No matter how much we may love to cook, we often slip into the lull of a comfortable routine, preparing the same recipes week after week. Convenience can certainly play a role — or we might be reluctant to experiment with new ingredients or different cuisines.
Our individual taste preferences are made up of multiple components; genetics, culture, and exposure all play a role in forming our tastes.
Often, these preferences are written in our DNA. If you find that cilantro tastes soapy, for instance, it may be because you carry the OR6A2 gene.
People who are sensitive to bitterness or spice might be supertasters equipped with more taste buds than the average person, leaving them more attuned to strong flavors. Supertasters are not being picky: Their dislike of radishes or chili peppers is linked to their physiology.
Some of it comes down to how we’re raised. Perhaps your parents didn’t expose you to a wide variety of ingredients or flavors. A lack of knowledge or uncertainty about how a dish might taste might make you hesitant to try something new.
Or maybe you have negative associations with certain foods: slimy eggplant, boiled lima beans, an eye-wateringly spicy serving of Szechuan chicken.
Whatever the reason that’s kept you in your comfort zone, exploring new ingredients can enhance your kitchen skills and add a dash of excitement to mealtime. Introducing more diversity into your culinary repertoire can also help you stay engaged with cooking and resist falling into a rut — all while rounding out your diet with a wider range of vitamins, antioxidants, and essential nutrients.
Perhaps equally important, experimenting with different foods can enrich your life by increasing your appreciation and understanding of global cuisines and cultures. If you’ve been having the same meals on repeat, try broadening your palate with these tips.
1. Cook at Home
In your own kitchen, you control what goes into a recipe. If heat isn’t your thing, for example, you can reduce the level of spice in a curry to make a dish that won’t overwhelm you.
If your kids are picky eaters, get them involved in the kitchen. A 2018 review of studies published in Current Developments in Nutrition found that children are more likely to eat foods they help prepare.
“I say, step right in and taste, taste, taste!” writes Rebecca Katz, MS, the director of the Healing Kitchens Institute, in The Healthy Mind Cookbook. “That’s what cooking, real cooking, is all about, knowing that you’re in charge of the taste, as opposed to the taste being in charge of you.”
2. Start Small
Introducing drastic changes might derail your quest to enjoy new foods. You may find when adding a slew of new ingredients to your cooking that not everything appeals to you. This can make it harder to determine what you do and don’t like — and can make you want to give up before you’ve even started. Instead of stocking your pantry with half a dozen new spices or loading your fridge with unfamiliar vegetables, try incorporating new ingredients gradually.
3. Curb Your Sugar Intake
Overconsumption of sugar changes taste buds over time, driving us to crave more sugar and more heavily processed foods, which are notoriously high in sugar and salt. Our natural preference for these flavors can make it challenging to say no to ready-made meals, snacks, and sweets.
By minimizing sugar in your diet, you can retrain your palate so you’re better able to appreciate subtle flavor nuances. A happy side effect: As you reduce your sugar intake, your sweet cravings will start to fade. (For more on how to take back your taste buds, see “Take Back Your Taste Buds“.)
4. Savor Your Food
Mindful eating offers a host of benefits. It can help steer you toward healthier choices and teach you how to listen to your body, so you can really know when you’re hungry or when you’ve had enough.
Savoring your meals can also give you a better sense of how different flavors in a dish come together, so you can discover what aspects most tantalize your taste buds.
This heightened sensory experience may leave you feeling fuller and more satisfied, notes Paul Rozin, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert in the study of food choice. In other words, you’ll discover that there’s true pleasure to be found in every bite.
5. Seek Out Different Cuisines
Challenge yourself to discover tasty dishes from different parts of the globe. Instead of eating Italian four nights a week, why not make Korean bibimbap one evening? (Try our recipe for Campfire Bibimbap.) Use it as an excuse to pick up a new cookbook and work your way through recipes that are slightly outside your wheelhouse. If you’re unsure how a dish should taste, find a local restaurant and order a similar dish from its menu.
6. Lean on Your Favorite Ingredients
Use the flavors you love as a bridge to trying new ingredients. If you’ve never had sumac, sprinkle a little over your hummus. Not sure if you’ll like mushrooms? Try sautéing them in butter and finishing them with salt and fresh thyme.
This technique can also encourage kids to eat foods they might otherwise avoid. Do your kids refuse to eat broccoli? Sprinkle a little cheese on top or add a few chopped florets to pasta.
7. Build on What You Like
Let’s say you enjoy dishes like sweet-and-sour chicken. You might enjoy the tangy, fruity flavor of tamarind, a fruit used in Indian, Filipino, Middle Eastern, and Mexican dishes. If you like the sharp taste of plain Greek yogurt, perhaps you’d really like goat cheese.
Seek out ingredients with flavor profiles similar to those you already know and love — you just might discover a new favorite.
8. Try Something New Each Week
Consider committing to one new ingredient per week for slow, steady progress. Rozin suggests trying something unfamiliar mixed with a tried-and-true favorite food, so the dish will have elements of flavor that your palate recognizes.
Head to your local supermarket and ask for recommendations, or simply peruse the shelves for something that catches your eye.
9. Give Foods a Second Chance
Sometimes a dislike of a certain food can come down to texture. Maybe as a child, you hated Brussels sprouts. The main culprit could be the preparation: Instead of steaming, try roasting the sprouts. (Check out our Roasted Brussels Sprouts With Bacon at “9 Festive Dishes for the Holidays“.)
Keep in mind that our palates evolve over a lifetime, and you may find that your tastes have changed since the last time you tried a particular food. “Exposure in a positive context is the best trick,” Rozin explains, adding that people frequently learn to like foods they’ve previously avoided, by periodically revisiting them.
Having a general idea of how an ingredient tastes (whether sour, bitter, savory, and so on) can help you be more open to appreciating its flavors. Anyone who’s ever eaten bitter melon and expected it to taste like cantaloupe has been . . . well, bitterly disappointed. Yet knowing it tastes bitter before taking the first bite means you won’t be caught off-guard, which can give you a chance to appreciate its natural flavor.
The world is full of an incredible array of produce, aromatic spices, and other wonderful ingredients. Expanding your palate to make space for them is a rewarding effort. Along the way, you might improve your cooking skills, start savoring your food more, or simply enjoy learning about another culture through its cuisine.
If you’re a little wary, tap into your sense of adventure, but take it slow. Introduce new foods to your cooking at whatever pace suits you best.
This article originally appeared as “Expand Your Palate” in the September 2021 issue of Experience Life.