Any tips on how to become a more adventurous eater?
September 24, 2022 7:41 PM   Subscribe

I’d say I’m a medium adventurous eater by US standards; I was a very picky eater as a kid, but once I went to college, I started eating a lot more things. These days, I love trying new cuisines, and I’m good with spicy, sour, bitter, etc. The most adventurous things I’ve tried (‘adventurous’ for me, hah) are chapulines in Mexico, which were good! However, I have a few types of foods I’m a bit squeamish about...

I’ll eat anything that’s vegetarian, but I’m nervous about new types of meat (outside of the basic American cuts of chicken, beef and pork). So, sometimes I’ll see dishes with organ meats that look good, but I won’t order it because I’m nervous. I also don’t like seafood - this feels like the biggest potential area of improvement/expansion.

There are a lot of places that I’d like to travel to and I want to be able to fully experience the food there - I was just watching a video about Isaan Thai food and I’d love to try it, but I absolutely cannot go there and pick out all the shrimps, you know? It would be mortifying. I need to have confidence in my ability to eat foods from my scary categories.

I guess I want to be the kind of person who will eat anything. Have you had success trying to broaden your palette? How should I approach it? I wish I could just hypnotize myself…
posted by catcafe to Food & Drink (16 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
One good way to do it is to go to buffets or out with friends to the kind of restaurants where you share dishes, so you can try just a little of something without being committed to having it for your whole meal. A buffet is likely to have pretty approachable versions of things, as well, because buffet food is meant to appeal to the whole crowd.

I learned to like zucchini by always taking a small amount of it whenever it was an option. The first few times, I might have only eaten a single bite or not even that. Then gradually more like a serving. Now I cook it and eat it regularly,even at home.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:15 PM on September 24, 2022 [12 favorites]

Eating seafood is easy because you can get fast food. I’m not saying Long John Silver’s is good or anything, but it’s cheap, so if you try it and don’t like it, you’re not out much. And if you do like low-quality seafood, you’ll be a lot more excited to try the good stuff.

In general, when I experiment with food, I have a backup plan. If I’m cooking something new at home, I’ll have a frozen pizza on hand in case it tastes gross. If I’m going out, I’ll find a nearby McDonalds where I can get a quick burger. For me, a lot of the apprehension isn’t actually about the food. If it tastes bad, it tastes bad. It’s the opportunity cost. Especially when I didn’t have money, I was pretty risk averse, and so I’d rather eat something familiar that I knew would be good rather than something new which might be good, but might also be bad, because I’d feel like the latter would be a waste of money. But if you have an inexpensive backup plan, that’s less risky. That’s why my backup plan is McDonalds and not something better.
posted by kevinbelt at 8:31 PM on September 24, 2022 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I know a few people who were like you in college, evidently, and they all just ended up being vegetarians over the years, of the sort who eat meat when they are served it by family members. (One guy I know also has an annual slice of crappy pepperoni pizza, which he claims barely counts as meat but is also important to his ongoing happiness.) If you are not concerned about allergies, there are lots of places you can go and just eat vegetarian, and you’ll get plenty of fish sauce and dried seafood seasonings but no like, whole head-on prawns.

I say all this because although I am a fervent omnivore and proponent of expanding one’s food preferences and I love organ meats and all the seafoods, the best way I’ve ever found to help picky eaters is to remove the pressure for enjoying the thing as much as possible. It’s okay to simply not like to eat a thing - we have such abundance and choice there will almost always be a nutritional or cultural alternative. Try to shift your thinking from “I have to learn to enjoy [food] or I can’t engage fully with [country] culture” to “I want to try different foods because I am curious, but it’s okay if I don’t like them.”

Most people need to try a disliked food a few times, spaced apart, with no pressure and while they are in a good mood. Being pushed a dish by someone who knows “just how to get you to like [food]” and then watched while you eat it is a bad scene. Try instead getting [food] with someone who knows they like it and sharing it. That way they can have it all if you don’t care for it.

For beginners seafood I think something like deep fried coconut shrimp or fish and chips is probably a safe bet. If you don’t want to do fried, a seared tuna steak is delicious with a hearty summer salad and grilled corn, and you can cook it to medium doneness if the pink inside makes you squeamish. I have been seeing individually vacuum packed tuna steaks in my grocery stores lately, perfect for an experiment. Another good fish to try is salmon, try some smoked salmon, not lox, but the kind that flakes apart and has a more dry texture. Mix it into scrambled eggs, it’s wonderful, or on a grain bowl with greens. A lot of people enjoy scallops because they come very prepared and are just little bloops of seafood flavor, I’ve seen scallops with butter sauce in the fancy freezer section which would be good to try. Another accessible seafood is clams, try clam chowder when it’s available at a restaurant near you.

Organ meats are a lot harder in the US, though it is getting better. Again, probably fried first. You can find great restaurants that do soul food with fried chicken livers and gizzards on the menu, do your research but done right they are crispy and supremely tasty. Other culinary cultures that utilize offal will be any culture that has been marginalized here. I was raised on chopped liver because I’m Jewish, and if you have a deli nearby you can likely ask for a sample. Creole cuisine does fantastic things with offal, look for dirty rice as a great avenue for flavor. Around where I am there are lots of regionally specific Chinese restaurants that specialize in one kind of organ meat or unusual seafood or another, but will typically also do a great version of a standard dish white people will gravitate towards - if you have something like that near you, you could order takeout of both with a friend and share. Japanese food has a whole style of cooking that is great for offal tasting - kushiyaki. It’s things on skewers, grilled and served right away, typically small portions and served with beer. Some places specialize in yakitori, which is chicken, but will also do chicken livers, hearts, etc. You can often get just one skewer of something at a time, so you can eat like, a full meal of crispy juicy chicken skewers and veggies and rice and one skewer of kidney, or whatever. Chicken hearts, by the way, are scrumptious in yakitori style, highly recommended.

I could ramble about two of my favorite categories of food forever, but in conclusion, don’t pressure yourself. We all have different tastes and that’s okay. Share food with adventurous friends, have backup meals if something isn’t yummy, try again a few months later, explore your local culinary scene and ask people for little tastes. Folks who serve these foods know that a lot of times it’s about making that leap, so they will often be happy to share a sample or serve a bit on the side.
posted by Mizu at 10:35 PM on September 24, 2022 [14 favorites]

It also depends what causes you to be squeamish. I didn’t used to like seafood because ‚we’, as family, didn’t used to like seafood…turns out ‚we’ was really just my mother but as she was preparing all the food in the house…once I had that epiphany I was more comfortable trying prawns prepared in different ways, different kinds of fish etc…now, it’s still not my first choice but there are certain dishes I enjoy. So consider what makes you a bit worried about a specific food. That might help you come up with strategies for how to try it again in other contexts. And also, it’s fine not liking certain things.
posted by koahiatamadl at 11:24 PM on September 24, 2022 [2 favorites]

I'm quite a picky eater. In order to try unfamiliar food, including food that looks to be in my own difficult categories, I remind myself that other animals of my species choose to eat this and therefore it must be palatable. I very deliberately avoid any further thoughts: no speculating as to what it might be if I don't recognise the name, no reminding myself that there are flavours and textures other people like and I don't.

I feel a bit sheepish seeing it written down like that, but it actually does help me eat more adventurously.

Moving from disliking a specific known food to tolerating or enjoying it is a different thing. I've managed it with some things, usually by happening upon a form of that food that I actually like and eating it enough that my palate adjusts more broadly. There are still things in that category that I need to *not think about* while I'm eating them, because if I think about them I'll remember that I don't like them and cognitive dissonance gets in the way, but as long as I can manage that, I enjoy the meal.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 3:13 AM on September 25, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: First another vote for not forcing yourself to eat something you don't like. Yes, I did encourage my children to eat everything, but you are not a child.

They say about children that if you taste a bite of something ten times, you will begin to like it, mostly. But I don't know if that applies to adults.

That said, since you ask, I think of my grandmother who had an incredible ability to get people to eat things they thought they didn't like and used a range of methods, which she passed on to me. I'm not as good at it as she was, because I don't believe in tricking people, but here you go.

The first one is simple, and specially applies to fish, but actually everything: use the best produce you can afford and cook it correctly. Far too often, fish is too old and also over-cooked, and I think that is a huge reason people don't like it. Since you are not an experienced fish cook, that means you must find a good restaurant (or friend) to cook it for you. That doesn't necessarily mean expensive, on the contrary. A medium expensive a la carte restaurant with one fish dish on the menu might not have a big fish turnover and may keep the expensive fish a bit longer than is ideal. While an inexpensive fish and chips -style place or beach shack has a huge turnover (otherwise they will be out of business soon), and get fresh fish very often (or know how to cook from frozen). My youngest works in a fish restaurant, and tells me the best days to eat fish are Wednesday and Thursday, and this particularly applies to sushi places. If you are on a beach/harbor, different rules may apply.

The second trick is sauce. Seafood in a great curry is easier to begin with than a whole fish on the bone. My gran would always say that people didn't have to eat the seafood, but they should really try the sauce and some rice. They almost always did, and from then, they became more adventurous, maybe first trying a tiny piece of white fish with the sauce, then a shrimp and then a mussel, and then a whole portion of curry with everything in it, all within one meal. Sauces don't have to be spicy to work their magic, just good. Apart from a curry, she made a tomato sauce with onions and capers, and a white sauce with mustard and tarragon that were both big persuaders with people who preferred midler tastes. For fish balls, a nice serving of tartar sauce may do the trick.

The third trick is deception. I don't know if you can deceive yourself, some people can. And it that case it is less ethically problematic than if you are deceiving others. But late in life my gran tricked my granddad into eating fishballs by hiding them among the meatballs, and it worked. He loved them. He had only had horrible, rubbery fishballs and gefilte fish as a child and refused to even try her delicious versions his whole life until she played this stunt on him.

In a milder form of deception, she was very restrictive about who could come into her kitchen. I experienced that once when she wanted her friend to try hollandaise sauce. We cooked most of the meal together, and then she asked me to make the sauce while she and her friend had a glass of wine in the living room. The friend loved it and my gran grinned from ear to ear. She couldn't possibly hand over the recipe, because it was a family secret. I have no idea why the friend shouldn't know how to make hollandaise, but I did check about allergies and other health issues. For you, finding a good restaurant will have a similar effect. We don't usually go out into the kitchens in restaurants.

And contrary to that, she invited people to come along, from shopping for produce to preparing the meal. I don't know how she read which strategy would work. But if you have adventurous eater friends, why not join them in preparing a meal? It might help you understand food better.

Organ meat is a different challenge. I think if you can find a French (chicken or duck or veal) liver paté, and eat it with cornichons and some very good sourdough bread, that might be the easiest first introduction. It is in my experience. I know a lot of adults who are skeptical about organ meat who will eat a good liver paté. Chopped liver can be the same for some people and variants. Also I have successfully served a fegato alla veneta for picky people (with available alternatives close at hand) -- this is Venetian liver with lots of onions, served on polenta. But it is really easy to get wrong, here you need a North Italian restaurant, or friend, to guide you. IMO liver is the best starter organ meat, from there on, you can build confidence.

Oxtail and shanks of both beef, pig and lamb are delicious when cooked low and slow or in the pressure cooker. I've never met an omnivore who didn't enjoy those, when they were cooked well. I prefer them to steaks.
posted by mumimor at 3:46 AM on September 25, 2022 [5 favorites]

Best answer: How about looking up parenting tips when it comes to introducing children to new foods as well?

Throwing in my seconding to the following:
- start small; don't stress out
- go with a flavour profile you're already familiar with and combine that with the new thing: new meats with a standard seasoning; new flavours with your typical chicken cuts. I.e. pair one new thing with one familiar thing.

My advice, building on the above:
- offal or organ meats: don't start with those that handle blood yet. Organ meats are already so different in texture so try lung, tongue, stomach or ligaments first, over liver. Speaking of blood, just a warning but you might need to work up to shellfish like blood cockles and other bottom feeders.

- smells: this is related to the blood-handling part, but aim for poultry first over other herbivores especially beef liver, as they're smaller and the scent isn't as strong.

- texture: based on your familiarity, you'll need to ramp up for the soft textured stuff like much of collagen-rich stuff. try something cooked in jelly first. Then move up to tofu. Then to eel or similar. Then maybe you can do marrow and even eyes. I find western palate, when picky, tends to find soft gelatinous food as disgusting so this might be relevant to you as well.

- processed versions before full-on: I'm thinking about seafood for this one. Try exploring fishcakes and fishballs first. You want to get that taste first so the actual flesh won't trip you up. It's also a lot more dependable because it's true, freshness counts a lot for seafood/riverfood.

- a note about 'land' vs 'sea' fish - I'm just translating directly what I'd understand them in my other language - land or dry, it refers to riverine life, and sometimes not tolerated well, because it tastes 'muddy' or 'dirty'. Coastal cultures tend to have this well-earned prejudice (e.g the Japanese with salmon before the Norwegians popularized their Atlantic ones), so try and see if you do better with proper ocean fish like tuna over 'land' ones like catfish.

- eat with your hands: I'm actually quite serious about this when it comes to the seafood part - outside of the northern european west, most cuisines tend to cook their seafood whole. There's a whole psychological prep you need to do to be used to eating fish around all their bones, for example, as well as other animals. Some cuisines for example, cook prawns whole, while others will devein them and remove the tail and head while others do it halfway. In any case, crunching on those parts is part of the meal but you can opt out, it's just that those parts will be in the dish, so you'll need the practice of picking out which part to eat and which to ignore.

- eat whatever it is you're exploring as a side, accompanying your favourite carb or doused with your favourite seasoning.

Basically you need to expand your mental heuristics on what's possibly tasty, is my general advice.

Korean barbecue prepare their meats in thin slices. So does Chinese hotpot. Then you dunk them in your sauces of choice. These could be good options to be your playground to expand your appetite.
posted by cendawanita at 4:26 AM on September 25, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Jeffrey Steingarten wrote about this in The Man Who Ate Everything. You can see the first chapter here. TL;DR: “Scientists tell us that aversions fade away when we eat moderate doses of the hated foods at moderate intervals, especially if the food is complex and new to us.” Methodical, deliberate and repeated exposure are the way to go. I have also found it helpful to start off with really high end versions of the food item—peak quality ingredients in highly skilled preparations. This helps you learn how to “taste for the good part” so later exposures at less elevated levels can still be palatable (e.g., learning how to enjoy raw tomatoes with late summer vine-ripened heirlooms makes it possible to still appreciate a mundane tomato in a midwinter turkey sandwich).
posted by slkinsey at 6:33 AM on September 25, 2022 [4 favorites]

I will eat most of the standard kinds of seafood now, but it was not always like that. Clam strips converted me to eating clam, lobster dip or ravioli to lobster, california roll to trying any kind of sushi including eel. So the secret might be in trying to most highly processed version first and working your way down to the basic dish.
posted by soelo at 6:56 AM on September 25, 2022 [1 favorite]

I often call tongue the gateway organ meat because it’s really just muscle like a shoulder, pec or leg. Offal that has different biological functions than locomotion can, in fact, be pretty off putting and funky depending on what those functions are. I’m about as adventurous an eater as they come, I’ll try pretty much anything at least twice but I don’t much care for, say, kidneys bc they taste too much like what they’re for. I’m sure urinal is someone’s jam but it’s not what i prefer on my plate. So, back to tongue, there’s a membrane that might bother you if you had to prepare it yourself but if you get it at a restaurant it will have been removed. It’s great cooked for a long long time and you’ll find delicious versions of it in Mexican spots, Japanese places and Jewish delis.

All of this is to say that I’m far from an expert on aversions - a look at my waistline could attest to that plenty well, but having a singular good experience w a food your not keen on could break through the mental barrier.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 6:57 AM on September 25, 2022 [2 favorites]

It's also worth thinking about why you don't like to eat some things.
I once knew a little girl who didn't like tomatoes. When we talked about it, she explained that it was a texture thing, and thus she did like blended tomatoes in the lasagna sauce. That was a relief.
When I lost my sense of smell and taste I could suddenly feel how she felt about tomato texture, and I didn't eat them till I got my sense of taste back again.
When I was a child, I didn't like beef much because of texture issues. But hamburger meat was fine.
Lots of people don't like seafood because of the objectively horrible smell from old fish. That is fair, though some learn to like fermented fish in fish sauce, oyster sauce, Worchestershire sauce etc. Or dry fish which many people all over the world enjoy. But those are acquired tastes. You don't have to start there.
Similarly, some people don't like to eat onions because of the pungent smell they have when they are raw, that somehow -- to them -- lingers on even when they are cooked and sweet.

And there might be cultural issues. Some people here won't eat garlic because they feel the smell signals lower class. Others love garlic because they feel it signals sophistication. And those beliefs are so ingrained it feels like taste to them. Thinking about ones own cultural biases can be pretty hard. I'm so ashamed of the ones I have discovered I won't even write them here (not food related). But you can think about them in privacy. Someone dear to me grew up with a lot of cultural biases surrounding food and it has been a journey to try other tastes, and even more of a journey to let their children do so. For instance, even when they began to enjoy shellfish, they still felt children couldn't.
posted by mumimor at 10:54 AM on September 25, 2022 [1 favorite]

if it's any kind of animal protein, grind it up with seasonings and an egg to bind, crumbcoat and fry it. Voila now you ate the thing, it tasted like chicken nuggets, and you're over the first hurdle.
posted by fingersandtoes at 11:20 AM on September 25, 2022 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Wow, amazing and thoughtful answers, thanks all! You’re making me feel excited for this process instead of anxious. All of the strategies look great, and I’m really enjoying reading about the suggested ‘gateway’ foods - hearing about why other people like things does help me feel more ready to try them.
posted by catcafe at 12:02 PM on September 25, 2022 [1 favorite]

I started following a sardines subreddit a few years ago (pandemic pantry stocking, I guess), which is how I became aware of Rainbow Tomatoes Garden, a tiny little company that will literally send you a tin of free fish if you write the proprietor about where you think your aversion comes from and what's got you interested in trying tinned fish now. No affiliation at all, but we enjoyed the order we got from them and it's the kind of promo I keep hoping I'll be able to recommend to someone one day.
posted by deludingmyself at 7:02 PM on September 25, 2022 [5 favorites]

I had this boyfriend who told me he used to love tongue sandwiches at his grandmother's house. They were: white bread, slice of beef tongue, yellow mustard. They were delicious, of course, because tongue is divine. He never really examined the sandwiches too closely, just accepted them with enthusiasm and consumed them rapidly. At some point years into this he learned that the word was not "tung" but "tongue" and what he had been eating all this time was an actual factual tongue from an animal! But by the time he learned that, he'd been eating his grandmother's sandwiches for years and wasn't able to make the mental switch from "this is divine" to "I am rubbing my tongue against the tongue of a dead, cooked steer," so he kept eating them.
posted by Don Pepino at 6:41 AM on September 26, 2022 [2 favorites]

If it's helpful in any way, I'll tell a short story on myself. During my childhood I was a notoriously picky eater, and now I am known as someone who will eat practically anything. How did this happen?

Back in my college days my best friend liked to ask women out on double-dates if it was the first time, because he reasoned it would be less pressuring compared to a more traditional two-person date. He didn't usually tell me until after she had accepted his invitation, however, which meant I often found myself running around trying to get a date at the 11th hour. Turns out I met a lot of interesting women that way, but I digress... Point is, it one of those double dates. We're out at a newish Italian restaurant, and while we're perusing the menu my friend orders some calamari marinara for the table. My friend is of 100% Sicilian extraction, so calamari was nothing new to him. But this was the mid-1980s before calamari became ubiquitous in the US. In addition, this was not fried calamari but rather stewed calamari in spicy tomato sauce. It was unmistakably squid, and I can't say that I liked much of anything from the ocean at that time. Our dates were giggling and I thought, "If this date is going to go well, I have to eat this." I'd always been able to choke down something I didn't like if it was served at a friend's house, so I figured I'd try. But, man, I really didn't want to.

I spear up a ring of squid and it's like looking down the barrel of a gun. I steel my nerves, put the squid in my mouth and ... I mean, the most challenging thing about squid is that it might be a bit rubbery if it's not properly cooked. Turns out it was pretty damn good, to my honest surprise. And I had a kind of epiphany. I said to myself, "What if all those foods you've been avoiding for years are actually good? What if, instead of being an aggressively picky eater, I decide to be an aggressively non-picky eater?" So that's what I did, like I flipped a switch.

In the intervening year I've had everything from beef spleen sandwiches to spicy duck tongues and so on. Ran in to a few things I don't need to have again, but I'm glad I tried them at least. There are a few childhood dislikes I still have (squash, eggplant and foods that could be described as "mucilaginous"), but I know I could eradicate them if I were ever motivated to really try.

Oh... and that date went pretty well, too. She was smart and funny and beautiful & we ended up together for several years after that.
posted by slkinsey at 10:32 AM on September 26, 2022 [1 favorite]

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