We blame our ‘sweet tooth’ for craving chocolate or dessert but there are ways to retrain our taste buds and our minds.
Reduce the amount of sugar, salt and deep-fried foods we consume as these foods create an addictive cycle in our brains. At the same time, they dull the taste buds and numb us to the subtle flavours in many other foods. The good news is that as we eat less sugar and salt, our need to satisfy these tastes diminishes, too.
Conversely we can counter food cravings with a taste that is contrasting, such as using a bitter citrus fruit to dampen the sugar monster. Try it!
Mix less desired foods with favourites, such as cheese on cauliflower. Initially you may be hiding the flavour of the less preferred option but over time your brain will create positive links and you will find yourself craving cauliflower even without cheese!
Use strong-tasting additions. Nothing jazzes up a meal like fresh herbs, vibrant spices, a homemade dressing or a squeeze of citrus. Use these to transform an otherwise bland meal. Do the same with texture. A few chopped nuts or crispy bits of kale can add crunch and depth to a dish.
Don’t give up. We’re all familiar with the ‘try 10 times’ mantra, although most studies show that it’s often many more times than that before our taste buds and senses are familiar with a certain flavour. I constantly challenge myself to appreciate foods I would normally avoid (current test is tarragon). My biggest test and greatest victory was having my son Max eat and enjoy pumpkin after five years of trying! Familiarity is a crucial part of this concept so, with children, even if they are not actually tasting the food, just having it on their plate builds acceptance of the look, smell and feel.
Although leafy greens may not be on our list of treat foods, understanding the health benefits can often change how we feel about something and it’s the same with kids. ‘Run faster’ beans or ‘magic tree’ broccoli can be surprisingly effective.
Presentation. The better something looks, the more likely we are to enjoy eating it. We eat with our eyes first so when we see something extraordinary, we’re more excited to try it.
Gradual switches. Moving from white rice to brown rice is made easier if the changes are subtle. Adding 10 per cent brown to the white, then 20 per cent and so on allows our senses to adjust to the differences in taste and texture. The same can be done with sweetened verses unsweetened foods.
Reduce the off-putting smells. I know that the smell of boiling cabbage is not the most appealing and so having that wafting around the table creates a negative image for the brain. Try to limit the smells to one room and eat in another. I know people who put the slow cooker in the garage! More good news is that we are less sensitive to smells in the evenings so dinner is a good time to road test new foods.
Atmosphere. The ‘where’ and ‘how’ you eat can make food more or less appealing. Think white table cloths, candles and soft music versus dirty table, jarring music and cold temperatures. Many of our fond food associations are based around pleasant memories so let’s go create some new ones…
Judith Yeabsley is a mum of two boys who is passionate about healthy food for kids. She runs a food art website, theartofnutrition.com, focusing on presenting fruit and veges creatively. She also works to change the food environment in schools, community groups and lunchboxes. For information on this and great recipes, see theartofnutrition.co.nz.