“Eat your spinach and then you can leave the table,” Mom insisted. But sitting at a dining room table for eternity still sounded better than consuming that mushy, bland green pile in front of you.
Many people remember having an aversion to vegetables as a child – broccoli, carrots, Brussels sprouts. And while most of us grew out of it, some adults never learned to appreciate garden-fresh foods. And knowing what we do about the health benefits of vegetables, a distaste for them can be a real problem.
It’s hard for most of us to believe, but some grown-ups can’t even get excited about fruit – sweet, juicy fruit – not an apple nor a strawberry or a mango ever crosses their lips.
So how does this aversion to fresh produce happen for adults? Some people argue it was the era in which they grew up, and the methods of “convenience cooking” in which their mothers engaged. Eating healthfully-prepared vegetables simply wasn’t something they experienced at home. In her memoir Read My Hips: How I Learned to Love My Body, Ditch Dieting and Live Large, author Kim Brittingham recounts the dinners her mother made when she was growing up in the American suburbs of the 1970s and 80s, often lacking in vegetable matter completely. “Like frozen corn dogs with tater tots. Hot dogs with canned chili-and-beans spooned on top and then, oddly enough, separate canned baked beans served on the side. Spaghetti and meatballs.”When vegetables were served at the dinner table, they were frequently canned vegetables, “heavily salted, sopping soft and slightly metallic-tasting,” writes Brittingham. Many parents from past decades knew only one way to prepare veggies: to cook the hell out of them. Overcooked vegetables are not only lacking in nutrients, but they just don’t taste that good.
The distaste some have for fresh produce has also been blamed on the high sugar content in today’s packaged foods, and the easy availability of sugary junk foods. Not just kids, but adults accustomed to such super-sweet foods often find natural, unsweetened foods comparably bland — even the sweetest seasonal fruits. Such was the case for Brittingham, who wrote in Read My Hips, “I told my mother (apples) were tasteless, and she argued that they were sweet and that I liked sweet things. But to my over-sugared tongue — coated with many seasons’ worth of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and oily cheap chocolate wrapped in foil and molded like bunnies and Santas and little footballs; a tongue painted thick with creamy white filling, melted fudgsicle juice, the dust of hundreds of Chips Ahoy — all fruit tasted like tap water.”
So what can you do if you’re a grown-up who never outgrew her aversion to fresh fruits and vegetables, but you sincerely want to cultivate healthy eating habits?
You might try recreating for yourself Kim Brittingham’s breakthrough as related in Read My Hips. A culinary friend introduced Brittingham to acorn squash, which she described as “something sweet — the perfect buffer between a lifelong diet of candy bars, snack cakes and ice cream and this new world of fresh produce. It turned out to be just the right thing to lure me a little bit closer to the veggie wagon.” Brittingham also enjoyed a sense of creativity, ownership and mastery in learning how to wash, slice and steam the vegetable herself.
Brittingham offers these tips for getting friendlier with fresh produce:
Find a “gateway” vegetable that tastes similar to a food you already like. Grilled mushrooms, for instance, can have a meaty, rich texture. Carrots are sweet and crispy. Oranges, refreshing and clean.
If you have a sweet tooth, experiment with sweet vegetables first, like varieties of squash. Your taste buds might be more receptive towards these foods than to veggies that are more subtle, bland, bitter or sharp.
Explore ways to flavor fruits and vegetables creatively. Once you’ve come to love certain produce with sauces and other toppings, you might feel more courageous about eating them bare or nearly-bare.
If you’re timid about raw vegetables, try buying a steamer instead. Steamers are simple to use – just fill the reservoir with water, throw your veggies into the steamer bowl, and turn the unit on. Steaming is one way to have your veggies cooked without boiling all the nutrients out of them.
If fresh fruit isn’t quite sweet enough for your sweet tooth, buy a food dehydrator and experiment with drying fruits. When dehydrated, the natural sugars in fruits are concentrated, and the resulting dried fruit is much sweeter and more candy-like than the raw fruit. For extreme sugar addicts trying to turn onto fruit, Brittingham recommends drying strawberries and watermelon soaked in lime juice.
If the green of veggies turns you off, remember that veggies come in other colors, too. Cozy up to red bell peppers, yellow zucchini or carrots instead.
If you’re eating more fruits and veggies as a way to lose weight, think again. Eating food from an obligatory stance often causes a rebound effect, akin to that child sitting at the dining room table, arms crossed in defiance. Choose fresh produce that you like. As Brittingham writes in Read My Hips, “I eat more fruits and vegetables now than I ever did as a child, and it’s not in the least bit motivated by a desire to lose weight. I eat some fruits and vegetables because they taste delicious. Often I choose them over junk food I find equally delicious, because I like the way I feel after I eat them. My insides feel cleaner. And I try to eat organic as much as possible.”
In short, we have all had some scary childhood veggie memories. But with a little persistence and experimentation, you can overcome the dining room traumas of yesteryear and live (healthier) once again.