How to get over food phobias?
February 25, 2005 12:39 AM   Subscribe

How did you manage to get over your food phobias?

Besides the mozarella cheese on pizzas, I really can't stand cheese. What turns me off are the (to me) unpleasant smells and the texture. I also don't particularly enjoy milk, cream, and other dairy products but at least I can tolerate them. I know I'm missing a whole world of culinary delights by my inability to enjoy cheese and other dairy products. How did you get past your food phobias and what strategies did you employ? Do you have any tips on how I can start to enjoy cheese?
posted by gyc to Food & Drink (45 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: There's a great piece on overcoming food phobias in the introduction to Jeffrey Steingarten's the man who ate everything (which I recommend highly as a book anyway). Basically, his thesis is that the only way round it is exposure - and it has to be repeated.
Find a good cheesemonger/delicatessen - one who have someone who knows their cheese - and explain the problem to them. Tell them what it is you do/don't like, and ask them to recommend a cheese. Most will even let you taste small samples to see if they're looking in the right direction.
My wife's reading the Steingarten book right now, and as a result has decided (spontaneously) to get over her thing about goat's cheese - this is what she's trying, using a friendly deli down the road from where she works. They're recommending her their least goaty cheeses, she's ensuring she gets regular exposure to small amounts. Too early to report sucess or failure yet though.
posted by monkey closet at 12:59 AM on February 25, 2005

what means this "get over?"
posted by shmegegge at 2:01 AM on February 25, 2005

I didn't used to like bacon (I know, I know), and then, one day, I had a craving for a BLT, and I realized what I was missing.

That's the closest I've had.

Seriously though, the above suggestion, with finding a good cheesemonger and asking for samples is probably better than waiting to miraculously wake up wanting cheese. So, just try it. I tried blue cheese for the first time a couple weeks ago, and liked it better than I thought I would. (I already adored virtually all other cheeses, but the blue thing always freaked me out.)
posted by SoftRain at 2:09 AM on February 25, 2005

I didn't get into cheese until my late twenties, although I wouldn't class my attitude as ever having been a phobia, more just a distaste. Even now, I'd baulk at trying really strong cheeses. For me, it's just been a very gradual process of happening to find individual dishes or cheeses I liked: accidental exposures which, counter to my expectations, I enjoyed.

First, like you, I found I quite liked mozzarella on pizza, and then I discovered I liked authentic Italian-style soft mozzarella a lot better than the fake, rubbery mozzarella I'd previously had. Unlike you, I always liked cream, and so it was no big step from there to acquiring a taste for cream-cheeses, especially mascarpone. I started to enjoy adding parmesan to pasta dishes, etc., even though I still wouldn't eat it by itself. Then I got to like some firmer cheeses like Bel Paese and Port Salut. After a while, my tolerance for cheddar-style cheese gradually increased, and after that I came to enjoy other British-style cheeses like Cheshire, Double Gloucester, etc. Now I'll happily nibble on a lump of, say, Gruyère, something that, fifteen years ago, I would have found revolting.
posted by misteraitch at 2:14 AM on February 25, 2005

I was first exposed to coriander (cilantro) in my teens, and had a very violent reaction against it. I really could not understand why anyone would want to eat something that tasted like stingbug. It was purely exposure that got me over it when my sister introduced me to good Thai food. Now I can't get enough of it, and as I remember the switch was very sudden. One day I just woke up with a craving for it.

I have a friend who will not eat any food that is coloured red. I'd be interested to know if anyone has any ideas of getting her over it, because cooking for her when she comes over is a serious pain in the arse.
posted by arha at 2:27 AM on February 25, 2005

*Stinkbug*, not stingbug, damn it.
posted by arha at 2:28 AM on February 25, 2005

I'm fairly phobic about seafood. Growing up in Indiana, I never liked fish and had very little exposure to crustaceans. Now that I live in Australia with a seafood-loving husband, I've been making an effort to try to come to grips with it, at least for his sake. It's mostly been a case of downing a couple of glasses of wine, having him assure me that what I'm about to eat isn't going to make me puke, and then going for it. I blogged my first sushi experience, my first raw oyster, and my first Moreton Bay bug. It really helps knowing that I'm eating high quality stuff that other people really, really like. Sydney seafood is the best, so in the back of my mind I keep repeating to myself that I'm lucky to get to try such things. I still freak out every now and then, and it's not like I order the stuff on a regular basis. But I suppose my biggest motivations are A) making him happy and B) not wanting to miss out on something potentially good. So is there anybody you'd want to share some special cheese with?
posted by web-goddess at 3:03 AM on February 25, 2005

This previous question I asked about getting over my visual eating "impairment" was very useful.
posted by longbaugh at 3:34 AM on February 25, 2005

Latest research implies there are people who are 'super-tasters' - who experience food flavors much more strongly than other folks. They have different dietary habits, different risks of colon cancer, and probably other as-yet-unknown differences. This is a single-gene locus with 2 different alleles.

Supertasters are less prone to being omnivorous; the heterozygote state, one 'super' and one regular taster gene, seems to make you seek out more highly flavored foods. Non-tasters are less interested in food flavor when making their eating decisions.

Interesting, and possibly relevant when you're trying to accomodate your food preferences to someone else's.
posted by ikkyu2 at 4:07 AM on February 25, 2005

I love sushi now, up to and including the cold-raw-fishy-bits, but at one time, the thought made me feel quite nasty. Then, my husband's best friend made reservations at a place in NYC for a visit, and it was a sushi place. He was paying, it was expensive, I did not want to look like an ass. So I sucked it up and tried me some sushi. I was almost literally shocked at how good it was, and I've gradually gotten more and more into eating sushi.
posted by Medieval Maven at 5:10 AM on February 25, 2005

Take a few furtive steps gradually to at least accept your enemy food as a worthy opponent, and then BITE.

I used to have a terrible time with the texture of tomatos. So goopy, like vomit. I liked tomato sauce, but if there was ever a chunk, I'd gag. There was nothing worse than biting into a slice of pizza, only to feel a huge, wet chunk of vomit appear in my mouth.

Then, I began to approach raw tomatoes, and then small bits of cooked tomatoes, and then I tried eating them without chewing them. Nibbles nibbles nibbles.

Then, one fateful day, I found a HUGE chunk of tomato lurking on an expensive-ish slice of pizza. I was determined to get the last laugh. So I just chomped and chewed and discovered that it wasn't really like vomit at all.

My next opponent, after that: chunky salsa.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:20 AM on February 25, 2005

Every time I discuss this with anyone, I'm determined to put it into practice myself and face up to cucumber.
There has to be some way of rendering it vaguely appetising.
posted by monkey closet at 5:37 AM on February 25, 2005

monkey closet: God invented the pickling process.

I have a friend who will not eat any food that is coloured red.

Aren't some people allergic to basically anything artificially coloured red?

I really could not understand why anyone would want to eat something that tasted like stingbug.

Neither can I. That cilantro stuff is bigtime nasty.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 5:41 AM on February 25, 2005

oh gag me, chunky salsa. never in a billion years.

I have food issues. I hate onions. hate. I'll cook with them, but I grind them down in a processor, or saute them and remove them from the oil. God forbid I ever actually bite into a piece of onion. Slimy and translucent? Fuck no.
I also hate all forms of shellfish. Anything that slimy, or insectile looking just can't be food.

But I'm not a good person to ask, as these food issues seem to have set in for good and I'm perfectly content with that.
posted by Kellydamnit at 5:43 AM on February 25, 2005

I noticed that you are from Ann Arbor, so I second monkey closet's idea- you should go to Zingermann's. They have an astounding array of cheeses, and it's nearly impossible to dislike all of them. If you catch them at the right time the deli counter people can be very helpful. Just tell them exactly what it is about cheese you find revolting and they can probably find you a cheese that doesn't have most of those qualities.
posted by ohio at 5:47 AM on February 25, 2005

I was never terribly adventurous when it came to food, but I said to myself, "Self," I said, "Self, we need to try new things. It will be good for us." And it was done. Raw things, fishy things, things from far-off places. And it was good; there are tasty things of all sorts (even cheeses). It's mind over matter, same as anything.

Go to the cheesemonger. Forget everything you know about cheese. Try some samples. You may be surprised.
posted by uncleozzy at 5:52 AM on February 25, 2005

Getting used to new food is a bit like lifting weights. At first, you take a small taste and then you rest for a good long while for your taste muscles to build up. On your next try, you can eat a little more and wait longer before you try again. Keep shortening the time between tastes and increasing the portion of your samples. Soon, you'll be guzzling Gorgonzolas by the bucketful.
posted by sid at 7:46 AM on February 25, 2005

I can eat anything. Seriously, anything. Head cheese? I'll take seconds. Tripe? Why not. Hell, I just got back from a trip where I got to eat crocodile AND camel. I was deliriously happy (but a little upset that they were no longer serving zebra)!

But keep that damn ketchup away from me. And no, not on the other side of the table. The last time I accidentally got ketchup on me (bad waitron experience) I broke out in a rash. I won't let it in the house, and, to be honest, I think it's starting to really annoy my (otherwise wonderful) partner.

Tomatoes, cooked or no, are not a problem. At all -- I love them.

I'm never going to be that person in my (rather rural) hometown that slops gallons of the stuff on eggs, but I would like to think that some day I can stand to be in the same room as a condiment.

Any suggestions? Note that I will be going to the bookstore at lunch to pick up monkey closet's suggestion.
posted by hummus at 7:59 AM on February 25, 2005

Every time I discuss this with anyone, I'm determined to put it into practice myself and face up to cucumber.
There has to be some way of rendering it vaguely appetising.

"A cucumber should be well sliced, dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out, as good for nothing." -- Samuel Johnson.

As for getting over food distastes, I have the same problem with cheeses, but I think everyone else is right about simple exposure being the answer.
posted by kenko at 7:59 AM on February 25, 2005

Do you know why the cheese phobia started?

For me, most foods that I've been afraid of were because they had made me ill or I had eaten them around a time I had gotten ill. This was especially the case with fish. That in turn kept my fish phobia going for quite a few years.

Start with milder, small exposures, as mentioned earlier. Put small amounts in dishes rather than eating straight.
posted by Hot Like Your 12V Wire at 8:31 AM on February 25, 2005

I am a *hugely* picky eater. I only started eating vegetables 4 years ago. I hate cilantro. I don't eat cheese except the kind on pizza, and they better not try to trick me by putting some fancy-ass cheese on the pizza. Nothing creamy. Nothing mushy. I've avoided travelling because I fear having to eat unfamiliar foods. I lose weight when I do travel and often spend much of my time dizzy.

I think in my case "phobia" is a very appropriate word...I have trouble trying things because it's the moment of having something unpleasant in my mouth that I'm afraid of (so "Just taste it and if you don't like it leave it." doesn't work for me...If I just taste it and don't like it, the thing I'm afraid of will already have happened..leaving it won't help.)

Four years ago I got sick and while the illness wasn't related to my eating habits it hit me like a truck and I realized that one day it could be and if that "at least I didn't eat anything mushy" wouldn't be any consolation when I was sitting in a doctor's office hearing bad news. So to quote uncleozzy: "Self," I said, "Self, we need to try new things. It will be good for us.".

So four years ago I did start eating vegetables -- yuck I hate the taste of chlorophyll. So I started with the least offensive. Cut them up small (that way you never actually have to bite them), cover them in sauce (any sauce) and mix them in with the meat and rice, or pasta or whatever. I've actually got a decent vegetable repertoire now, though I there aren't really any vegetables I would just steam and eat, I work them into most dishes and there are some I will eat raw. My mother nearly died laughing the first time she saw me eat broccoli.

For cheese, I would try first adding a different cheese to your pizza (how familiar is that)...none of the wierd ones or anything...just order a pizza with a three cheese blend. Work from time you make some spaghetti or pasta, throw some shredded cheese (the pizza kind) over it and stick it in the microwave for a bit.. same cheese you're used to, new context. Then try adding new cheeses...small amounts, mixed into other dishes.

I'm going to go out and buy that book..I'll be job-hunting soon and as my job hunts will probably involve dinners in nice restaurants (I have a lot of trouble finding things to eat in nice restaurants) and I don't want to look like an idiot I'll be needing to expand my tastea further.
posted by duck at 9:27 AM on February 25, 2005

I have been gradually becoming more omnivorous as time goes by but I am also a picky eater. I read Steingarten's book and was immediately annoyed by his classification of any and all food preferences as phobias. I know what he's getting at -- some people do seem to have distaste for certain foods that verges on the unreasonable -- but I know very few people who are afraid of food. Later in the book he goes on and on about how worthless most sorts of french fries are. Phobic? No, it's a preference.

I decided I had to open up my culinary range as I started to travel more and couldn't always be sure I would have peanut butter sandwiches as a backup food in the event that we landed at a seafood restaurant [I still hate most seafoods] and I tried by doing two things all the time

1. when eating out with other people who I knew well, asking if I could try a small amount of what they were having. Assuming that restaurants will at least be competent in preparing what they serve, I wanted to get to know what, for example, a competently prepared lobster was like so I could compare other lobsters I had and learn if I honestly just didn't like them or hadn't had a GOOD one.

2. with less expensive foods, I'd just take them home and try to cook with them myself and see if I could prepare them in a way that I liked. I don't like most eggy things, but I like custard. I dislike fish, but I like the tuna salad that I make. I don't like raw tomatoes, but they're good if I put them together in a savory salsa.

Part of overcoming food issues is having a worthwhile reason to change. I grew up in a tolerant house where we were allowed to eat or not eat pretty much what we wanted. Now that I'm older and just eating what I want is not particularly healthy or smart as a general rule, I'm trying to expand my range of desired foods to include ones that are good for me [spinach was a big recent accomplishment] and having okay success. People who turn eating into some huge taste/culture deal "Oh this is the bext XYZ I've ever had, here taste it. If you don't like it you just don't know how to enjoy food!" still strike me as somewhat snobby, as if we should all like the same sorts of foods and it's not okay to just not like some of them.
posted by jessamyn at 9:51 AM on February 25, 2005

I got rid of a fair number of food phobias while traveling. I had a limited budget and couldn't afford to buy comforting American foods overseas. I told myself that I would eat what was put before me because that's what I had. Surprise: most of it was not nearly as nasty as I had convinced myself it was.

Also, the old mother's refrain "your tastes change" is very true. If your phobia started in childhood, by the time you're in your 20s you may feel much differently about certain things (bitter veggies are gradually becoming yummy to me).
posted by amber_dale at 10:00 AM on February 25, 2005

re: Zingerman's: when it takes 40 minutes for a sandwich, good luck getting someone to sit with you for ~1 hour talking about cheese. If you become set on the idea of Zingerman's (which was an excellent recommendation), maybe call ahead and make an appointment. I'm sure Ari or someone else in the office would be more than willing to come out and help, but I wouldn't expect the regular deli staff to have that kind of time on a normal day. Also, try to correspond your visit with Spring Break (next week for UM students), so there is less foot traffic.
posted by blackkar at 10:18 AM on February 25, 2005

Damn, some of you sound like the nine year old girl I occasionally babysit...
posted by five fresh fish at 10:26 AM on February 25, 2005

(and the best strategy with her seems to be to not tell her what she's eating...)
posted by five fresh fish at 10:27 AM on February 25, 2005

For some reason, social pressure plays a large part in my overcoming my food anxieties.

At home, and with family, and with close friends, I have no problem saying, "No, I will not eat that." However, if you put me in a position where the social benefits of eating something far outweigh the disadvantages, I will eat just about anything. Seriously.

For example, if I were dating (which I'm not), and was invited over to the woman's parents' house for a nice dinner, I would even eat the brocolli. shudder Or, if I were being interviewed for a job and the interviewer wanted to go to sushi, I would go to sushi. shudder

These unlooked-for experiences have actually helped me overcome some of my biggest food phobias. Asparagus? Hot damn, that's good stuff. Onions? Ditto. Brocolli? Well, thankfully, I've never been forced to eat it, and I don't think it would make any difference. Vileness is vileness, after all.

(All this being said, the best method is repeated exposure. I don't know if I've ever ovecome severe food phobias through repeated exposure, but I've overcome lots of little ones: salsa, goat cheese, shrimp, etc.)
posted by jdroth at 10:52 AM on February 25, 2005

When I was eighteen, my best friend convinced me to take a bite of her samosa, pointing out that it was just potatoes (she didn't mention the peas, or I never would've eaten it.) The heavens sang, the earth shook, and I henceforth realized that eating could be a pleasure and an adventure, not the chore of finding "something I could eat." At college I started trying all different ethnicities of food, and a foodie was born. (I didn't tell my folks or anyone else for awhile about my new hobby, because they would have made fun of me.)

I still don't like most of the veggies I grew up being forced to "try," but otherwise I love pretty much everything *except* those staples of my youth. (My parents love to shake their heads in disbelief at my adoration of foie gras, sushi, stinky cheeses, blood sausage, noting that despite all that, I still turn up my nose at broccoli.)
posted by desuetude at 11:21 AM on February 25, 2005

"Oh this is the bext XYZ I've ever had, here taste it."

This is someone who is trying to share something that they enjoy with you, not a snob.
posted by casu marzu at 11:34 AM on February 25, 2005

If you want to get over the phobia, you just have to go out and try it. Bear in mind that getting over food phobias doesn't necessarily mean getting over food dislikes. You can be adventurous and still not like certain foods for the exact reasons you state: taste, texture, smell. These are a matter of, well, taste. However, the more you try something, the more you are liable to grow to like it (it's just not a guarantee). Phobias are a bit more irrational, like you won't try something just because... because... it's organ meat, or whatever.

But you know what? This is a totally individual decision. We live in a period of unprecedented abundance of food. It's pretty much your choice what to eat, or not eat. Don't try things strictly out of peer pressure. Try them because you want to. I personally get a great deal of pleasure out of food, and I will eat just about anything, but not everyone is like that.

If you are serious about the cheese thing, do go to a good cheesemonger. This cannot be overemphasized. Quite frankly, many grocers have no idea how to store cheese, and can very easily turn it into expensive, ammoniated crap. That's more likely to turn you off than anything.

Also it may be helpful for you to learn a bit about the various families of cheeses. Cow's milk cheeses, goat's milk cheeses, sheep's milk cheeses. Fresh cheeses, aged cheeses. Hard cheeses, semi-soft cheeses, runny cheeses. Bloomy-rind cheeses, washed-rind cheeses, blue-veined cheeses. There are a lot of different axes of variability. You might find that you like some families better than others.
posted by casu marzu at 11:54 AM on February 25, 2005

I'm guessing most of you have never had good broccoli before. Fresh broccoli, in season, right off the farm? Steamed or roasted just right? It is sweet and delicious. It tastes nothing like the bland, institutional, overcooked broccoli that you grew up with. Just so you know.
posted by casu marzu at 11:56 AM on February 25, 2005

To casu marzu -- Yep. My grandfather grew beautiful vegetables that I ate freshly picked. I still hated them.

I forgot to say the most important part, which was finding a partner in crime. A girl with whom I had just become friends turned out to have some similar picky eating issues. Our shared hatred of tomato guts and string beans bonded us, we secretly explored ethnic food together, and could have conversations that others would have mocked, but made perfect sense to us.

* "There were black beans in the salsa I had yesterday and hey, they weren't disgusting. Maybe we can eat black beans in salsa now."
* "Hey, I had black beans in a quesadilla and they weren't gross either. Maybe we were wrong about black beans?"
* "Yeah, I think so. But red beans are still gross, right?"
* "Oh, totally."

And so forth. Foods got discovered in their own time. (We subsequently discovered all legumes. Twelve years later, we're still best friends, too.)
posted by desuetude at 12:02 PM on February 25, 2005

I do not like raw tomatoes or mushrooms. I can stand tomatoes cooked but's a texture thing.

But my major food phobia -- which my boyfriend JUST discovered this past week (I try to hide this from people, lest they use it against me) -- is food that quivers. Jello is the most loathsome thing I can think of. Pudding I can do, and mousse. But How could someone eat a food that quivers? EW EW EW EW EWWWW.
posted by u.n. owen at 12:57 PM on February 25, 2005

u.n. owen: Are there any foods other than jello that quiver? Can you eat jello shapes (you know, like Bill Cosby cuts out with cookie cutters?) They're made with much less water and so they're more solid and they don't really quiver.
posted by duck at 1:19 PM on February 25, 2005

Well, aspic, but that's basically jello.
posted by casu marzu at 1:49 PM on February 25, 2005

I'm another picky/non-adventurous eater, but I'm quite proud of myself. I recently tried Vietnamese food and loved it.

As a kid I loved seafood (kippers, shrimp, tuna, crab, etc.), as an adult I can't stand it. I'm not sure what turned me off of it. I can't imagine that I'll ever try sushi.

I don't like many vegetables although I love both tomatoes and cucumbers. Most veggies just taste icky and I can't get around that. (Cucumbers: thinly slice 'em, thinly slice some onions, pour some rice wine vinegar over it all and let sit a day or two in the fridge. Yum!)
posted by deborah at 1:59 PM on February 25, 2005

u.n. owen: there's something inherently funny about someone who wants to eat a hermit crab, but can't handle Jell-O

/just sayin'
posted by icey at 3:31 PM on February 25, 2005

I think marrow (bone marrow) quivers, too. And I'll bet monkey brains quiver. And isn't headcheese a little quivery?

Mmmm. Quivering food.
posted by five fresh fish at 7:03 PM on February 25, 2005

yeah, a lot of organ-type stuff is quivery. And headcheese and such, which I'd be much more likely to try but OH CHRIST THE QUIVERING.

And hey, hermit crabs don't quiver, except possibly in fear when they see the pot of boiling water. But not at eating time so that doesn't count. Mmmmmm, hermit crab.
posted by u.n. owen at 7:34 PM on February 25, 2005

Nobody says you have to like cheese. If you have an instinctive reaction to it, maybe you should listen to what your body is saying. Plenty of adults have lactose intolerance to some degree and saying you don't eat dairy is no big deal to most people. There are lots of other good things to eat.
posted by zadcat at 8:15 PM on February 25, 2005

Back to the original point, cheese. Also remember that there are a lot of cheeses that smell strong, but don't taste strong. If you try cheese as an ingredient in a dish before you try taking a big ol' bite, it'll be easier. (Goat cheese ravoli in red sauce. Salad dressing made with gorgonzola. Etc.)
posted by desuetude at 9:17 PM on February 25, 2005

Oh my god, hummus, I think we must be separated twins! I too will eat pretty much anything, but I absolutely detest ketchup. Everyone I know thinks I'm weird for it, and I've never met anyone who hates it like I do. I too love tomatoes, and I also love a good tomato sauce (made from actual tomatoes)! It makes me so happy to see I'm not alone.

As has been mentioned in this thread, I think that for something like cheese the key is to go step by step. Combine some "easier" cheeses with foods you know you like. You'll probably start to enjoy them eventually.
posted by swank6 at 9:28 PM on February 25, 2005

There's ketchup, and then there's ketchup. I can understand hating ketchup, but I'm led to believe that there are actual good ketchups made with, like real tomatoes and stuff. Quite unlike the red glop you get from your corner grocery.

Kind of like how there's that awful French's vibrant yellow fake mustard, and then there's real dijon mustard with white wine and mustard seeds.

Or so goes my theory. I've yet to try it out. I suppose that'd be a whole other AskMe thread: "What's a good ketchup?"
posted by five fresh fish at 9:59 PM on February 25, 2005

fff - wouldn't good ketchup with real tomatoes be called tomato sauce? To me, it seems like the word ketchup implies that processed Heinz packaged-ness.
posted by swank6 at 12:16 PM on February 26, 2005

There is a vast variety of ketchups. The aforementioned Jeffrey Steingarten devotes a book chapter to this.
posted by casu marzu at 1:49 PM on February 26, 2005

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