cleared up. At any rate, this is a message that I really needed to hear today as my veggie intake is still way lower than I (and Traci) would like…

Chances are there are foods you love now that you hated as a kid. But how many foods do you still avoid just because you think you don’t like them?

Young palates struggle with things like mustard, onions and asparagus, and instead prefer more bland, less intense flavors. But as adults we sometimes cling to these preferences without ever stopping to question the value or meaning of our opinions.

But in reality, what joy is there in being a picky eater?

While it’s true that taste is subjective, I’ve never heard a convincing argument that it’s better to dislike a food than to like one. It is certainly more fun to like things, and it is often far more convenient. Just try getting a serious chef to make a signature dish without onions. It isn’t easy.

But is it possible to learn to like a food if you don’t like the taste?

It turns out that most of the time we decide what we like before we bother to experience it, and this prejudice clouds our perception of what we actually encounter. This effect of perception bias has been demonstrated repeatedly in psychology experiments where food color and taste have been manipulated. To see this for yourself, use food coloring to alter the appearance of several bowls of lemon Jell-O and have your friends guess what flavors they are tasting. Very few will say they taste lemon unless the color is still yellow.

The psychology of taste is further complicated by our natural aversion to things that are new or different from what we are expecting. Foods with unique textures such as mushrooms and okra often fall victim to this bias. In these cases the unfamiliarity and strangeness of the texture makes us slightly uncomfortable, and we interpret this feeling as a personal dislike. However, this reaction reflects the food’s uniqueness rather than its true character.

Our tendency to dislike and often hate things that extend beyond our perceptual comfort zones is explored in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. He argues that we make snap judgments about everything we encounter based on prior experience. And while this ability can sometimes help us make wise decisions, it can also explain why pilot testing can’t predict the success of new concept T.V. shows like Seinfeld.

In other words, sometimes our first impressions are wrong.

Knowing about this bias can help you overcome aversions to foods you think you don’t like, and even learn to love them. The first step is deciding that there is value in enjoying a food you currently do not enjoy. I’m not saying you should develop an appreciation for three courses of frozen Bertolli pasta, but most fresh, natural whole foods are worth rediscovering for both taste and culture.

The second step is dedicating yourself to keep trying the rejected food until you find it prepared in a way you like. This is not as bad as it sounds, since there is a good chance that the reason you do not like a food in the first place is because what you were served as a child was either canned, frozen or of industrial (low) quality. Since peaches and plums taste completely different when you get them at the farmers market, doesn’t it stand to reason that the same is true for green beans, broccoli and beets? Also, with each venture your taste will become more acclimated to the flavor and your aversion will dissipate.

Fine dining represents another great opportunity to explore foods you haven’t enjoyed in the past. I was finally won over on brussels sprouts after a spectacular meal in San Francisco, and now consider them one of my favorite autumn ingredients.

Even if a certain food doesn’t end up on your favorites list, learning to at least enjoy it in a casual way will enrich your life and help you develop an appreciation for new and unique experiences. The Chinese culture pays particular reverence to textures in food, and this attitude allows them to enjoy a far more diverse and interesting range of ingredients than any Western culture.

The key word here is “enjoy.” Eating vegetables is undeniably healthy, but the best reason to eat broccoli is that you absolutely love it.

What foods do you hate? Are you ready to get over it?

Originally published October 5, 2009.

My Salad Days

One of my goals for this week is to have 1/2 cup of leafy greens per day. And pureed in a green drink doesn’t count.

I’ve tried this before, you know. When I was 29 years old, I had a goal to learn to eat salad by the time I was 30. At the time, I was attending a Wednesday evening church service, and there was a dinner beforehand. Two children from the church were making me a salad each Wednesday, and then I’d doctor it up with “good stuff” like bacon, croutons, boiled eggs, meats and plenty of honey mustard dressing. Each Wednesday, I’d eat one more bite that the previous week. I made it to three or four bites, and then I turned thirty, when I proclaimed,”Wait, I’m 30 now. I don’t HAVE to eat salad if I don’t want to!”

The difference in then and now is remarkable. Then, I took a bunch of stuff that I didn’t like and smothered it with tastier but far less healthier toppings. Now, some 15 years later, I’m trying new things and incorporating what I like into the salad. And yes, the salads are small, but I’m learning to like what I’m eating and hope to add to it, both new ingredients and the amount of what I am eating.

It’s a work-in-progress, for sure. The first day or so, I topped lettuce with my quinoa pilaf and heated it a little to soften the crisp. When I mastered that, the next couple of days I got a grilled chicken salad at Chick-Fil-A. The first day, I just wrapped lettuce around the chicken and ate it, but then moved to eating it with a fork like a normal person. Last night, I actually made a little salad consisting of romaine, cherry tomatoes, mandarin oranges, pomegranate arils and grilled shrimp. Following is what I made on Saturday, as well as proof that I ate it all.

                       

Right now, I like a mix of fruit and vegetables, as well as the addition of a lean meat. As well as raspberry balsamic vinaigrette, on the side, of course. I also like the dark green romaine leaves, in little bited-sized pieces, not the crispy lighter leaves. This week, I hope to try to replace the lean meat with one of my red quinoa burgers or perhaps even some seasoned tofu; tomorrow, though, I’m going to a lunch meeting at Longhorn, and I’m actually excited about trying their Grilled Chicken and Strawberry Salad.

BTW, nutritionist Traci has been saying all along that she wasn’t going to release me until she and I ate a salad together. I suppose we’re getting a little closer to that day, but until this week, I told her that she’d be stuck with me for life.

In closing, I looked back at the early entries on this blog, and I think this quote froma post titled “What Will I Eat?” sums up the changes I have made in just 10 months, “…And I need to learn to eat some vegetables, which scares me. I generally only like the high-carb veggies, which I suspect will be limited. I know I can make this work, though.”

Officially Unexcited About Lunch

Today is Meatless Monday, and while I’m excited to have one of my fave quinoa dishes for lunch, there’s a new addition to it: lettuce. Half a cup. Part of my challenge to get more vegetables.

I can do this. I’ve lost 70+ lbs.; how hard can lettuce be?

I’m trying to make it easy. Using Romaine. Tore it into bite size pieces. Having one piece of lettuce per fork of quinoa pilaf. Heated it ever so slightly to kill the crunch.

Down four bites already…I can’t wait to email Traci a pic of the empty plate.

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All About Eggplant

I’ve put it off as long as I can; I’m making the Spiced Eggplant-Lentil Salad with Mango that I’ve been challenged to make.

I had to do online research to figure out how to prepare these eggplants! In my 44 years of living, I’ve never prepared one, and I can’t remember seeing my mother or grandmother prepare one either.  Here is a great primer on eggplant prep.

Other fun facts on eggplant:

  • The seeds are edible; you don’t remove them.
  • The eggplant is a member of the nightshade family – along with the tomato and potato – and is technically a fruit.
  • Eggplant is low in calories and fat but high in fiber. It is a source of potassium, iron and protein.
  • The American eggplant, also referred to as the Western eggplant, is available all year round but it will be found most readily available in local markets in the late summer to early fall, with August and September being their peak season.
  • When selecting an eggplant, look for one that has a shiny, smooth skin that does not have bruises or blemishes. It should feel heavy for its size and when tapped on it should sound solid and not hollow.
  • Another method of choosing an eggplant is to check as to whether it is a male or female. The male generally has fewer seeds, making it less bitter. The male eggplant is rounder and smoother on the bottom (blossom end) where the female has an indentation similar to a dash on its bottom.

P.S. Recently, I wrote about an eggplant shortage. I ended up seeing them in Wal-Mart, but on Wednesday, Traci said they were back in  the stores. I didn’t see any in Publix yesterday, though.

Give Corn a Chance

In a recent nutrition meeting with Traci, she referred to corn as a vegetable, and I immediately corrected her with, “Corn isn’t a vegetable; it’s a starch!”

I’ve long demonized corn, and it probably goes back to Weight Watchers days when corn didn’t count as a vegetable.  (And I think that’s still the same in WW, although I’m not sure.)

When Traci replied, “Of course it’s a vegetable,” I began to rethink corn. That’s why I was excited to see this reminder in a recent e-mail from the Nutrition Diva:

Ask the Diva: Is Corn Really Bad For You?

Q. A friend of mine scolds me when I put corn in salads or roast ears in the summer, saying there is no nutritional goodness in corn. “It’s all bad carbs and sugar!” she says. But I love corn. Seriously, it’s my favorite. Looking online, I’ve found reports claiming corn is a great source of fiber and protein and other sources supporting my friend’s claims.  So which is it? Is corn a good source of nutrients, or should I cut it out of my diet?

A. The truth about corn lies somewhere between “all bad carbs and sugar,” and “great source of fiber and protein.” A lot depends on what you’re comparing it to!  It’s true that corn is quite a bit higher in natural sugars and calories than most green vegetables. On the other hand, it is higher in fiber and protein–although I still wouldn’t consider it a “great” source of protein.  Because you love corn so much, I think you should feel free to enjoy it–especially when it’s in season. Freshly-picked corn is one of the great pleasures of summer!  But because it’s so high in carbohydrates, I suggest thinking of it as a “starch” rather than a vegetable. In other words, it’s OK to enjoy corn instead of bread or potatoes; just don’t skimp on the other veggies.

Beet Chips, Take Three

Twice I have tried this recipe for beet chips, and twice I have burned them. A friend tried the recipe today and had some words of wisdom: 1) She used parchment paper; 2) She used large beets from Earth Fare; and 3) She cooked at 375 degrees for 20 minutes, turned them, then babysat the oven for another 5 to 10 minutes. She said they turned out “real nice.”

Here is the original recipe. Going to use this one again today, but use the hints above.

Ingredients

  • 2 medium beets
  • 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil (I’m using Pam olive oil spray instead.)
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees, with racks in upper and lower thirds. Peel beets and slice 1/16 inch thick with a mandoline. In a large bowl, toss beets with extra-virgin olive oil.
  2. On two rimmed baking sheets (or use one sheet and bake in two batches), arrange beets in a single layer. Stack another rimmed baking sheet on top of each. Bake until edges of beets begin to dry out, about 20 minutes. Uncover and rotate sheets. Bake 10 to 20 minutes, removing chips as they become lightened in color. Transfer to a wire rack; chips will crisp up as they cool.

A Picture is Worth 1000 Words…My Grocery Cart Today

Looked down at my grocery cart this afternoon, and it startled even me! Carrots, beets, broccoli, spinach and kale? This reflects some huge changes that have taken place in my life since September.

To CSA or Not to CSA, That is the Question

Over the last 20 years, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) has become a popular way for consumers to buy local, seasonal food directly from a farmer. Here are the basics: a farmer offers a certain number of “shares” to the public. Typically the share consists of a box of vegetables, but other farm products may be included. Interested consumers purchase a share (aka a “membership” or a “subscription”) and in return receive a box (bag, basket) of seasonal produce each week throughout the farming season.

Thinking about signing up for a CSA but want to learn more about the idea before you commit? Click here to read a good article on CSAs, including the good (a lot), the bad (not much) and the green (the food and delivery method).

Gramma: The Original Sneaky Chef

Following is the text of a speech I gave today at Toastmasters. I have been thinking about this for a while, and had even started drafting a blog post about it. I was surprised that I choked up at the end. That’s not like me to get all emotional. Probably because I DID get choked up, I got “best speech” today!

For the last five months, I’ve been on a mission to improve my eating habits. I’m working with a nutritionist who is transforming me from a junk food junkie to a wanna-be vegetarian. Since September, I’ve made some significant changes. First, I’ve probably eaten more vegetables in five months than I did my first 43-years of living.  Secondly, fast food is no longer a part of my life. Heck, for me, fast food is now a natural peanut butter sandwich. Finally, I have developed a new kinship with my grandmother, who actually passed away in June.

Like the Sesame Street song says, one of these things is not like the other. You probably get the veggie part, as well as the fast food ban, but a closer relationship with my grandmother, who passed away in June? It surprised me, too. My grandmother was a very traditional Southern cook, and while her food was delicious, I can’t say that it would be considered particularly healthy. Grandma was known for her holiday spreads, and she didn’t spare fat, calories or salt when making them. Grandma also loved to cook, and for me, well, it’s really just a means to an end and certainly no particular joy.  But despite those differences, much of what I’m incorporating into this new healthy lifestyle, I actually learned from Gramma years ago. Today, I want to share a few of those lessons with you.

Lesson Number One: Hide healthy foods or “If it offends, then blend!”
When I started working with a nutritionist, I told her point blank that I didn’t eat vegetables and didn’t think that I would be able to start. She told me about a great cookbook by the “Sneaky Chef” that involved pureeing vegetables and adding them to otherwise normal food like meatloaf, meatballs, even spaghetti sauce. The first time I added “green puree” to meatloaf, I was amazed. It tasted like meatloaf, and I couldn’t even taste the broccoli and spinach.

I shared my success story with my mother, who reminded me that my grandmother lovingly did this with the celery in her Thanksgiving stuffing. It seems that even as a child I didn’t like vegetables, and I wouldn’t eat stuffing with chunky celery pieces. So Grandma, a woman well before the Sneaky Chef, started pureeing the celery and adding it in to the stuffing. Every year, I would get my own little pan of seemingly celery free stuffing, and I was none the wiser.

Lesson Number Two: Eat at the table.
Every holiday at Gramma’s house involved a large spread, and every year from the time I was old enough to feed myself until my last dinner at Gramma’s house, I sat at “the kid’s table.” You know the one, the card table in the living room. The only requirements seemed to be that 1) you were once a kid, and 2) you were unmarried. The kid’s table was usually hastily thrown together with mismatched chairs, paper plates or unbreakable china, and paper napkins, but it was important to Gramma that we sat at a table.

Fast forward to just this month, when I read Food Rules by Michael Pollan:

58. Do all of your eating at a table. No, a desk is not a table. If we eat while we’re working or watching TV or driving, we eat mindlessly–and as a result eat a lot more than we would if we were eating at a table, paying attention to what we’re doing.

So it turns out that once again, Gramma knew what was important.

Lesson Number Three: Waste Not, Want Not
Once Grandma sent Sister and me to the store for carrots. Thinking of Gramma and all that she had to cook, we purchased fresh carrots that were already washed, peeled and sliced. Instead of being excited that much of the work had been done for her, she scolded us for being so wasteful.  A child of the Great Depression, she was very frugal; she couldn’t believe anyone would pay more for someone to prepare carrots, a job she found simple and even enjoyable. She could also find a use for every part of that carrot.

When I started eating healthier, I purchased those great prepared vegetables in plastic bags, and from time to time, I still do. But now that I have started cooking them more, thus spending more, I realize that Gramma’s way is not only the best, but the least expensive. And like Gramma, I now have a use for every part of a vegetable: a compost bin. Six months from now, today’s vegetable waste will be wonderful compost that I can use to supplement the soil where – who knows – I may even grow my own vegetables.

In closing, author Charles W. Shedd once said, “Some of the world’s best educators are grandparents.” It took me a while to realize it, but truer works have never been spoken. Gramma didn’t live long enough to see me eat a piece of celery or eat every meal at the table, but I know that she was beaming in heaven when she saw me peeling those carrots.