Taste Psychology: Learning To Love Foods You Don’t Like

by | Sep 10, 2012
Roasted Beets With Fresh Mint and Chevre (click for recipe)

Roasted Beets With Fresh Mint and Chevre (click for recipe)

Chances are there are foods you love now that you hated as a kid. But how many foods do you still avoid just because you think you don’t like them?

Young palates struggle with things like mustard, onions and asparagus, and instead prefer more bland, less intense flavors. But as adults we sometimes cling to these preferences without ever stopping to question the value or meaning of our opinions.

But in reality, what joy is there in being a picky eater?

While it’s true that taste is subjective, I’ve never heard a convincing argument that it’s better to dislike a food than to like one. It is certainly more fun to like things, and it is often far more convenient. Just try getting a serious chef to make a signature dish without onions. It isn’t easy.

But is it possible to learn to like a food if you don’t like the taste?

It turns out that most of the time we decide what we like before we bother to experience it, and this prejudice clouds our perception of what we actually encounter. This effect of perception bias has been demonstrated repeatedly in psychology experiments where food color and taste have been manipulated. To see this for yourself, use food coloring to alter the appearance of several bowls of lemon Jell-O and have your friends guess what flavors they are tasting. Very few will say they taste lemon unless the color is still yellow.

The psychology of taste is further complicated by our natural aversion to things that are new or different from what we are expecting. Foods with unique textures such as mushrooms and okra often fall victim to this bias. In these cases the unfamiliarity and strangeness of the texture makes us slightly uncomfortable, and we interpret this feeling as a personal dislike. However, this reaction reflects the food’s uniqueness rather than its true character.

Our tendency to dislike and often hate things that extend beyond our perceptual comfort zones is explored in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. He argues that we make snap judgments about everything we encounter based on prior experience. And while this ability can sometimes help us make wise decisions, it can also explain why pilot testing can’t predict the success of new concept T.V. shows like Seinfeld.

In other words, sometimes our first impressions are wrong.

Knowing about this bias can help you overcome aversions to foods you think you don’t like, and even learn to love them. The first step is deciding that there is value in enjoying a food you currently do not enjoy. I’m not saying you should develop an appreciation for frozen pasta, but most fresh, natural whole foods are worth rediscovering for both taste and culture.

The second step is dedicating yourself to keep trying the rejected food until you find it prepared in a way you like. This is not as bad as it sounds, since there is a good chance that the reason you do not like a food in the first place is because what you were served as a child was either canned, frozen or of industrial (low) quality. Since peaches and plums taste completely different when you get them at the farmers market, doesn’t it stand to reason that the same is true for green beans, broccoli and beets? Also, with each venture your taste will become more acclimated to the flavor and your aversion will dissipate.

Fine dining represents another great opportunity to explore foods you haven’t enjoyed in the past. I was finally won over on brussels sprouts after a spectacular meal in San Francisco, and now consider them one of my favorite autumn ingredients.

Even if a certain food doesn’t end up on your favorites list, learning to at least enjoy it in a casual way will enrich your life and help you develop an appreciation for new and unique experiences. The Chinese culture pays particular reverence to textures in food, and this attitude allows them to enjoy a far more diverse and interesting range of ingredients than any Western culture.

The key word here is “enjoy.” Eating vegetables is undeniably healthy, but the best reason to eat broccoli is that you absolutely love it.

What foods do you hate? Are you ready to get over it?

Originally published October 5, 2009.

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138 Responses to “Taste Psychology: Learning To Love Foods You Don’t Like”

  1. Caroline says:

    Hi. I found this by googling how to eat foods I don’t like. I have always been a ‘fussy eater’ – drove my mother mad! I have found though that mostly its either the texture I don’t like, as you mentioned, or the smell. I loathe even the smell of peaches, celery and peppers. I have tried eating peaches a few years ago, to see if I could re educate my tongue, but no, still vile smell and that horrible stringy texture. But what I have found is, that if I’m ready to try something new, and no one is trying to force me, I am far more likely to be accepting of a new food. When I was on holiday in America many years ago, I thought, I must try foods here that aren’t available in England (it was MANY years ago!). I tried avocado, asparagus, iceberg lettuce and cinnamon rolls. Love cinnamon and the lettuce (although, it doesn’t seem to have the faintly nutty flavour now as it did then), hated avocado and asparagus. And it was also a lesson for me, that if I’m ready and receptive, I am far more likely to take to new foods than if someone tries to bully me into it. (it has been done)

  2. Sara says:

    I hated goat cheese the first time I tried it, but everyone in my friend group loved to order goat cheese appetizers. Not wanting to be the naysayer, I tried it every time. Eventually I learned to tollerate it, and recently I ordered a wrap with goat cheese in it and actually really LIKED it. Now I will buy it just for myself! It IS certianly more fun to like things. 🙂

  3. Sparky says:

    It’s not psychological, it’s physical. Certain genetic markers in people are either on or off for myriad reasons. They affect everything from taste to smell to how we respond to textures as well. It’s why some people love broccoli and other people hate it. In seafood it comes down to the oils and fats. People that hate seafood have a certain genetic marker that’s switched on which allows the to taste breakdown of said oils which have a real displeasing taste. It carries over to certain oils like canola as well, and several other things. Did you know that almost 25% of all people can’t smell truffles? There’s all kinds of weird stats out there like that. Point being if you hate seafood it’s not your fault, and there is no way you will ever learn to like it either.

  4. Brian says:

    It’s not all psychological, as the poster commented above. When babies transition from liquids to solids foods, or trying out new foods, a gag reflex will be triggered. This is a protective measure, for 1. To prevent choking and 2.To prevent ingestion of poisonous material(this is why many children are finicky eaters and prefer a narrow list of foods). This reflex can linger into adulthood. For example, if I am eating a food and suddenly I feel an unexpected texture, I will gag immediately. Sometimes, though not as often, if I get an unexpected flavor/smell in the food I have been eating I will gag as well. Tough, overly chewy food will eventually cause me to gag if I chew it long enough (because of the choking hazard). The position of our nose and the relation of smell to taste helps us ferret out potential poison/foods that may have gone bad. Some people have more serious food aversions than others, and there are places where one can receive therapy (from a team of occupational therapists/speech therapists and nutritionists) to help mitigate that.

    -Brian
    Speech-Language Pathologist

    • Michelle says:

      Brian, can you be more specific on the therapy(ies)? My son and I both hate fruits and veggies and will not try. Texture and mental block. Please help!

  5. Nicole says:

    I am glad I came across this article. I have something I am hoping people can help with. I am a terribly picky eater (but I love fruit) and I think I have selective eating disorder. I want to eat better, but for me, the prospect of trying some new food– veggies in particular–triggers extreme panic and anxiety in me to the extent that I avoid social activities where there is food. It’s panic to the degree that it is like a serious phobia…just like people who hav fears of heights or flying. It is a great source of embarrassment to me, and therapy hasn’t really helped. I think I want to change, but am not sure how to start. I don’t know if there is any advice that people can help me get past the initial panic so I am open to trying something?

    • Steve says:

      Nicole, the key to easing anxiety is to have small successes. Pick something easy for you to eat. Consume it and think to yourself, that wasn’t so bad. If it works you up continue to say to yourself it’s ok, I’m just afraid because I get that way with new food, the anxiety will pass.

      Good luck!

  6. Talia says:

    I am a fairly picky eater, but I was much worse when I was younger. When I moved in with my grandmother at age 9, I was immediately told I was allowed 3 foods that I wouldn’t eat. Of course, I wound up with much more than that, but the rule meant I had to try a number of foods. Another rule was I couldn’t try a food just once and then refuse it. I had to try it at least 3 times. I found out that I liked a lot of different foods I had thought I hated. By the time I was 15 I was doing most of the cooking for my family, just because they preferred my food. Now, a university student, I spend more money on food than most of my friends, but since it’s mostly fresh food and higher quality ingredients, I think it’s worth it. I’m also learning to like even more foods, not because of my budget, but because I want to. It’s working, and I think this article will help. Thanks!

  7. Amy says:

    I’m trying to learn to like shrimp and mushrooms. I recently conquered mussels, which by the way are DELICIOUS. I’m trying to work my way through shellfish in general- most of it is texture rather than taste. I like the taste of most things (except peanut butter, but I’m not budging on that one!)

    Shrimp and shrooms are my biggest barriers. I try, I do, but shrimp just has such a weird texture. I like cream of mushroom soup in casseroles and stuff, and they smell great when cooked, so I figure I could like those too, texture be damned. Any tips on how a newbie with texture issues could ease into shrooms and shrimp?

  8. Your friendly neighborhood tomato says:

    I am ALWAYS open to trying to new things. Textures don’t usually faze me (I can’t recall a texture that prevented me from eating something). I base foods I like or dislike solely on the taste of the food. Any food I have disliked as a child I have always given a second chance and have learned to love most of them. I used to hate refried beans, but now I don’t particularly like them, but I can eat them. I tried eating many of them on different occasions and in different dishes, and I’m just indifferent. It’s good enough for me.
    But I can’t get myself to like tomatoes or raspberries.
    I want to like both, but I can’t stand the taste of them. I try again and again, but it has never worked. I like products with them cooked in usually, but the raw ones won’t ever be good to me it seems. :/

  9. ALBERTO says:

    GO MEXICAN FOOD!

  10. Jeff says:

    Very interesting. I’ve recently been on a health kick, and I’ve added avocados to my diet. I have never previously eaten avocado, and as of a few days ago I began eating plain avocado with 1 of my meals daily. The first time I had to just force it down, but now I would say the taste is no longer ‘bad’. They’re certainly not yummy to me, but I’m interested to see if my enjoyment of them keeps increasing ( the same is happening with the bell pepper and fish I’ve added to my diet as well! )

  11. Cathy says:

    I agree with you on this, Darya. I used to think I hated both beets and brussels sprouts because I’d never had them prepared well. I now love both things, especially beets. A fresh beet tastes nothing like a canned beet. I’m now trying to change my mind about hard boiled eggs.

    That said, I can’t warm up to salmon, no matter how many times I’ve tried it. I think there will probably always be things that aren’t for me, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be open minded and keep trying and retrying them.

  12. Darren says:

    PLEASE get this, based on experience. Do not keep eating what you don’t like! Just taste it. Here’s the story…

    Sam came to live at our home with a very small menu – hamburgers, pizza, mac and cheese, etc. He hated almost everything good for him. We have a rule in our home that helps new tenants – you don’t have to eat anything you don’t like. BUT you do have to taste it. You don’t even have to swallow it – you can spit it out in a napkin if you choose. One taste. That’s it.

    If you force someone to eat the whole portion (even if it’s small), the resulting message to the brain does the opposite of the intention of this article and well-meaning parents. The brain remembers all the gagging, choking, and near vomiting and will make it very difficult for them to try the foods next time.

    It’s not the taste of the food they reject, but the experience of eating it. Tasting, on the other hand is not so bad of an experience. But by just tasting it, over time, it opens the taste buds to the possibility of trying it again. Within 18 months, Sam was eating everything! Vegetables, salads, fruit, you name it.

    Sam’s story can be your story. Just taste it. Keep tasting until your taste buds welcome foods you thought you’d never eat!

  13. Bobby Land says:

    Very good article.

  14. Jo says:

    I am a foodie, love everything, and was very proud of my 2 boys who also ate everything (a huge variety of all foods) from weaning up until 2 and a half. Since then their fussiness has increased steadily to the point that I am getting so frustrated, I often cook the same old things (they only eat about 3 different types of veg now). I try offering them different stuff all the time, they have to taste, they don’t have to eat it, but they are old enough now (9 & 7) to refuse to eat at all, which they will do if they decide they don’t like what is on offer as I never provide an alternative. There are no snacks before the next meal. I am at my wit’s end. My husband is terribly picky too which doesn’t help. Anyone got any advice before I go bald tearing all my hair out!! Thanks

    • Darya Rose says:

      That sounds incredibly frustrating. According to all I’ve read it sounds like you’re doing everything right, and most say they will grow out of it eventually. Maybe someone else will have some advice, but clearly you’re doing everything you can. Maybe time to focus on meditation and stress management? Good luck 🙂

  15. PJ Erickson says:

    I thought your article was informative. But as a very picky eater from my very first memory, I know I just hated the way foods felt in my mouth. The way they slid over my tongue, or slid down my throat. But the worst thing was the wayit would make me gag just because it was such a disgusting, creepy feeling. And this was before I knew what disgusting really was. But I remember how biting into a Lima bean was like stepping on a grub in the garden. And as an e.r. Nurse, tomatoes do have the consistency of guts!! But you can say what you want–trying to desensitize yourself so you can eat the offending food is kind of “stupid” unless your picky problem becomes a health problem! But I can tell you with absolute certainty that I will never eat slimy cooked onions, celery, squid(which I have eaten), chicken skin, tomatoes, okra, Lima beans, wax beans, peppers, mustard and several Asian or middle eastern foods. Many because I like to be able to see all of the things I am eating and not have to separate the items before I can eat them. And there are a lot of foods that I think taste awful! Like stuffed peppers, pigs in blankets, sauerkraut, and cooked squash or Limburger cheese. And as a child my parents would me and one brother sit at the kitchen table uuntil 9pm at times with a plate of something we hated———but we’re absolutely not going to eat if we had to sit there until the next morning!!!! Sometimes when the medical or psychiatric fields get involved, I feel like they over think everything. Then something that in many cases isn’t really a problem gets made into a syndrome, a disorder or a malady of exaggerated proportion.
    But I do have to admit I always wished I was one of those people who could go to a dinner, restaurant or friend’s and have a meal put in front of me, look at the food then just dig in! My biggest fear was that I’d be eating something and involuntarily gag, or have to grab a napkin and spit the food into it!

  16. Lynn S. says:

    I desperately want to be able to eat more vegetables. However, my distaste for most is so strong that I actually gag. It seems to be a combination of flavor and texture that I for some reason cannot handle and it’s super discouraging. IThey would be an absolute dream to be able to go into a restaurant and order something as is. 🙁 any suggestions?

  17. Try it says:

    Fish has been mentioned a lot in these comments so for all you fish haters out there I would like you to give this a try (I can see you turning your noses up already and I haven’t even told you what it is yet!)

    Oven bake a fresh piece of river cobbler over sliced lemon with finely chopped garlic and chilli on top. Once it is baked sufficiently so that the fish is pretty much dry, switch to the grill to give it a crispy top coating, making sure not to burn your garlic of course!

    River cobbler is possibly the least fishy smelling fish I’ve ever come across, absorbs the flavor of whatever the hell you cook it with, and costs less than quarter the price of salmon or tuna. Also, drying it out by baking gets rid of that slimy fishy texture.

    I’ve given this to fish haters before and the usual comment is “doesn’t even taste like fish”.

    Best enjoyed (in my opinion) with boiled new potatoes, asparagus and latherings of butter!

    And if you don’t try it, shame on you, the whole meal will cost you less than a Big Mac.

  18. Crystal B. says:

    This article is so off point. Science proves that genes have to do with being picky eaters. We don’t choose which foods we like and dislike. Our genes do.
    Read this:
    http://jeffready.blogspot.com/2007/01/i-told-you-that-lettuce-tastes-like.html?m=1

    • Darya Rose says:

      There is certainly a genetic component, but it is just your baseline and you can still alter your perception. I am one of the people who hated cilantro and thought it tasted like soap. I used to try to pick all the specks of it out of my salsa as a kid. But I reframed my relationship with it and now I love it.

  19. Chris B says:

    I’m sorry, but I have to disagree with this. Even to this day I cannot stand the taste of beans, pinto, kidney, white, cannelini, etc. The only way I can cover up and kill the taste of them is by dowsing them in a lot of hot sauce, and even then it’s usually not successful. I’ve tried using exotic spices on them, and I end up being able to taste both the spice and the beans….so that means I’m still tasting the beans. I need something that kills the bean taste, not just cover it up.

  20. Leslie G says:

    I have a client who is trying to improve his diet, but he hates all veggies except mushrooms. Even hates the texture and taste of lettuce! Any suggestions?

  21. Mark says:

    Article just reiterates standard spiel on the subject, that the only way to learn to like foods that you dislike is to force yourself to eat them, which doesn’t work when you have an eating disorder like AFRID/SED.

    • martin says:

      I agree. I am not so much picky as all food is not so good. Not sure how to love it. It has never brought me pleasure. Only reason to learn to eat is to help other people deal with you and make them feel better. Just went to a wedding fish. No fish nothing that has lived in the sea and sSMELLS like it. No problem salad, but the dressing I did not like. Out comes a veg dish for me about 20 minutes later. Whatever spice I did not like so I did not eat. Out comes desert. I did not eat. I could of but I am a diabetic and no problem to not eat. Fine except people next to you and across from you you don’t like the taste of food????? Disbelief and difficult to get conversation away from me not eating. I am an extremely healthy 70 year old man that out perform most men in their 30’s so I think I am doing just fine

    • Kaitlyn says:

      I was told I have a SED years ago by my therapist. I am literally scared of most foods to the point I would probably starve to death before I even let them near me.

  22. Kristina says:

    Trying to figure out how to start liking bananas. Have never liked them unless in bread, muffins, or cake. Baked seems to go ok. But I would love to be able to really enjoy a banana on the go. I watch other people eat them, and I am completely in awe of how much they seem to enjoy it. I have tried again and again over the years, but my gag reflex won’t let me get it down. Trying to figure out if it is texture, flavor, or combination of both.

    • Miss Cellany says:

      I loathe bananas (it’s the only fruit I dislike) I think because they’re too sweet with no tang or bitterness to cut the sweetness (I really love citrus fruit even unsweetened lemon slices)and their texture is too mushy. However I LOVE banana milkshake made with real bananas – it’s best if made with a low sugar frozen yogurt or just plain yogurt instead of icecream or milk. Banana milkshake has become my favourite flavour of milkshake, pretty good for my most loathed fruit 🙂

      • jennifer klein says:

        i like bananas with a bit of green on peel
        start getting ripe or brown spots and forget it!
        not in yogurt or smoothies either
        and please no banana bread
        no banana ice cream and please leave the banana OUT of my banana split
        i have a BAD texture hang up…
        i do like dried banana chips tho
        not sure why this all is but i will just enjoy my banana slightly green and raw outa the peel

      • Coytle says:

        Have you tried slightly green bananas? Not as sickly sweet and a bit more firm… I hate them more as they ripen. They are much better to me when still a bit green

    • Adam R. says:

      Have you tried them in different stages of ripeness? I can eat bananas in just about any stage, but really enjoy them when the peel starts getting little brown spots and the banana is very soft. I have also heard bananas like that help fight cancer cells (not sure if that’s true)

      • Darya Rose says:

        That’s so funny, I’m just the opposite. I like the ends almost green and ripe bananas I struggle with a lot. Experimenting is a great idea!

  23. Paulina says:

    Interesting ideas. Although I’ve been a pretty adventurous eater all my life, there have been a few things that I’ve had to force myself to like. Right now I’m working on an interesting one – green tea with ginger and honey. Sounded pretty good, conceptually. And then I tried it…blech. Yet I want the green tea and ginger for their cleansing and weight loss effects, and, as I am a singer, I need the honey for my voice. Odd how something of which I enjoy all the components can become something so utterly disgusting when combined. It’s much better if I take out any one of those three ingredients.
    I also had one interesting incident when I was around 6 or 7, my mother made a pasta dish with some sort of spinach cream sauce on it for dinner one night and I absolutely loved it. The next day she gave me some of the leftovers for lunch, and I could not stomach it. The same exact dish.
    Now to go eat some beets and daikon radish…

  24. Nate says:

    I find it amusing that I just read a Kristina’s comment about wanting so badly to be able to actually enjoy a banana on the go. I am choking down an avocado at the moment and “washing it down” with water (which is mainly what I drink) and a banana (love the taste and texture myself. As I eat this avocado the slimy texture and borderline bitterness set me on edge to gag but then I concentrate on how creamy it is and the gag go away until I think on what makes me gag about it. I think it really is in our heads like this article says. I feel the way Kristina does about bananas but for me it is with salad’s (they look AMAZING and obviously so many people enjoy them but I gag). I’m 30 and have only eaten 5 salads in all my life…

    • jennifer klein says:

      BRUSSEL SPROUTS ANY ONE?
      ugh!
      the taste the texture the smell
      no its just wrong
      i will call it “eat” 1 single brussel sprout a year tradition at new year on my family
      sadly it would help if i even came close to liking them…

      i litterally take 6 table spoons of melted cheese
      put brussel sprout in it amd swallow it whole
      NO CHEWING
      and then try not to vomit
      i wish i could enjoy family tradition…

    • Cierra says:

      I’m the exact same way with avacados! I think they’re so pretty and are in so many American sushi rolls. I want to like them, but I LITERALLY gag when I eat them in ANY fashion! Ugh.

  25. Shelby says:

    I love cooked onions, but I hate raw onions, especially red onions, but so many foods that are otherwise delicious include them that I really want to start liking them, but to me they just overpower every flavor they touch.

    • T says:

      Same! Love some grilled onions but raw onions are a big no, one of my least favorite things to eat. I want to like them…

  26. Kelly says:

    Eggs. EGGS.

    To qualify, I was allergic to them as a baby and then my younger brother was allergic to them, so they didn’t feed them to either of us until later. Both of us outgrew the allergy, but I can’t deal with eggs. Baked goods with eggs like cakes, cheesecake, muffins? All delicious. But if it has a lot of eggs, like a quiche? Even if I like the taste, my stomach rebels against it. I can’t stand the sulfuric smell of cooked eggs either. I have tried to make eggs in so many ways so I can eat this cheap easy protein, and my stomach just cannot do it.

    Like I just made a scrambled egg with a ton of cheese, trying to find Some Way To Eat Them. Couldn’t even taste or smell egg, but my stomach is in a heated debate about whether or not it’s gonna keep it down.

    I also become ill when a dish is vinegary. I would love to eat sushi, but I violently become sick with the rice wine vinegar. Raw fish is delicious. I will openly snack on nori. But the vinegar. Eugh, the vinegar.

  27. R says:

    What a judgmental article. Didn’t read past the first two paragraphs, and I apparently didn’t need to, since many comments I’ve seen reiterate my sentiments.

  28. John says:

    This site is titled “Learning to love foods you don’t like.” It looks like nothing more than a dumping space for people to vent about what they don’t like. Nothing here actually HELPS to learn to like any certain food.

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