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Why you hate certain foods (& how to like them if you want)

Posted Apr 16 2010 12:00am
Were you a picky eater as a kid? It’s quite common for children to go through a phase where they won’t touch anything but noodles, American cheese, chicken nuggets, and Tater Tots -- what I like to call the “tan foods.” New menu items, especially vegetables, are regarded with the utmost suspicion. This can be a wee bit trying, wouldn’t you say, parents?

As usual, this instinct exists for a good reason. Kids’ preference for bland, safe meals came in handy during our evolutionary period, when natural selection favored children who stuck to familiar foods and didn’t go nibbling on poisonous plants.

(Modern children who resist new foods, though, take in fewer nutrients than those who eat a more diverse diet, according to a recent study .)

Over time, most of us become more adventurous eaters. We learn to enjoy stronger, complex, adult flavors -- think of aged cheeses, garlic, fish, olives, and wine. But some people retain a fussy palate throughout their lives. We all know someone with a list of food dislikes a mile long, some of which seem kind of, well, arbitrary.

I’m not talking about allergies or food intolerances. If your body reacts negatively to gluten or dairy, you need to respect that. But what about the foods we just can’t stand, for no other reason than we can’t stand them?

Cilantro: love it or hate it

A recent New York Times article examines cilantro , one of those foods that inspires visceral dislike in many people, including Julia Child, who said that she would “throw it on the floor” if she encountered it on her plate.

Cilantro is an herb frequently used in Asian and Latin-American cuisines. It has an assertive flavor described by some detractors as “buggy” and others as “soapy.” When I first tasted cilantro, I immediately thought of Lemon Joy dish detergent. Over time, though, I’ve learned to appreciate its je ne sais quoi. Fresh salsa wouldn’t taste the same without it. (My husband still can’t stand cilantro, so I don’t use it at home.)

How do we decide to like something or not? It turns out that we still seek the familiar and the safe when it comes to food, even as adults. According to the Times, whenever we taste a new food, we unconsciously search our memories for past experiences that tell us how to evaluate it. If it tastes like something we’ve eaten before and enjoyed, then we react with pleasure. If it reminds us of something that might poison us (like insects or soap), we react with distaste.

Unless we grew up in Asia or Latin America, we probably don’t associate the flavor of cilantro with something good to eat. In the same way, if your parents never pressed you to expand your horizons beyond the tan foods, if no one insisted you try new dishes, you may remain a picky eater into adulthood.

Broccoli again?

Now that you’re a grownup, you can’t afford to avoid healthy foods, especially vegetables, just because you never learned to like them as a kid. And the good news is, it’s not too late to cultivate a taste for vegetables. Just as with children, repetition is key. You need to expose your taste buds to the food over and over again, until it begins to seem familiar.

Why not borrow other parental tactics , as well? Present the vegetable in many different forms. Combine it with something you already like. If you hate broccoli, for example, put some steamed broccoli on a pizza, have a broccoli and cheese omelet, or make cream of broccoli soup. If you’re not wild about the results, don’t give up. Some parenting experts say it takes 10 to 15 appearances for a new food to be accepted by a fussy eater.

Over time, you might find yourself beginning to appreciate the flavor of broccoli, as I did with cilantro. You may never become a complete fan, but at least you won’t want to throw it on the floor.

Text copyright © 2010 Eleanor Kohlsaat LLC
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