Can You Train Your Tastebuds?

By Camille Styles

Bianca Balti for Elle Italia MarchI find it bizarrely fun to hear about what foods people dislike. It’s fascinating to learn that friends I may have a lot in common with in other areas don’t share my passion for sushi or sweet potatoes. The other day, my mom and I got an endless text thread where we listed all the foods we didn’t like, and for someone who doesn’t consider herself a picky eater, I was surprised at how many came to mind. My list included pork belly, american cheese, runny eggs, and pizza with chicken on it. My mom’s main offenders were artichoke-spinach dip, flavored coffees, brie, and watermelon-feta salad. And I’d bet money that you’re thinking of some right now too, aren’t you? (go ahead, leave a comment and let me know — just to satisfy my weird curiosity!)

Of course, I also had to poll our team to find out what makes them gag, and I found their answers so varied and somewhat surprising, I had to share:

Kelly KBlack licorice. I’ve hated it since childhood when I thought I was getting grape-flavored licorice and was duped. Also – there’s not enough ranch dressing in the world to save a bell pepper.

CristinaFatty meats, which is blasphemous here in Texas. I’m the only one ordering lean brisket in the bbq line.

Chanel: Capers. The flavor is overpowering! Anytime a caper sneaks its way onto my fork, I can’t taste any of the other food. Also, melon literally tastes like eating a fart to me.

JennI don’t like mayonnaise. If a burger has mayo on it, scraping it off won’t do — I can still taste that flavor.

Katie: I’m with Jenn on the mayonnaise. I consider it the frequent destroyer of many of my favorite foods — potato salad, sandwiches, even sushi. There is something about the combination of the slightly gelatinous texture (especially of store-bought version) and its mild sweetness that completely grosses me out.

EmilyMushrooms. When they’re raw they feel fuzzy, and when they’re cooked they feel like rubber.

TaraThe one food I absolutely detest is strawberries. I’m not a picky eater at all, but I’ve always passionately hated strawberries and all strawberry-flavored things. And it’s not simply the idea of them. Once, I walked into a relative’s house and thought “Why does it smell so terrible in here?” and then I realized she was baking strawberry rhubarb pie.

Molly: Grapefruit. I thought I liked it until I married a guy who said “I hate grapefruit!!” every time I brought one home from the store. Now it’s turned me off completely. It’s bizarre!

Kelly C.It’s so not cool, but I don’t love oysters. If I’m at Clark’s and people want to get a bunch I am totally cool with it and will even eat one or two. But I would never order them on my own.

Elizabeth: Kiwi. Something about the black seeds inside the green fruit makes me squirmy

All this talk of hating certain foods made me think about another interesting question: Can you train your tastebuds? With a 3-year-old at our dinner table now, it’s something I’ve been giving a lot of thought as we’ve tried to expose her to the same foods we eat and “train” her to like more sophisticated choices and flavors. Spoiler alert: it’s easier said than done. I was talking to a friend yesterday about how we normally serve our preschool-age kids what the rest of the family is eating, like roast chicken or grilled salmon, and so often they respond with an ewwwww and outright refusal to try it. But put a fried chicken finger or breaded fish “stick” on their plate? Done and done. Hmm…

Bianca Balti for Elle Italia March

When I was a kid, I refused to eat fish. Walking into a seafood restaurant, the smell would actually disgust me to the point of losing my appetite. But as I got older, I realized I was missing out on so many foods that other people loved, so I forced myself to keep trying it over, and over, and over… until one day, I found myself craving sushi, and now I’d happily eat anything that swims every single day. Oysters, scallops, octopus? Bring ’em on. And it seems that I’m not alone! Here’s what the rest of the team had to say about their changing taste buds:

Cristina: I used to hate eggplant! There was a bitter taste that I found overpowering in any dish. What changed my mind was when I started having them roasted on the grill with plenty of olive oil and salt. Preparing them this way brought out their flavors in a much more appealing way, and now it’s one of my absolute favorites.

JennI was a really picky eater as a kid. I survived on grilled cheese sandwiches and chicken nuggets for years. My parents shipped me off to a 5 week summer camp, and it was kind of a try-new-things or starve situation. I came back with an expanded palette, and an I’ll-try-anything-once attitude that has served me well ever since.

JuliaI used to hate anything briny – olives, capers (especially!) and pickled things. I took a trip to spain where there were green olives on every table instead of bread. I just kept tasting them hoping something would click, and finally it did. Now, I LOVE brine and actually crave the flavor of olive and caper juice in salad dressings. 

KatieI used to despise broccoli. There were many family dinners when I was a kid where I was made to sit at the table long after everybody else was finished because I wouldn’t touch it. Since I hated it so much as a kid, I stayed away from it for many years into adulthood. One day, after again reading about its many health benefits, I decided to give it another shot. Now, I eat it several times a week! Raw, steamed, roasted — I love them all!

Kelly K: Olives. Once I got past canned olives and tried a fresh and robust kalamata, it was much more pleasant. Pretty sure a good tapenade on fresh burrata made me a believer. 

ChanelTomatoes — I used to hate tomatoes (not uncommon), but my aversion turned into an obsession overnight. Just like that, one day I tried a super sweet cherry tomato and since then I haven’t been able to eat a meal without a tomato on the plate. Also, blue cheese. As a cheese lover, I always felt a dissonance about my disdain for blue cheese. One day I decided to train my tastebuds to like blue cheese, and after a few months of forcing myself to leave it on my salads and cheese boards, I finally came around. Hooray!

ElizabethI used to feel funny about celery, but now I adore the leaves in all kinds of dishes and use it all the time. Maybe I got over it when people quit pushing it on me filled with peanut butter. I mean, peanut butter in celery is just weird, right?

Emily: Brussels sprouts. Even when they became the vegetable en vogue, it took me a year to give in. The dish that converted me was the flash-fried brussels sprouts from Snack Bar here in Austin. With a homemade aioli on the side for dipping, how could I refuse?

Kelly C.: I only recently started eating meat, so steaks are a new thing to me. At first I dreaded eating them and kind of made myself do it (I was trying to up my iron stores) but now I actually kind of look forward to them!

After all this talk of changing tastebuds, I’m left wondering — do we prefer different foods because we actually taste foods differently? I’ve read that some people have an aversion to cilantro because they perceive a soapy aftertaste — and that it’s actually caused by genetics! I’ve also heard several people describe their dislike of shrimp to its “bleachy flavor,” which I’ve never personally experienced. What do you guys think — do we taste foods differently, or do we just prefer different flavors? I’d love to hear your thoughts on that in the comments, plus let me know what foods you hate and which foods you’ve learned to love!

*image: Bianca Balti for Elle Italia March 2015