Why It’s Worth It to Keep Trying Foods You Don’t Like

by | Sep 13, 2016

Sardine on a stick in Kyoto

When I was kid (you know, before my relationship with food was completely warped by my mother’s dieting habit), I was actually pretty normal.

I loved ice cream, grilled cheese sandwiches, and the strawberries I picked with my grandma.

I shamelessly copied the food preferences of my fellow classmates, and rejected things like onions and tuna fish for fear of looking uncool.

And of course, there were many foods I absolutely hated. At the top of the list were cilantro, lima beans, spinach and brussels sprouts. But I was also not a fan of eggplant, cucumber, beets, egg yolks, most fish and rye bread. The list goes on.

With time I grew out of my childhood tastes. Little by little I learned that spinach can be delicious in a fresh salad as opposed to the frozen gray-green slop my parents served, and that cilantro tastes completely different when used in Vietnamese cooking compared to the Mexican food I was raised on.

That’s normal, and you probably have similar stories of foods you’ve come to love as your palate has matured.

But I’ve noticed something funny about people over the age of 25. From what I can tell many––if not most––of the adults I speak to about their food preferences have reverted to the stubbornness of childhood when it comes to certain foods.

The argument goes something like, “I’ve tried olives a zillion times. I just don’t like them, so what’s the point of trying again?”

This line of reasoning makes intuitive sense. Life is short, so you shouldn’t waste your time on things that don’t make you happy. YOLO.

But you can probably guess that I don’t feel this way. Ant rants aside, my opinion is based on a somewhat unique set of experiences that, if you haven’t been through them yourself, you might not fully appreciate.

I’ve witnessed firsthand how much more enjoyable life is when you choose to like more things, and for this reason I feel compelled to share my story and hope to convince you to try again.

On the surface, I completely agree with the “life is too short to eat what you don’t like” argument. That’s why I won’t touch protein bars, fake sugar or fast food. Convenience and half-assed attempts at weight loss aren’t worth eating chemically tasting food-like products that makes sawdust sound appealing. I’d rather go hungry.

But I don’t think this argument applies to foods that normal humans with functional tastebuds consider not just good, but excellent, simply because you haven’t learned to appreciate them.

There’s a big difference between rejecting a bad version of a food and rejecting an entire food category.

That is, there’s a difference between not liking those plasticy-tasting canned olives you find on cheap pizzas and olives in general. In the first case you’re responding with discernment, in the second you’re reacting out of discomfort and fear (calm down, I’ll explain).

Why is it better to respond than react? It isn’t hurting anyone when you refuse to eat something (well, maybe the ego of a chef or two). But you should at least be aware of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, and recognize that it’s a choice.

As someone who was guilty of rejecting olives and dozens of other foods for years, I feel confident in saying that my lack of desire to keep trying foods I didn’t like was based on the limiting belief that my tastes couldn’t change. That I was born with them and they weren’t negotiable.

I figured that if I’d tried something a few times and didn’t like it there was no point in trying again.

All of this changed when I started shopping at the farmers market instead of the grocery store. When I started buying seasonal produce from people who care instead of mass-produced industrial produce that looks the same year-round, I realized that almost all of my expectations of how foods tasted were incorrect.

This epiphany changed my mindset about every new food I encountered. My normal skepticism was replaced with curiosity, and I was suddenly open to a world of new experiences.

At the farmers market I was rewarded for reframing my approach in this way. I would buy things I’d never cooked or previously didn’t even like, simply because they were adorable, and 90% of the time they would turn out delicious.

I started visiting my farmers market religiously, always looking for a new food adventure. I fell in love with food (previously my enemy). I fell in love with vegetables. I started a blog called Summer Tomato.

But that was just the beginning. My new mindset didn’t just turn me from a food skeptic into an adventurous foodie. It also instilled in me a new expansive belief: that my tastes are never set in stone.

Cucumbers were one of those things that I was never really into. I wouldn’t say that I hated them, they just sort of never impressed me. Even the cute lemon cucumbers I bought at the farmers market hoping they would taste lemony (they don’t, they’re just roundish and kinda yellow) left me unmoved. But I kept trying.

Then one day I was visiting a new farmers market and saw some crazy long, curly Armenian cucumbers. The vendor was clearly super proud of them and offered a taste. How could I refuse?

The Armenian cucumbers were unbelievably good. Light and crisp and slightly sweet. I bought one (they were huge) and couldn’t stop eating it all afternoon. This was seriously a life-changing cucumber.

After this experience I was a convert. Even though I don’t think I’ve ever had a cucumber quite as good as that first one, it doesn’t matter. All I needed was to understand that a cucumber could be that good, and once I developed that appreciation I came to enjoy them all (except the big waxy ones at the grocery store, those are still not my jam).

You might find it strange that only one positive experience with a food I previously didn’t like was enough to change my opinion of the entire category, but the science of picky eating suggests that my experience is typical.

Familiarity is what forms the majority of our food preferences. New foods (especially those with intense flavors) can often elicit feelings of strong discomfort, which triggers our fight or flight (aka fear) response. Once a food has been paired in your mind with discomfort and fear, you will likely continue to avoid that food and encounter it rarely. When you do, your reaction will most likely continue to be negative.

Research shows, however, that exposure to unfamiliar foods can eventually change food preferences, as the food becomes more familiar. This is called the Mere-Exposure Effect.

But until you’ve experienced this firsthand, you may question whether going through this process of continually trying foods you don’t like is even worth it. Do you really want to invest all that time and discomfort for something you are perfectly fine living without?


I’ve changed my mind on beets, brussels sprouts, strong cheeses, oily fish and a bunch of other foods that I don’t just tolerate now, I absolutely love. Adding all these foods to the list of things that make me happy in the world has made it so much more fun to go to restaurants, travel and explore new ingredients.

Once you realize that it’s really only a matter of time before you eventually like something, it becomes way less uncomfortable and actually fun to hunt for that meal or that chef that will finally change your mind on sardines. It gives you more of a sense of control over your own happiness, and a feeling that you are really living life to the fullest.

Liking stuff is way more fun than not liking stuff, I promise.

Have you come to love a food you used to hate?

Originally published June 9, 2015.

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29 Responses to “Why It’s Worth It to Keep Trying Foods You Don’t Like”

  1. Tracy K. says:

    I’m game for trying new vegetables and fruit, but I admit I’m really picky with meat. I could happily eat vegetarian with the occasional fish for the rest of my life and be quite content!

    One of my favorite food experiences this year was ordering a beet salad at an Ethiopian restaurant. I had tried beets on multiple occasions and could never understand the love for them. I’m not even sure why I ordered the salad that night since I don’t like beets. Wow, it was amazing! As in “I want to lick the bowl” amazing. I was proud of myself for trying something different and delighted with the result. Stepping outside my food comfort zone was so worth it.

  2. La says:

    I never really liked olives and always avoided them or picked them out of things served to me. But on a trip to Italy in 2007 my group had a dinner event al fresco in an olive orchard. I said to myself, “You’re having this wonderful dinner. In an olive orchard! In Italy! Just eat the damn olives!” And I did. And I LOVED them. So now I know that I like green olives (especially Cerignola), but only just tolerate black ones.

  3. Erin says:

    When I visited Southeast Asia recently, I was surprised at all the things I liked that I typically wouldn’t have, especially mee tom yam and nasi lemak. I think trying them in that environment made me more open to them than if I’d tried them at home.

    I’m trying to like dried seaweed. It smells/tastes overwhelmingly fishy to me. I bought a package of wasabi-flavored stuff, and every once in a while I’ll take it out of the cupboard and smell it. I tried a small piece when I was really hungry the other day, and it wasn’t too terrible. The wasabi flavor, which I like, was a nice complement/partial masker of the fishy flavor 🙂 I’m hoping repeated exposure will help me learn to like it.

    • Erin says:

      Wanted to post an update: I graduated to full sheets of the stuff and didn’t hate it. I had some tonight when I was pretty hungry, and it tasted great! I think getting the wasabi flavor was key because it’s a flavor I really like that’s also strong, but repeated exposure (especially when hungry!) seemed to help, too 🙂

    • Darya Rose says:

      Woo hoo! Great work!

  4. Leyla10 says:

    The timing of your post is ironic & delightful.

    Two nights ago I finally cooked up – and SERVED for dinner – a vegetarian wrap based on a recipe I clipped two weekends ago. Actually, I bought the yam shortly after I clipped the recipe and I finally roasted the yam (in little, diced bits) about four or six nights ago. And then I put the roasted yam into the refrigerator and thought “I should make the wraps for dinner tonight” for two or three nights in a row. I read, and reread the recipe almost every morning, girding my loins so to speak. Mind games!

    Then, two nights ago, I served the wraps for dinner – the roasted yam bits, kale ribbons marinated in a balsamic/olive oil vinagrette & black beans. I completely forgot the feta crumbles the recipe included. Nonetheless we both thought the wraps were tasty. I ate some leftovers for breakfast yesterday (and will eat the remains for lunch today). I can imagine reprising this meal in the future.

    Now for the back story – this winter (and last) I resolved to work through my aversion to all “orange veggies” (except I am okay with carrots). I had chemo as a child, over fifty years ago, and back in the day, there wasn’t a whole lot of attention paid to “learned food aversions” and, for the subsequent decades, I associated “calabazas” (pumpkin, winter squashes) with nausea. I did not even try to like, say, pumpkin pie. BUT I became friends with a woman who is highly idiosyncratic about many things in life – she lives somewhat reclusively, won’t try new experiences, and, eats a very limited diet. Observing my admittedly judgmental thoughts I decided, instead, of criticizing her to myself, to redirect my focus to exploring, and trying to overcome my own limits. Culinary limits were the most easily identified “small-life” behaviors. (For me that includes beets, cilantro – unless I am at an ethnic restaurant – and calabazas – or any orange vegetable other than carrots. Technically, sweet potatoes should not be part of this family since they are not actually orange but … I have refused to eat sweet potatoes, too).

    So I set a goal to cook one winter squash/month/in season. I need to break challenges down into baby steps.

    I have found my pattern is consistent. I find a recipe that has some appeal. I buy the ingredients – say, two sweet potatoes. I leave the sweet potatoes in the pantry for a month, meaning to make that recipe. I lose the recipe. I give one of the sweet potatoes away. I finally make something with the sweet potato. I do not die. I do not vomit. “Hey! I do not actually feel nauseous.” So I repeat with acorn squash. Buy one, take a month to actually cook it. Eat it. Still not transported with delight but able to repeat the cycle one more time. The yam I roasted. Progress! This time the cycle took less than a month. This time I actually liked my meal. This time I wanted to share my leftovers (we are only two people and I set up the rule that I could give away my leftovers as part of my program. But I have not wanted to actually SHARE my leftovers from a place of “Hey, this is really good!” until this recent culinary adventure).

    I don’t know if I will ever love calabazas (say acorn squash) and their unfairly compromised ilk (e.g. yams and sweet potatoes). I do believe I can easily roast a yam in the future, and have confidence that I will eat it up, over time, riffing on the wrap I made and actually liked this week. And you know what, feeling like you have grown a bit is very empowering feeling. Never mind that I did not make my original goal of cooking one per month. When all is said and done, I just learned that I can like yams.

    Like I said at the outset of this comment, I love the timing of your post!

  5. GARY MEYER says:

    I grew up in the country and it was not unusual to pick much of dinner (salad makings, corn, squash) literally minutes before we prepared them. If we did not like something my mother would try to understand why and adapt it another way until things tasted good for us. I never imagined so many people did no like beets as she had various ways of cooking them that were always wonderful…most particularly her mother’s cold beet borscht recipe which spoiled me for other kids of beet borscht that tend to be just ok.

    I live in Oakland but am visiting Ann Arbor, Michigan this week. I was taken to Zingerman’s Road House. We would order several things to share. He announced that he did not like beets at all so if I wanted the Arugula, beet, red onion and fresh goat cheese with red wine vinaigrette salad it was mine alone. As I stated there were plenty of other enticing items on the massive comfort food menu (http://www.zingermansroadhouse.com/menus/ ) the lady sitting next to us said, “I thought I hated beets but my husband loves them. We order the salad and he suggested that I wrap the arugula around a beet and goat cheese (kind of mushu style with out the pancake) and I loved it.”

    So my friend was intrigued enough and found out that he too could become a fan of the red edible.

  6. Robert says:

    I was a very picky eater as a child. Thankfully that period of my life is over and I now eat and enjoy all sorts of foods I didn’t eat when I was younger.

  7. Julie says:

    Any time I’m hesitant to try something new I think of my mother. That woman will try any food once.
    Any time I’m hesitant to try something again I think of my father. The man in 70 and has never liked Brussels sprouts, but he still tries one every single time my mother makes them. He hasn’t changed his mind, but God love him for 4 decades of still trying.

  8. Cindy says:

    I have to admit, my bane is a can of sardines that has been sitting in my pantry for weeks…my nutritionist wants me to eat them and idk why but I cannot even make myself open the tin! And I have never even had them before, I feel like such a twit:)

  9. Kyle Mikami says:

    I recently went to Japan and I tried all sorts of funky foods. Even though I may not have liked some of the foods, I enjoyed trying new things because now I can go to asian markets and buy stuff that I never would have even looked at before.

  10. Heather says:

    A thousand times, yes! I have learned to love wasabi, sushi, cheese, spicy Korean dishes, and much more. You have to keep trying things!

  11. Wendy Laubach says:

    I wouldn’t touch shellfish as a child, but I love it now. Still can’t quite get myself to eat most offal, or brains.

    I’m not crazy about beets alone–a little too cloying–but oh, man, dice them up with a tart green apple, some feta cheese, some pine nuts, and a little vinaigrette and tell me that isn’t heaven! Ditto eggplant, which I can do without in some forms, but it’s pretty wonderful in moussaka, or in a soup with roasted red bell peppers and aioli, or fried in any way at all.

  12. Marianne says:

    I used to not tolerate spicy food, olives, pickles and will eliminate cilantro any time I see them amongst my food. It is funny how my tastes have completely changed as I like them all. I think it is a willingness to keep trying and realize the health benefits of these food like the cilantro.

  13. Dory says:

    I can eat most vegetables but have a strong aversion to meat. I actually ate meat when I was younger, but after eating mostly vegetarian for years I find both the taste and texture hard to deal with. The problem? I feel I eat too many carbohydrates (I have high triglycerides) and am trying to incorporate more protein into my diet. Fish is impossible and meat is very difficult. I now think I will try again. Obviously I will try meat before fish. I presume I should try tiny portions first and work up.

  14. Jonathan Cook says:

    In college I was on a steady diet of alcohol, fraternity “chef” meals which consisted of a steady stream of fried and carby foods, dining hall meals, and fast food. I knew I could at least stomach most of the most common vegetables, but wasn’t a fan of any. After graduating and being steered towards health and home cooking, I started incorporating vegetables into my meals and after a few weeks of this my microbiome adjusted and I was craving edamame and bean sprouts and spinach, it was amazing. However, carrots and most cruciferous vegetables were a problem for me. After consist effort with these two items the past few months I have gotten myself to the point where I eat cauliflower and carrots raw as snacks, without dip. It still baffles me. I don’t think I will ever enjoy broccoli though!

  15. Elizabeth King says:

    I never liked asparagus because I tried it once in a tea sandwich made with canned asparagus. Gross! That was my consensus! I love it now especially roasted with some grated parmesan or Asiago cheese. I too have an aversion to olives & sardines. I have a tin of Sardines in my cupboard waiting to be tried. I know they are a healthier fish so I hope I can convince myself to try them. Not sure what kind of olives to get for a first try. Any suggestions from anyone would be appreciated. I have been thinking of buying maybe 2 from a loose (not bottled) display so I can try them & not have a whole lot sitting around. I tried Jicama a while back for the first time & really like it. I have a Kolrabi bulb in my fridge to try. Going to spiralize it & have with a vegan alfredo sauce. It should be good.

    • Darya Rose says:

      Yes! My favorite olives are the bright green castelvetrano olives from Spain. Make sure to get the ones with the pits still inside for the freshest flavor. I’ve converted many an olive hater with those bad boys 😉

  16. Tracy says:

    It really bugs me that I haven’t made friends with quinoa yet–bitter? Or something? I’m not a huge meat eater, and I know quinoa is a protein powerhouse and could be quite the staple of a healthy diet. I don’t keep trying to make it, because I just end up throwing it away–I hate wasting food. Has anyone else had an issue with quinoa? Everyone seems to LOVE IT. What is wrong with me.

    • Darya Rose says:

      I’m actually not a huge fan of plain quinoa. I do enjoy it mixed with a lot of vegetables and a tasty vinaigrette though. It also helps to cook it in broth instead of water.

      • Tracy says:

        Thank you for 1) making me feel so not ‘alone’ in that, and 2) offering tips on how I might make it taste better.

        I’m loving everyone’s comments and ideas on how they make different things work for them. Just because we’re grownups now doesn’t mean we don’t still cringe over one or two things! 🙂

  17. John Bauer says:

    Darya, great article, and once again these points as so spot on true. When making the transition from Standard American Diet to real whole foods, it is a bit of a jolt to your taste buds – but they do get re-trained in short order. I wrote a blog post on just that subject because I thought it was such an interesting phenomena

    Many people tell me they cannot eat dark chocolate because it is too bitter – however that is because their perception of sweetness has been corrupted by the constant sweetness overload in many processed foods. I now find dark chocolate to be my “sweet treat” because so many of the protein, fats and vegetables I eat really do not have much sweetness to them.

    Thanks as always for your valuable insights.

    • Darya Rose says:

      Yeah, great point. I’m at a place now where I can’t stand less than 70% dark chocolate, cringe at most desserts, and even find normal things like pizza sauce too sweet (sugar is added to most). I had a huge sweet tooth when I was younger so it really is a huge turn around!

  18. Ann Reiland says:

    I always thought I hated beets. Then one day, I saw a recipe that used chilled cooked, cubed beets, sliced cooked carrots, red onion, Greek yogurt and cilantro. I swear I could not stop eating it. After that, I started trying beets in new recipes and found that I just love them. Now, if there were some way for me to change my idea about peas….

  19. Nicole says:

    I still don’t like mushrooms and olives. But I will try your suggestion of buying a few of the Spanish green olives. My 17 year-old son recently decided to turn vegetarian. Mind you he dislikes most vegetables. I told him he had to start trying and eating them, which he has for the most part. We went to Shake Shack and he got a Shroom burger which he loved. I attempted to make it, going by a few blog recipes That tried to copy it. The homemade shroom burgers were pretty much a success according to my son. (Panko breaded portebello mushrooms with cheese in the middle). However I still disliked the mushrooms. I just can’t stand the texture. If you can suggest a better tasting mushroom let me know.

  20. Starla says:

    Fantastic article, Darya! I have a deep aversion to eggs, but I desperately want to like them. Any suggestions?

    • Darya Rose says:

      Try to figure out what exactly bothers you (e.g. taste, texture, etc.) then see if you can prepare them in a way that masks that one quality. If it’s taste, I find a HUGE difference between pasture raised, farm fresh (most eggs are old) yolks. I can taste a cheap egg a mile away, so I spring for the fancy ones at Whole Foods.

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