On Nutrition

Is it worth cultivating a taste for simple foods? That’s an interesting reader question I received a few months ago. This reader was mostly wondering if they should stop relying on condiments, but I see this as a broader question. If you eat a lot of highly processed foods or drown your food in condiments that are high in added salt and sugar, yes, there could be value in training your taste buds to appreciate simpler flavors. But that doesn’t mean a life of plain chicken breasts and steamed broccoli.

So why is it worth it? Because, simply put, our food preferences drive our overall eating habits, and foods that deliver an over-the-top dose of sweet or salty are often skimpy on nutrition. Consumer surveys routinely show that even among those who consider nutrition and health a priority, taste and price are often bigger drivers of food choice.

The shaping of your personal preferences began when your mother was pregnant with you. Once we’re born, we gravitate toward sweet and umami tastes and we avoid bitter tastes, because in nature, bitter foods are more likely to be toxic. Our preferences continue to develop in early childhood, and those preferences tend to persist through life. If you hate broccoli but were forced to eat all you were served — with or without dessert as a reward — you are less likely to like broccoli today.

The good news is we can retrain our palates. Research on children’s eating habits shows repeated exposure to most foods breeds familiarity — this is as simple as encouraging and praising kids for trying just one bite — and many familiar foods become foods we enjoy. From what I’ve experienced and observed, this same phenomenon holds true in adults. So if your current preferences run to the highly processed or overly sweet and salty, here are four tips for making some shifts:

Be open to the possibilities. I loathed fish throughout childhood — even fresh-caught trout tasted unpleasantly “fishy” to me. But I had a “never say never” mindset, and a few positive “just one bite” taste experiences in my mid-20s told me my preferences had changed. Similarly, I disliked blue cheese — or any pungent cheese — growing up, but now the stinkier the cheese, the better. And bitter dandelion greens? Bring it on!

Take it slow. Lower your taste thresholds gradually, making each shift barely perceptible. Over time, you get used to certain levels of sweetness and saltiness, especially if you eat a lot of highly processed snack foods and heat-and-eat meals, and if you dine out significantly more than you cook from scratch. Going cold turkey is likely to backfire.

Use positive food and flavor pairings. Pair a food you are learning to like with a flavor you already like. For example, if fish isn’t your favorite, don’t eat it plain. Instead, top with a sauce that has flavors that appeal to you — perhaps pesto, or a lemon-Dijon sauce — and serve it with side dishes you like.

Be willing to experiment. Trying to warm up to broccoli? Try it different ways. You might like the veggie better raw than cooked, or vice versa — for texture as well as taste. Roasting vegetables brings out their natural sweetness, or try sautéing them in olive oil with a little garlic, and top with a squeeze of lemon and some grated Parmesan. You can also experiment with spices and herbs. Simple doesn’t have to mean plain or boring!