Tips for expanding your palate from a former picky eater

I wrote previously on this blog about how I used to be an incredibly picky eater. I mean painfully so. Especially for others around me. So selective that my husband still teases me now about what I got away with not eating as a child. My mom was highly lenient despite constant abuse from other adults who were not my parents. 

You can read my thoughts on that in the other post linked here. That is not the subject of this post. This post is for people who may still be picky or selective eaters but don’t want to be anymore. I am proud to say that anyone who knows me now would not call me a picky eater. My mother is shocked. Even at my big old 30-something years, she exclaims, “Grammy would be so proud,” as I scarf down something she’d never eat.

And while it feels a little embarrassing to get that kind of attention for what seems like a reasonably primary task: eating, it’s also an indication of how far I have come. 

It is also a reminder that it has taken a lot of work to overcome my natural inclination to gag at most new foods; not to be too scared to try something new. And to hone in on what kind of flavor profiles, cooking styles, and textures I prefer so that I’m not stuck ordering chicken tenders.

And please remember, this is just what worked for me. I don’t think you should have to change your eating habits if you have no desire to. That is completely ok, and you’ll never receive judgment from me on this matter. 

Find a kind foodie friend

One massive motivator for me expanding my tastes was finding new friends in college who were from all over the country and the world. And who were very kind and patient in helping me try unfamiliar foods. One girl, in particular, took me on a mini culinary tour of Boston every time we went out for a casual day off from classes. Tofu pad thai for lunch. Papri chaat for a snack. Fried green tea ice cream for dessert. I had no idea there were so many flavors. The most fragrant dish in my house was my mother’s delicious sauce and meatballs. Rarely were we served any food from different countries except for the occasional Chinese takeout, which is not only kind of an American Thing™; the flavors also vary by region. Especially in New England. 

Anyway, between both the fear of how I might get made fun of and the kindness of my friend, I felt more scared of the outcome if I didn’t try these new foods than if I did. I often say peer pressure broke my eating patterns, but the reality is that I pressured myself. 

My peers were incredibly kind when we’d venture to restaurants that we all knew would not cater to my weird tastes. They made me feel safe enough to try new foods. Especially when, and you know this, if you’re a picky eater, there is an incredible amount of shame around only eating certain foods for no reason other than preference.

So find a friend you can trust and feel safe sharing your secret if they don’t already know, and ask for help in breaking this pattern. Having someone kind and encouraging who will keep you a little bit accountable makes this change more manageable. Plus, meals are meant to be shared. So experimenting with food should feel fun. 

Start with appetizers and small plates

A great way to expand your palate is to try new types of appetizers. Whether you’re going out to eat or cooking at home, introducing different foods in a way that won’t mean you go to bed hungry (or have to cook or order a whole new meal) is a fantastic way to open up your taste buds. 

One hindrance for me trying new foods is the waste. However, making a smaller dish means fewer ingredients, so it won’t be a loss if you hate it. While this is harder with spices and seasonings, most components you’ll use for new dishes can be bought by the ounce or pound either at the deli counter or produce section of your grocery store. 

When going out (assuming covid hasn’t ravaged your city or town completely), go out of your way to order something you’ve never tried as an appetizer. Make it a mission to order one out-of-the-box appetizer, soup, or salad every time you go out to a restaurant or order takeout. Or even better, pick a tapas restaurant and go in on some small plates with a good friend.

Try new things through cooking

There are so many fantastic free resources for recipes if you’re looking to expand your skills at home while also learning to like new foods as well. Here are a few of my favorites on various platforms:

You can also try one of those meal delivery services in your budget. Or check your grocery store for ready-to-cook meals for one or two. Similar to the delivery services but you can pick your meal and buy them one at a time without committing to a subscription. 

An essential aspect of my growth as an eater and taster was becoming more proficient in the kitchen. It has given me the confidence to adapt a recipe to something that might be more palatable to either myself or my husband (or whoever I might be cooking for). 

Don’t be scared to cook. It’s actually kind of hard to make something completely inedible. Just keep basic food safety measures in mind, use a timer, and don’t sweat it if it doesn’t come out exactly perfect. Because let’s be honest, if you’re a real picky eater, you probably don’t know what it was supposed to taste like anyway. So take notes about what you liked or didn’t like and try another time.

How to get over the gagging 

There’s no easy way to get over the gag reflex. Either you can push through it, or you can’t. There are certain foods and textures that I still won’t do. I figure there is a reason that my instinct is to reject certain foods, and I’m trusting my gut. Or my nose. Or my eyes. Depending on the food and the reaction. 

But there have been times when I have just pushed through and tried things that I ultimately knew I’d not like. Look, I’ve put other people’s genitals in my mouth enough times that I think I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t try any new food presented to me, especially if a friend or loved one made it for me. And that’s one hell of a feat for someone who would regularly turn down anything made by others. Including chocolate or candy if I wasn’t 100% sure of what it was (I absolutely can taste the difference between brands, and I would not be happy about it as a child).

Ultimately, it requires a mental strength that takes practice to acquire. To resist your reflex to gag or choke on new foods, you either power through it, or you can’t, and you know what? That’s ok. 

Learn about the foods and recipes you do like

The fun part about trying new foods is that eventually, you will find something that you didn’t know you liked before. And when you do, I think that is a great time to do some research.

Figure out what you liked about the dish. Was it the preparation method? The flavor? Make notes and then get on your favorite search engine and begin looking for alternative recipes using those ingredients. Pick up a copy of The Flavor Bible to find complementary flavor profiles. Figure out a way to deconstruct the recipe and remix it. Maybe you could turn that sandwich you loved at lunch into a salad.

Don’t be afraid to say no

And finally, and maybe most importantly, you don’t owe trying new foods to anyone except yourself. You don’t owe anyone an explanation about why you will or won’t eat something. So you should never feel ashamed because you don’t eat the way others do. Or the way other people think you should. 

While I often feel that I missed out on certain family bonding moments over shared meals, I am glad that I could find new foods on my own time. And it would help if you took your time too. I know how scary and isolating it can feel when you are food challenged, but I know that when you’re ready, you too can start to expand your appreciation for new foods, flavors, ingredients, and textures. 

Just remember, you’re doing this for yourself. You are the only one who benefits from trying new foods, so let anyone else’s opinions on the matter fall to the wayside.

You got this.  

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