This post is in response to a reader question. If there are two things I love in this world, they are 1. Questions and 2. Vegetables, so if you are wondering about anything, please feel free to contact me and ask away! While not everyone has a history of being picky or disliking vegetables, I do, so that’s the angle I’m taking. If I could do it, anyone can.
I used to be a picky eater. My family ate certain common vegetables, and I was excused from eating the ones I didn’t like. I would eat canned peas, canned green beans, canned beets, creamed corn, and salad. The rest of the family ate artichokes, asparagus, baked zucchini, frozen broccoli, and yams – while I complained and made rude comments from the sidelines. That’s pretty much it. I had never heard of many of the vegetables I eat now, much less seen, tasted, or liked them. The first time I got my CSA farm box and it contained kale, collard greens, and chard – I had to Google pictures of them to figure out which was which!
I made a decision. I got married and became the insta-mom of a teenage girl. I decided that now that I had a family of my own, it was time to step up and learn to cook. I wish I’d done it sooner because my cooking rocks. Vegetables are like a secret form of ritual magic that only the elite know about.
I put vegetables into two categories now: Power Veg and “decorations.” Most, but not all, power vegetables are cruciferous. We try to eat at least two cups of Power Veg a day, and unlimited amounts of the colorful confetti kind.
Power Vegetables: Cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, bok choy, Romanesco, chard, collard greens, beets and their greens, turnips and their greens, Brussels sprouts, arugula, radishes, spinach, rapini, Chinese broccoli, mustard greens, broccolini, kohlrabi, and, yes, kale. (If you “hate” kale, try chard instead). Horseradish and sauerkraut are two ways to eat cruciferous vegetables without necessarily realizing you’re doing it. Potatoes, sweet potatoes, and yams also fall under our “two cups a day” rule.
Sprinkles: Lettuce, carrots, tomatoes, bell peppers, green beans, snow peas, onions, shallots, green onions, leeks, mushrooms, edamame, basil, mint, cucumber, zucchini, water chestnuts, baby corn, bamboo shoots, artichokes, asparagus, okra, eggplant, fennel, carrot tops, parsley, cilantro (yeah, yeah, shut up), celery, celeriac or celery root, jicama, various seaweeds (nori, dulse, wakame, etc), and any other edible plant we haven’t tried yet.
The first strategy is to EAT MORE OF WHAT YOU ALREADY KNOW YOU LIKE. If you don’t like cauliflower but you do like broccoli, or vice versa, that’s fine. Just plan on eating larger quantities of it, more often. Give yourself points for the vegetables you are eating. Use them as a bridge: try a new recipe with vegetables you like, and maybe include one you’ve never had before.
The big weight loss/healthy diet battle seems to be portrayed as SATURATED FAT vs. BREAD. Nobody talks about vegetables because nobody wants to eat them. We don’t really eat either saturated fat or bread, and we’ve lost 100 pounds between us. That’s because vegetables are loaded with micronutrients and fiber. Since we quadrupled our vegetable consumption, it has been two years since I had a migraine or night terrors. I no longer have the dark circles under my eyes that I had all through my 20s. Eating more vegetables has a lot of surprising side benefits. One of the main ones is that with repeated exposure, they start tasting not horrible, then fine, then great… and then you find yourselves standing side by side, jaws hanging open, staring at a two-gallon vat of steamed kale and wondering if the deli will sell you the whole thing. It happened to us.
Anyway, here are some specific strategies that worked to get a picky eater like me to start loving vegetables.
PEER PRESSURE. Many of the things I forced myself to try were based on not embarrassing myself in front of a cute guy, or a friend’s family.
NEW CUISINES. Trying something that has been cooked by an experienced chef can change your world. It was through Thai, Lebanese, Indian, and Ethiopian food that I first learned how delicious certain vegetables can be.
DIFFERENT FORMAT. It turns out that I didn’t do well with vegetables as plain side dishes. I like them better when they are mixed with a bunch of other stuff, broths, sauces, and lots of garlic, herbs, and spices. Other people may be the exact opposite. It also turns out that I don’t care for canned or frozen vegetables. Some things I prefer raw or cooked, while other people in my family are the reverse. For example, my mom likes raw onion and I like it cooked.
TIME COMMITMENT. Eating more fresh produce means more time washing and chopping – unless it doesn’t. We sometimes buy bagged salad. (I actually hate making salad, although I’ll spend 3x as long making a soup, but my husband enjoys making big salads). Often we just cut up a head of broccoli and microwave it for 4 minutes. The goal is to GET THOSE VEGETABLES. It doesn’t matter as much whether they are organic or not, home-grown or not, fresh or frozen or not, in the same way that you are better off drinking contaminated water in the wilderness than dying of dehydration. You can buy packages of pre-washed, pre-chopped vegetable mixes and quickly turn them into a stir fry, soup, or side dish, until The Hunger comes upon you and you find yourself actually wanting to do it yourself.
NEW RECIPES. I’m really into cookbooks and recipe apps. I will sometimes spend 2 hours making something special, like eggplant rollatini, but that’s only about 5% of the time. We have a 30-minute rule. We alternate cooking and cleaning up, and my husband prefers familiarity to novelty, so the new recipe testing is my bailiwick. Every now and then, I’ll hit upon a quick recipe that appeals to him, and it enters his repertoire.
ADD A VEG. One thing we do when we don’t feel like cooking is to simply make canned soup and stuff in a bunch of a green vegetable. Usually it’s Costco black bean soup with a bag of collard greens. (Keep pushing the greens around with a wooden spoon until they shrink down and turn emerald green; at that point, the soup is hot). With experimentation, we’ve found that certain soups go better with certain greens. White beans with kale, minestrone with chard, black beans or black-eyed peas with collard greens. Weirdly, most recipes don’t seem to contain any power vegetables, and some entire cookbooks (and Paula Dean’s website) have barely any. We’ve started to think that a plate or bowl looks wrong when there’s nothing green there. So we shrug and put some in.
WASHING IT DOWN. There are a lot of old-fashioned frugality strategies that were common in the past, but unheard-of now. Food cost about 35% of a family’s income when my parents were children. Now it’s under 15%. We can afford to throw away food; that is an extremely recent and unprecedented historical phenomenon. Separate children’s menus are another innovation that seems to be code for “fiber- and vitamin-free, yet expensive.” For the uninitiated, “wash it down” means to take a big gulp of milk or other fluid and use it to swallow an unappetizing food bolus without tasting it. You have my permission to do this with soda, if that’s what it takes to get you eating vegetables, but only for the first 3-6 months. Don’t let the Halo Effect of eating a healthy food lull you into a false sense of security about also eating extremely unhealthy foods and empty calories. This is about a transition from a lame, nutritionally poor, D- or F-grade diet to a top-caliber, gold star healthy diet. We’re adding, with the goal of eventually replacing. Eat a potato instead of bread, eat cabbage instead of rice, eat squash instead of macaroni and cheese. Give it time, though. Taste preferences begin in utero; the flavor orientations of decades don’t change overnight.
“FOR HATERS.” I never ate Brussels sprouts until I was an adult, because my mom hated them. Now everyone in the family eats them. The reason is that I got some in the farm box for Thanksgiving, shrugged, and decided to cook them. I Googled “Brussels sprouts for haters” and tried two of the recipes that came up. IT WORKED. As a general rule, always ask someone who really, really loves a particular vegetable to cook it for you their way, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel alone in your own kitchen.
THE ANDI SCALE. Do you like games? Do you like high scores? Take a gander at this: https://www.drfuhrman.com/library/andi-food-scores.aspx
BUT HOW DO YOU COOK IT? We didn’t like everything we tried on the first few occasions, but we ate it anyway. About 10% of the new recipes I try are either boring or yucky. We didn’t like collard greens at first, until I finally discovered a recipe that involves sautéing them in olive oil, garlic, and ¼ tsp maple syrup. After a few tries, our palates had adjusted, and the syrup started tasting bad. Now we’re trying to learn to like mustard greens (NOT FOR AMATEURS) and I’ve been adding a single leaf to a batch of other greens. It, um, well, it stands out. The last time I did it, I added some Tabasco sauce, liquid smoke, and soy sauce, and it was good. I write notes in pencil in my cookbooks, and I have a rating system for every recipe I try. I put the code on the top corner of the page, where I can see them as I flip through the book.
FRUIT. If you don’t like fruit, it’s probably because you only encounter yucky fruit. Fruit bowls usually make me sad. Mealy apples, unripe oranges that are impossible to peel, watery unripe melon, mushy grapes, leopard bananas… No, thank you. I eat fruit every day, but I give sad fruit a pass every time. Grocery stores at specific locations get A, B, or C grade produce. I didn’t really eat fruit until I moved down the street from a co-op store that sold Grade A fruit. (Stores don’t exactly advertise this, but if you see fruit flies and gnats hanging around, that’s not the right store). I usually don’t like things with a fruit filling, like Pop Tarts, cereal bars, or jam, either. I only drink juice on rare occasions, for instance, if we’re traveling and there are few breakfast options I find acceptable. However, given the choice between two items that are the same, except that one includes fruit, I’ll take the fruity one. (Examples: Special K with red berries, salad with pears). My packet oatmeal has dried blueberries. Our main sources of fruit are our CSA farm box subscription (always ripe and in season) and the citrus trees in our back yard. One of our favorite activities as a couple is to find a fruit we’ve never had before, take it home, and figure out how to eat it. Last time, it was dragon fruit, and it was really good.
Taste preferences are not permanent. They are one of the hardest things to change, but change they can. Taste buds renew themselves every two years. That’s part of why toddlers are super-picky but may grow up to like things they rejected at first. The older we get, the less sensitive our taste buds are, which is great, because it enables us to enjoy more foods. I still sometimes have to make myself eat something, usually cooked zucchini or raw tomato, because of texture and temperature factors. I do it because intellectually, I am convinced that these foods are good for me. If a vegetable is there, I eat it until it’s gone. That’s the rule. See vegetable, eat it. See dessert, set limits. The result of this strategy has been that I have lost 35 pounds, I sleep 8-9 hours a night, I no longer get migraines or night terrors, my skin looks great, and I am the strongest and fittest I have ever been. Doing what comes naturally did not work well for me. Following my taste preferences was a disaster that made me fat and ill. I forced myself to learn to eat things I didn’t like, and eventually I started to like them. Research indicates it takes about 17 exposures to a new flavor to adapt to it. In my experience, most things didn’t take that long – I’ll eat almost anything in a peanut sauce or a coconut curry!
Only about 4% of Americans eat the recommended amount of vegetables, fruits, and micronutrients. That explains everything to me. As far as I have seen, there are no studies that show any downside to eating cruciferous vegetables. They’re acceptable in every brand-name diet plan. Why not play around a little and give vegetables a try?
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.