Your food preferences are dependent on all of your eating experiences throughout your life. These experiences mold you into the eater you are today, which is what I call your food bubble. While everyone has different food bubbles, it can cause problems if you’re trying to eat healthier foods. There are those who love diving into that quinoa and kale salad and others who just will not touch it. As dietitians we spend time trying to inspire healthy eating through articles and recipes but often that’s not enough to break someone’s food bubble. We have to go a bit deeper.
There are five main categories that help create your food bubble over time.
1. Cultural food influences. Does your family come from a culture of people who have strong food practices? As an Italian American I certainly relate to this. My family prepared foods with a strong Italian flavor profile, lots of oregano, tomatoes, garlic and peppers, making those foods some of my favorites. Those cultural flavors and traditions become your comfort zone. Even American traditions like Thanksgiving influence what you enjoy. Did your family make a classic green been casserole or prepare a different type of vegetable? These traditions weigh heavily on your food preferences.
2. Childhood experiences. Food conditioning from your childhood follows you through life. Did your parents make you eat peas when you hated them? Does that same hate follow you into adulthood? Sometimes good intentions like making a child clean their plate can backfire. Instead of that same child trying peas in a variety of ways as they grow up and actually finding they enjoy them, they may end up with a lifetime aversion because they had to gag them down.
Childhood is also a time where you may be influenced by what your parents like. I’ll never forget while working for the Ventura Healthy Schools Program I was tasked to make a fruit and yogurt smoothie demo in the classroom. Up marched a young girl who proudly said, “my mom hates fruits and vegetables and I do too…yuck!” I smiled and told her she didn’t have to take one if she didn’t want to but maybe she’d like to just try it out. She came up to me later and declared how much she loved it.
There’s a whole lot of conditioning that takes place in childhood from exposure to adult influences. Take a minute and look back, do you have any influences lingering?
3. Exposure to foods. The amount of exposure you have begins in childhood. Did you know you should expose a child at least 10 times to a new food before they’ll start eating it? That’s a lot. Kids do have the potential to like healthy foods. I read a blog post from Elena Paravantes that mentioned lentils was one of Greek kids favorite school lunches. Do kids in Greece have special taste buds? Of course not. When kids are highly exposed to chicken nuggets and french fries that’s what their palate will want. Kids in Greece are highly exposed to lentils and vegetables and they love those foods.
As you move into adulthood have you challenged yourself to try new foods or have you stayed secure in your food bubble? We all fall somewhere on a scale of 1 to 10 with our adult food exposure. Those who travel and love exploring different cuisines are likely to be more at a 10 while those who are fearful of new foods may stay around a 2. We’re not all going to become 10’s. I’m likely never going to try bone marrow no matter how trendy it is. However, if you’re around a 2 working your way up to a say a 6 or a place where you’re enjoying more plant based foods is a win.
4. Taste Preferences. Of course some of your taste preferences simply have to do to with your genetics. Supertasters are individuals who taste things with strong intensity. Being a supertaster means the bitter flavor of vegetables like asparagus may taste incredibly strong. This doesn’t mean it automatically creates a hatred of vegetables but it certainly can limit some of the foods you may enjoy.
5. Food/Life Experiences. Food preferences are often connected to fun experiences like say, funnel cake at the Fair. If I had to choose a dessert to have in my kitchen funnel cake wouldn’t make the list, but at a fair…it tastes so much better at the fair! Fun experiences don’t always revolve around sweets. Holiday meals, brunch with friends, the smell of Saturday grill night in the summer time. Everyone’s experiences differ.
Growing up we had a garden and one of the vegetables we grew were English peas. We’d play in the yard all day and we loved taking a “snack” break to shell the peas and eat them right there in the sunshine. I associate those peas with the nostalgic memories of playing in the yard on a hot summer day. I love the fresh crispness of those little peas. My husband? He dislikes all peas because he thinks of canned peas you got in the hot lunch line at school. All of these events shape your love and acceptance of different foods.
How to Move Outside your Food Bubble
While a food bubble includes all foods, for this article we’re going to narrow in on vegetables. The problem with having a limited palate is if you simply don’t like fruits and vegetables it is highly unlikely you will feel good, manage your weight and live a life free of chronic diseases. They’re just not food groups you can live without and should instead be what you eat most often on your plate. Finding ways to broaden your palate is important and it can be done. Here are some tactics that may help you to add more foods in your bubble.
– Try different cooking techniques. If you’re ok with steamed asparagus, try roasting or grilling it. What this does is introduce you to a new way of cooking that provides a completely different flavor profile. If you like it, then you can try the same cooking technique on a vegetable you haven’t been fond of in the past. For example, my husband used to absolutely, stubbornly hate zucchini because he associated it with soggy, over cooked rounds. One day I sliced a zucchini lengthwise in half, brushed it with oil, salt and pepper and threw the halves on the grill. This way the zucchini stays firm and is just fork tender. He now eats zucchini regularly simply because he tried eating it cooked differently. If you’ve never roasted or grilled vegetables before try it out. There’s something special about browning those veggies that may open up the door for you to enjoy a whole new variety of veggies.
Different cooking techniques can change the entire flavor of a vegetable so this one step can be a game changer. Personally I’m not a huge fan of raw sliced mushrooms on a salad but saute them in some wine and olive oil and they’re magical.
– Ease into it with food items that are familiar. If you’re not a big fan of vegetables I’ll be hard pressed to get you to try a kale and sweet potato salad no matter how good I think it is. It’s just too far off your radar. That’s ok. Stick with things that are more familiar like chicken tacos with tomatoes and peppers or something like tomato soup. If you only love iceberg lettuce, by all means eat it. I’d rather someone eat iceberg than nothing at all. You’re still getting some nutrients.
– Add fruit, especially for supertasters. If you love fruit but you’re not a fan of vegetables try combining the two for a better flavor profile. I like adding fruit like apples, pears or even berries to salad greens. Adding sweet fruits like ripe pears or peaches to bitter grains like quinoa completely changes the flavor and mellows out the bitter taste. Most people truly dislike beets but if you add something sweet like an orange glaze it can lessen the “dirt” flavor people associate with beets. You may find you enjoy the combination of flavors rather than just one strong isolated flavor.
– Dress them up. Liven up your vegetables by pairing them with fresh herbs, vinaigrette dressing, goat or feta cheese or spices. If plain steamed cauliflower sounds ho hum, try adding a little oil, sprinkle it with salt and curry powder and roast them. Yum! If curry is too over the top for you try sprinkling your veggies with a little garlic salt. This brings out a whole new flavor. A little bit of strong cheese like goat or feta cheese can really liven up your vegetables. Add it to salads or to roasted veggies like asparagus. By adding an orange glaze and goat cheese to my roasted beets I actually got my beet hating husband to eat them. He said, “they’re not something I’d want all the time but far better than regular beets”. I’ll take it!
– Give it another chance. I’ve found many people haven’t retried foods they don’t like since childhood. You never know if your tastes have changed over time and you may enjoy something you hated in your youth. My mother absolutely hates avocados, yet she has only tried it once when she was younger. While camping a few years back my sister and I whipped up some guacamole which on first pass my mother said, “I don’t know how you guys eat that stuff”. With much prompting, she tried it with a tortilla chip and you know what? She loved it. She’d never had avocados made into guacamole and had no idea it had that sort of flavor. Give things a try again. You don’t have to eat a huge plateful, just a small tasting.
If you struggle with finding vegetables you enjoy I hope some of these tips can help you broaden your food bubble. Eating 5 to 8 servings of fruits and vegetables a day is the cornerstone to good nutrition and health. Keep finding solutions that work for you.
Meri Raffetto is the founder of Real Living Nutrition, triplet mom and author of the Glycemic Index Diet for Dummies and coauthor of the Glycemic Index Cookbook for Dummies, and Mediterranean Diet Cookbook for Dummies.