I write a food blog. I read and try out new recipes constantly. I literally go through a giant bag of fruits and veggies every week from my CSA.
You wouldn't guess that I was a picky eater back in the day, would you?
It's true though. As a kid, my diet consisted of a lot of chicken fingers and fries, burgers and fries, fish sticks and fries. If french fries weren't involved, I probably wasn't eating it...unless it was Grandma's kale soup. That was delicious. (And yes, you read that right, I've been eating kale since the 90's. My hipster status: Ultimate.)
In light of the science on taste development, however, my picky eating habits weren't surprising at all. (Just a note on the links above before we move on. The first is to a pretty comprehensive peer-reviewed article on taste development, and the second is to an accurate synopsis of those findings from the European Food Information Council. Nerd points if you read the first one.) As these studies show, humans, unsurprisingly, generally prefer sweet flavors over bitter/sour flavors. So far as we know, this distinction develops as early as the womb. As in, you can track swallowing rates of a 32-week old fetus and they will swallow their amniotic fluid more when it tastes sweeter, and less when it tastes bitter. Crazy, right?
These preferences can be shaped by experience, however. For example, babies whose mothers drank a lot of carrot juice during pregnancy showed a preference for carrot-flavored cereal over plain cereal, while babies in a control group did not. This is an example of a foundational psychological principle called the mere exposure effect, which essentially says that the more you encounter something, the more you like it.
Beyond the mere exposure effect, however, the context in which children eat can also affect their eating habits. For example, typical restrictive strategies such as trying to minimize the amount of sweets children eat tend to paradoxically increase their desire for and eventual consumption of those foods (we all want what we can't have). Similarly, using sweets as an incentive to eat vegetables tends to only decrease kids' desire for vegetables, because you are setting up a context which supports the notion that sweets are pleasant and vegetables are unpleasant.
There are things that you can do to support healthy eating. Some good strategies, according to the research, are:
- Allowing kids a degree of autonomy in what and how much they eat
- Surrounding them with healthy food options
- Modeling enthusiastic eating of healthy foods
In retrospect, that last factor was really important for me when it came to eating healthy things like kale soup when I was a kid. I didn't have much choice in what I ate at Grandma's house, but she and Grandpa genuinely enjoyed the food she made, which set a good example. Of course, my Mom genuinely liked cous-cous and Thai food, but back in the day I wouldn't touch those with a ten foot pole, so none of these strategies are perfect.
As I got older, however, factor #1 was definitely the largest influence in my shift from picky eater to food explorer. I had always baked with my Mom and my Grandma, and so I had some foundational skills in the kitchen, like how to follow a recipe. As I gained independence and started cooking with friends and now husband, my horizons widened recipe by recipe, often softening the unfamiliar by introducing it in a familiar context. For example, the first time I was introduced to fish sauce was in a mac and cheese recipe from Ruhlman's Twenty. It took me until graduate school to try it. It was delicious.
Even now, I still struggle with some foods. Mushrooms are one (I'll eat them, but mostly in contexts where they are not the star, and preferably if they are coated in a strongly flavored sauce), and melons are another. I've always picked around them in fruit salad, much preferring blueberries or grapes or really anything other than the pale, saccharine sweet lumps with a vaguely vegetal aftertaste that others enjoyed with such gusto.
Yet, what have I been getting in my CSA for the last two weeks? Melons. And I wanted to like them! I thought to myself, "Okay, if they are ever going to be good, now is the time." I mean, they were so ripe that they were stinking up my whole apartment. So I cut one open, scooped out the seeds, and spooned out a bit of the juicy, deeply colored flesh.
It was... okay.
Yes, the flavor was sweeter and stronger than what you'd get from your typical grocery store melon. Yes, the texture was good and they were aromatic as hell. But still, that damn aftertaste ruined it for me. And so I was pretty tempted to give them to Aaron, who actually likes them.
The thing is though, Aaron isn't the kind of person to sit down and go to town on half a melon. Which would have meant that these melons would be sitting around stinking up my counter for DAYS. Not acceptable. Then, Aaron offered up a solution: sorbet.
Sorbet is a wonderful way to use up super ripe fruit to enjoy at your own convenience out of the freezer. Plus, it's unbelievably simple: all you need is the fruit, sugar, and water. Even if I didn't end up liking it, I wouldn't be wasting much time or money. But the thing was... I did like it! Somehow, between the sugar syrup and the freezing (Let's be real, it was probably the sugar. Thanks, in-born taste preferences!), the aftertaste disappeared, leaving me with a refreshingly melon-y sorbet.
This opened up my possibilities considerably, and I found myself open to things I would have passed over in the past, like this melon-lime slushy. Delicious! (The tequila doesn't hurt, either.)
All this melon melodrama (melon-drama?) is to say, try things! Use the strategies from the taste development literature to up your chances of success by 1) Trying them in a context you choose, whether that be a recipe or a restaurant, and 2) Trying them with people who like them, and know how to prepare them properly. It makes a big difference. And if that doesn't work, just try again. Eventually the mere exposure effect will pick up the slack.