Taste is the sensation we usually associate with food, but picky eaters can be just as fixated on texture as flavor. Ask someone who doesn’t like mushrooms or eggplant what turns them off and they are just as likely (if not more likely) to say the food is “slimy” or “mushy” as they are to complain about the taste.
Of course texture is important. It is the essential difference between fresh and stale popcorn, and the springy crunch of a fresh grilled shrimp versus the rubbery give of an over-boiled one. But for most picky eaters, the issue is rarely a matter of cooking preference.
In the human mind, texture is easily associated with other non-edible, and often gross looking, sounding or smelling substances. A picky eater who doesn’t like a specific texture will often describe the food as feeling like brains, snot, rubber or other things most of us would agree are unappetizing. Once this association is made, the idea can overpower any pleasurable that might come from the food.
One way to address this is to form a new association. One reader I spoke with says he was able to overcome the “dead tongue” feeling of raw fish in sushi when a friend suggested he think of it like lunch meat instead. Though sushi and lunch meat have little in common, this small shift in perception was enough for him to become an avid sushi lover.
To implement this on your own, try to think of a food you enjoy with a similar texture as one you don’t like. For instance, instead of associating a tomato with snot (I lost track of the number of people who have told me this), try pudding, egg yolk or a fruit smoothie. If your brain can only come up with gross things, try asking a friend for help.
Another useful technique is to try the offending food in a new setting. An important part of the sushi story is that the person was on vacation in Mexico when he decided to try the raw fish again. When many things are unfamiliar, the strangeness of a particular food texture is less noticeable than it would be if it were the only new thing you were confronting. In another example, a mother cured her child of picky eating by taking him on a trip around the world. The new cultures and environments were enough for her 9-year old to feel comfortable stepping out of his normal habits and be more adventurous.
Indeed, embracing a sense of adventure is very important. Whenever the jet-setting child was nervous about a new food, his mother said she could hear him repeat to himself, “I just have to try it.” And no one forced him to eat anything. Repeated brief exposures to something new is sometimes enough for a person to get over the unfamiliar component, which is often the main reason for the aversion in the first place. If you’re persistent enough, almost everyone can learn to like something new.
A related approach is to try a food cooked in a new way. I’ve helped several people overcome aversions to eggplant that they had attributed to texture by roasting it without much oil. Pan sautéing can often make eggplant oily and slimy, but roasting gives it a more chewy texture. Once these people realize they enjoy the flavor of the food in this new format, the slimy version is suddenly not so bad.
To some extent, aversions to specific food textures is embedded in Western cultures. In contrast, the Chinese culture embraces food texture as a unique element in food, completely distinct from taste. In Chinese cuisine (the real stuff, not Panda Express), ingredients are frequently added solely for texture, such as jellyfish and sea cucumber. They have little flavor on their own but add a springy crunch to a dish that is considered a delicacy. Westerners can learn from this approach and develop a more open mind when trying new foods. When you focus on the texture in food not as something you are being subjected to but as a unique and interesting experience to be appreciated, it can break those unpleasant associations and help you enjoy what a less adventurous palate would struggle with.
If none of these work for you, there is always the bootcamp method. One reader explained how his son overcame his strong aversions to tomatoes and mushrooms in Marine Corps basic. After a day of intense training, the recruits were taken into the mess hall, given a plate of food and five minutes to eat it—the drill sergeant would sometimes count down the final seconds. No other food was available to the recruits, so anything you skipped meant less calories and energy for tomorrow. “The recruits ate what was put in front of them or went hungry,” so his son tried not to think about it and forced himself to choke down everything. It wasn’t until after he left basic that he realized he was over his food aversions.
While real, clinical food aversions do exist that can cause people and even babies to gag and vomit in response to certain food textures, most of us can get over texture issues if we want. Persistence, an adventurous spirit and a few psychological tricks can go a long way.
How did you get over your food texture aversions?