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How to Love Your Vegetables

Updated: Apr 30, 2020

Or at least not hate them...

Maybe you live in a house with people who generally avoid vegetables, or maybe you don't care for them yourself. If this is you, the idea of trying to eat healthier can seem daunting.

I get it. I HATED veg as a kid. When I was growing up, my family's idea of vegetables mostly involved something from a can, and evolved a bit to include iceberg lettuce with store bought dressing.* As I got older and broadened my horizons, I was exposed to different types of and different ways to prepare vegetables. America was also becoming more health conscious, which gave everyone exposure to more variety.

*Disclaimer: In case you're reading this Mom, I am in no way disparaging your cooking or parenting. The 60s and 70s were not a time of enlightened health. Love you!

From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that many people are turned off by vegetables. Many tend to be on the bitter side of the taste spectrum. Our ancestors learned that bitter tasting foods could be often be dangerous or even deadly, so we evolved to recognize and avoid those things. Blame it on your primal brain.

Here's a few more reasons why we like/dislike certain foods and flavors:

Flavor preferences start playing out before birth.

Amniotic fluid contains scent molecules, so we're exposed to flavors before we can even eat.

Genetics play a role too.

Some of us are supertasters, and we experience flavors very intensely. If you tend to avoid spice, espresso, arugula (aka rocket), olives, and hoppy beer, you may be a super taster.

How you've been conditioned and your eating habits are the most important factor.

Whether you grew up in a culture with spicy foods, or a family that ate the rainbow of vegetables; or conversely, grew up with iceberg lettuce and flavorless grocery store tomatoes, matters. A lot. Over time you learned those preferences.

So how can someone go from iceberg lettuce (drenched in Thousand Island dressing) to enjoying things like brussels sprouts? And how does an internet search for a kale smoothie turn up 44.3 million results?! Like your muscles, your taste buds can be conditioned over time, with practice.

I see you, shaking your head. Yes, even you can condition yourself to enjoy bitterness. Don't agree? Are you a coffee drinker? Do you remember the first time you drank it? It's pretty bitter. Whether you initially liked or just tolerated it, there were other factors that led your coffee habit. Maybe your friends were all coffee drinkers and you felt a little peer pressure; maybe leaving the office for a coffee was a socially acceptable excuse for a break; or, maybe you just liked that caffeine buzz so much that you overlooked the bitterness. Over time, your perception of coffee's bitterness diminished.

So, is there a way to condition ourselves to like vegetables, that's not just about muscling through until our tastebuds are yelling, "Mutiny!"? Yes! Here's how:

  • Shift your mindset and forget about the past

Sometimes we need to let go of our former experiences with vegetables. For example, I grew up eating canned green beans. Once I was on my own, I swore I would never eat them again. I did a good job of avoiding them until they were on the menu at a friend's dinner party. I didn't want to hurt my friend's feelings, so I dug in. Wow! Fresh green beans, blanched with some almonds, and flavored with spices and olive oil. It was a whole new experience! Texture plays a big role in our preferences, too, so experimenting with different prep methods can be helpful.

  • Complement and Balance

Remember your first cup of coffee? If it was black coffee, you might've loaded it up with sugar & cream. Starbucks sells millions of frappuccinos for the same reason: sugar and fat. What do they do? They help balance out the bitterness. You can apply this strategy to your vegetables to create more harmonious flavor.

Let's try some complementary salty, sour, and aromatic flavors along with some balancing sweet and/or fatty flavors. For example, take some halved brussels sprouts and put them into a bowl with some olive oil (fat) lemon juice (sour) salt and pepper (spices). Roast at high heat on a sheet pan for about 30 minutes and taste.

Here's an infographic that offers some great ideas to get started:

Graphic courtesy of Precision Nutrition

Get challenging, complementing, and cushioning, and you and your family will be eating healthier every day!

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