I don’t know how it happened, why it happened, or exactly when it happened, but at some point in my childhood I stopped eating whatever was put in front of me. I went from eating all sorts of colorful and flavorful dishes to eating strictly a typical picky-eater diet. Vegetables, fish, and dozens of spices remained the enemy for longer than I care to admit. Finally, a few years ago, I decided enough was enough, and from then on I made a conscious effort to step outside of my eating comfort zone. Being a picky eater is certainly not something you can snap yourself out of overnight, but there are a few ways to make pushing the boundaries quite a bit easier.
Keep reading to see what worked for me, with commentary from Susan Piergeorge, MS, RDN, and Nutritionist for Rainbow Light and Natural Vitality. Even if you don’t consider yourself a “picky eater,” these tricks might just help you expand your palate even more!
Mix With Foods You Know You Like
Don’t dive right in and serve up a big plate of whatever it is you’re trying to eat more of. "Try the food mixed in or paired with some other foods you do like. Or, add a seasoning blend or some sauces you like to jazz it up a bit," Piergeorge suggests.
This technique worked great for me. Had I gone about the process by staring at a plate of steamed cauliflower, I probably wouldn’t be writing this story. Instead, I make or order a foods I knew I liked (take nachos, for example) and add something that would typically be left out of my diet (yes, cauliflower nachos are delicious). I’m a big fan of the half-and-half trick: Not super into quinoa, but make brown rice at least twice a week? Make both and scoop half a cup of each onto your plate.
Give Up (Some) Control
If you were to open your fridge and have the option to choose between grilling turkey burgers or a new fish you convinced yourself to buy at the grocery store, chances are you’ll pick the familiar option. But when you don’t have control over the menu, you’re kind of forced to eat what’s in front you. I’ve surprised myself by loving foods I’ve tried at weddings and dinner events with fixed courses. This strategy doesn’t always pan out, but it’s gotten me further than if I had relied on my own choices to make myself branch out.
Still, it's important not to put yourself in an uncomfortable situation; creating undue anxiety around food might make the problem worse! According to Ellyn Satter, RN and founder of The Ellyn Satter Institute, keep in mind that "you don’t have to eat in front of others if you don’t want to" and it's okay to "[p]ick and choose from what is on the table." Knowing that you're not obligated to eat what you really don't want might make you feel more adventurous.
Experiment With Recipes
Trying to get over your fear of broccoli or another specific food? "Look up some recipes of that food that are appealing to you to entice your interest," recommends Piergeorge. When you're cooking the food yourself, you have complete control over how you prepare it, what you mix with it, and even how you serve it. For example, you may gag at the thought of steamed carrots, but roasting them could make all the difference.
Pay special attention to the presentation, too. "Serve it in a way that gives you the eye appeal to eat it—even the serving dish—and add a special garnish to it. You never know, you may just discover a new favorite!" Piergeorge says.
Eat With Friends
Trying novel dishes with friends makes them more enjoyable. Research has shown that you pick up on the social cues of someone enjoying a food and that makes it more appealing. The same strategy can work for parents dealing with a picky kid; studies show that children often mimic the eating habits of adults, down to specific foods.
And when you dine with friends, you can share your food. Whether I’m with a big group and we’re sharing a bunch of small plates, or I’m with one other person, I often like to let others take the lead on ordering if I'm feeling comfortable. Their top choices may not be the ones I was immediately drawn to, but often I end up loving them the most of everything on the table. When you're with someone you trust, you can also communicate more openly about your food limits, so don't be afraid to let them know if something is a hard no.
Don't Overthink it
Don’t dwell too hard on the fact that mushrooms look like, well, mushrooms. When I’m first trying a new food or trying to reintroduce a flavor into my diet, I try to focus solely on how it tastes. This one can be tough, and I’ll admit I still haven’t really gotten over the whole mushrooms-looking-like-mushrooms thing, but that’s why the other four scenarios are helpful. I may not sauté a side of shiitake mushrooms to have with dinner (yet), but when I find them chopped up in a sauce or inside a minced vegetable lettuce wrap, I enjoy them.
Keep in mind that you may need a few tries before you begin to appreciate a previously avoided food—research suggests it can take several instances to get used to a new flavor. That's when you can decide what you really think.
Know Your Limits
All of that said, if you've given a food a fair shake and you still don't like it, there's no need to torture yourself! As Piergeorge points out, eating should be "an enjoyable and memorable experience," not a struggle. "We have so many options nowadays when it comes to food—truly global ones at that," she says. "Have some fun and adventure with it!"
Just be sure that your eating habits aren't negatively impacting your health. "If you are leaving full food groups out of your eating plan, such as fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy, etc. then there is a chance nutritional deficiencies may arise," says Piergeorge. If you can't find any veggies you enjoy, it might be time to enlist a professional. "Working with a credentialed professional (such as a registered dietitian nutritionist with some culinary training) may help you with some meal and recipe planning as well as some nutrition advice," Piergeorge notes.