I was a ridiculously picky eater growing up. I hated most vegetables except for your staple southern options like butter beans, fried okra, purple hull peas, corn, and mashed potatoes. If you’re from the south you know these vegetables are prepared in a way that completely mitigates any nutritional value that was once present in the plant. For those of you who aren’t from the south I’ll give you a little insight- loads of butter, bacon fat, ham hock, whole milk or cream, and insane amounts of sodium from the seasonings used. As for those mashed potatoes, the secret ingredient for a lot of us is Duke’s mayonnaise mixed in with all that butter and milk. Getting the picture?
Don’t get me wrong, I still partake in these southern delicacies but I’ve broadened my range of vegetables over the last six years. Not so long ago my diet consisted mainly of starchy, highly processed foods. I was deeply struggling with manic depression, high anxiety, and insomnia. Something had to change. I was scared, suicidal, and became completely desperate. My cocktail of prescription drugs just wasn’t working anymore. No matter what the doctor switched me to it didn’t seem to work. This is when I took a closer look at my lifestyle.
I took a cold hard look at my diet and realized something was really wrong. Instead of eating to promote and sustain nutrients I was eating purely for pleasure. It was an emotional thing for me. I was depressed but that highly processed food made me feel good. It gave me synthetic happiness for a moment, but was doing loads of mental and physical damage on the back end. I decided to start incorporating more fresh produce into my diet- this included the dreaded vegetables. I absolutely hated vegetables six years ago. Now I can proudly say I will pretty much eat ANY veggie and try to include them in my meals multiple times a day.
Why are Vegetables so Important to Your Diet
Your body is an incredible machine. Give it what it needs and it’ll run better for years to come. It needs certain nutrients to continue running properly. Today’s standard western diet mainly consists of highly processed synthetic foods. These foods lack in the nutrients your body needs to properly function. Vegetables are a nutrient-dense food. Meaning they’re high in vitamins and minerals but low in calories. The high fiber content helps aid in digestion while helping you get full faster and stay full longer. Plants also contain phytochemicals that help fight and prevent cancer- something that can’t be found in prepackaged processed foods.
How to Train Your Palate to Enjoy Vegetables
There’s no magic way to trick yourself into eating healthier. It’s all about training your palate. Highly processed foods are very addictive. Food scientists use specific strategies to make these foods taste so good that we keep coming back for more. These foods come with killer cravings giving us an insatiable need to keep buying them. This video on the science of addictive food shows how processed foods are scientifically created to keep you wanting more.
These are the six strategies I used to train my palate to enjoy a wide range of produce for a healthier life.
Eat What You Already Like… Often
The easiest thing you can do is start eating more of what you already enjoy. Do you love tomatoes and cucumbers? Place them on a salad with whatever lettuce you enjoy most and start eating that a few times a week. Iceberg lettuce and ranch dressing isn’t the healthiest out there but it’s where a lot of people start. If adding what you already like to that salad helps you eat it often then that’s all that matters right now. If the only way you can eat avocado is by guacamole then you eat that guac! (Yes, I know avocado is a fruit but you get the picture.)
What vegetables to you like that can act as a side to protein? If the only veggies you like right now are green beans or corn from a can that’s more than okay. Serve them with whatever protein you like most and eat them twice as much a week as you normally would. The goal here is to not judge what the vegetable is or how you’re preparing it, but to eat it more often than you normally would. Get into the habit of consuming at least one serving of vegetables each day.
Try Healthier Substitutions
Once you’re in the habit of consuming at least one serving of vegetables each day it’s time to start making some preparation substitutions. Instead of eating those green beans from a can try cooking them fresh with some olive or avocado oil, sea salt, cracked pepper, diced onion, and grated garlic. As for that salad maybe try a spring mix instead of the iceberg. Add in those tomatoes you love with some fresh corn cut off the cob, black beans, and diced avocado. Try making your own dressing with lime, avocado oil, chili powder, sea salt, and cumin. Toss in some cheese and you have a super healthy southwest salad pumped with loads of vegetables.
At this stage of training your palate you’re still eating only what you already enjoy. You’re simply learning to substitute the preparation methods with healthier options. This can easily be accomplished by choosing fresh vegetables vs canned, and using olive oil instead of butter in most situations.
Add In What’s Tolerable
Here’s where it gets a little tougher. I recommend staying in the first two stages for at least a month before you start adding in what you don’t necessarily enjoy. If you jump into this next step too soon it may trigger you into throwing in the towel too soon.
What vegetables do you semi tolerate? For me this included broccoli, carrots, onions, and zucchini. There’s no way I would have been willing to eat them on their own but I could tolerate them when mixed into recipes with other foods I loved. So with this step we’ll revert back to step one. Don’t judge yourself in how you’re preparing what’s tolerable. If the only way you can eat broccoli is with creamy rice and covered with cheese that’s okay! If your carrots have to be doused in ranch dressing to be enjoyable then go for it! When I first started eating zucchini it had to be cut into tiny pieces and added to a chicken Alfredo with sundried tomatoes. Now it’s by far one of my favorites vegetables.
Once you start eating what’s tolerable in whatever way works for you eventually try preparing them with healthier cooking substitutions.
Try Liquid Variations
For the vegetables you can’t possibly fathom enjoying try popping them into smoothies. I do this with beets. I’m not a fan of beets on their own but mixed with a few fruits, coconut water, and lemon juice they’re pretty delicious. This is also a great way to up your daily vegetable servings. I like spinach and carrots but adding them to a morning smoothie helps me add them into my diet on days when I may not be able to have them with a meal. Veggies that work best with fruit smoothies are beets, kale, spinach, carrots, and celery. Avocado works great too. Yes, a fruit but many don’t think to add it to a smoothie.
Don’t limit this step to smoothies alone. Try blending up your own soups with butternut or acorn squash, red peppers, onions, tomatoes, etc. While not technically a liquid you can also get creative and blend your own veggie dips. My favorites are red pepper hummus, or the eggplant based dip baba ghanoush. To this day one of the only ways I can enjoy eggplant is by making it into a dip for pita or carrots, but the only thing that’s important is that I’m eating it often.
Read Up on the Benefits
Sometimes the mind over matter effect can have a huge impact on choosing healthier options for your diet. What’s your reasoning for wanting to add more vegetables to your diet? Is it to decrease your chance of a certain illness? Is it to feel more energized and less bloated throughout the day? Whatever your reason may be try researching what vegetables are beneficial for your specific need. This can often give you the drive to add certain vegetables to your diet that you wouldn’t necessarily eat. It creates a mind over matter effect.
This was huge for me when I first started. My why for eating healthier was mental health. After researching, I discovered tomatoes, mushrooms, and spinach were fantastic to aid in the fight against depression. Of course I hated all three of those in the beginning. However, the will the get better drove me to eat them multiple times a week. I didn’t care how they tasted because I just wanted their benefits. Eventually I learned to love them and now they are some of my favorites. Finding your why and the benefits of certain vegetables in regards to it can be one of the biggest driving factors on this journey.
Consistency is Key
The single most important step in this whole journey is to stay consistent. You may have time periods where you get off track for a week and that’s okay! What’s important is that you continue eating the vegetables you absolutely love and at least try a few you think you hate. If you haven’t tried something in particular since you were a kid try it again. Taste buds change and the more you incorporate them into your diet the more adventurous your palate will become. Eventually you’ll start craving things you never thought you could even tolerate.
Everyone’s palate and health journey is different. Don’t judge yourself on how you prepare certain vegetables when starting out. When we’re too hard on ourselves during lifestyle changes we risk abandoning changes before they have the chance to become habits. What small step can you make today?