A few nights ago I was cutting open an avocado to have with my tea. I am a northerner, so the meal I really mean here is dinner, should the timing of the event be important to you. Whenever I eat avocado, I always feel like a truly healthy person – it’s the kind of food I used to aspire to eat, as if it represented some milestone in having ‘made it’, nutritionally speaking. All the top nutritionists and health bloggers tell us how delicious avocados are. How good for our skin. What a good source of healthy fats, essential for brain and heart health. How we’ll have to be careful not to overindulge on them, because they’re surprisingly high in calories. Avocados are the food of the beautiful, the successful and the optimally healthy. There’s only really one problem. They’re not actually very nice.
Cutting open that avocado, I was reminded of the first time I ever tried one. A woman I worked with in my late teens, who to me seemed very healthy, used to enthuse about them on a regular basis. Keen to see what all the fuss was about – and definitely keen to get some goodness into my then fairly poor diet – I purchased one and called my mum into the kitchen to share the excitement of the grand opening. Firstly, we couldn’t figure out how to get in the thing – it seemed to have a big stone in the middle so you couldn’t just cut it in half. Unaware of the slice around and twist trick, we just sort of hacked and pulled at it until the poor thing was all squashed. Secondly, when we got inside, we didn’t actually know how best to eat it. The flesh didn’t look like any other fruit we’d eaten, so we were slightly put off by the texture and smell. We peered at it, somewhat underwhelmed, and then spooned a bit out and ate it. It was, we declared, disgusting. And that was that.
Fast forward many years and relocate to a gorgeous seafood restaurant on the Llyn Peninsula. Tiny does not like seafood, but has been persuaded to go here because there is a trio of ‘normal fish’ on the menu, as well as steak, and everything is served with vegetables. When the main course comes, she sees that she ought to have ordered a side of extra veg, as she likes vegetables to account for at least half of her plate – she has a far better diet than teenage Tiny. Thinking that extra vegetables might now cause a delay, she politely asks the waiter if she may order a small salad to accompany her meal. Within five minutes, a really beautiful salad is brought and it feels like it has had the same love and pride poured into it as every other part of the main course. Tiny is really happy at the excellent service and the quality of the salad. However, there are some components that she can’t identify. They’re small and sort of greenish cream in colour. Her more adventurous companion is made to try one to check it’s nothing horrid. The verdict is unclear, but it’s definitely of fruit or vegetable origin. Tiny therefore eats it, as part of the rest of the salad, and declares how lovely the whole thing is. The unidentified component was, of course, avocado.
The reason I wanted to share this is because often, when we have to make dramatic dietary changes to help us manage or heal chronic health issues, we have to give up lots of comfortable, familiar foods. After a period of trying to survive on only the familiar foods that are left, we realise that we’re perpetually hungry and getting VERY bored of the same few foods. I ate so much white fish and cauliflower in the early days that I doubt I’ll ever want to eat them in the same meal again! Eventually, if we’re to succeed with our new regime, most of us will need to get a lot better at eating fruit and veg than we used to be, and we’ll also need to get friendly with a lot of new foods that we’ve never tried before.
For the gastronomically adventurous, trying new foods is an exciting thing to do. However, a lot of people are very picky eaters and are squeamish about the idea of trying things they’ve never eaten before. They decide they don’t like the look, or the smell, or the whole general idea of the food and so before it’s even got to their mouth they’ve concluded that they don’t like it. Sometimes they even change their mind about foods they do like upon learning something about the ingredients – as a child, I twigged one day that oxtail soup was so called because it was made out of oxen tails and I never ate it again. Ditto steak and kidney pie. Black pudding also took a several years’ long hiatus when I discovered it contained pigs’ blood. Children in particular can be difficult about eating vegetables and I think people who are picky eaters as adults are often reluctant to eat anything they weren’t introduced to in childhood. We never ate duck when I was a child, so even though I’ve tried it a few times in adulthood, I felt really disgusted by it to begin with, as if it were conceptually totally different from chicken or turkey, and I still only eat it if there is nothing else on a menu open to me.
If we’re naturally picky eaters and we find ourselves having to introduce new foods to our diet, it can be really difficult. The point of my avocado story is therefore this: when it comes to food, context matters!
By ‘context’, I mean both the way that we serve the new food and the state of mind we are in when we try it. It is obvious, for example, that if you were trying to find out whether a person liked butter, you wouldn’t just cut them a slice and ask them to eat it by itself. You’d probably put some on a slice of bread for them, or mash some into a jacket potato. Also, you might allow them to ask questions about the food and pluck up the courage to try it. When it concerns meat or fish, I almost always want to know what a new food tastes like before I will try it and to be able to look and it and consider it a bit. Because I am a picky eater myself, there are quite a few things I definitely won’t try, but I’m more likely to give new things a go if I’m feeling generally quite confident and if someone has been able to liken it to a food I do know about. I hate feeling like I’m being forced to try something that I feel uncomfortable about eating – it needs to be framed as non-threatening first!
Interestingly, television’s Stephen Mulhern makes a great case study for these points. He seems to be an incredibly picky eater, with a long list of foods he dislikes and a strong aversion to trying new foods. For a while, radio station Heart FM took advantage of this by incorporating a ‘Stephen Eats’ challenge into the show he co-presents with Emma Willis. The gist seemed to be that Emma would get him to eat something he either didn’t like, or had never eaten before but assumed he didn’t like. A similar game also apparently sometimes occurs on the tour of ‘Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway’ – essentially he’s made (paid!) to eat things he doesn’t want to for people’s entertainment.
Now obviously the entertainment derived is proportional to the strength of the reaction, so you might imagine that Mulhern simply pretends to really hate things to go along with the game. However, in some of the radio challenges it takes Emma several attempts to actually get the chosen food to touch his mouth at all. Once contact is made, he frequently pulls away or spits it straight back out again, gagging and retching. In the meatballs edition he actually has a bowl ready to spit into (and possibly throw up a bit, judging from the sounds) and in the curry edition with Rochelle Humes he retches into a tissue and refuses point blank to even let the food near his mouth. The ‘Stephen Eats’ feature is a feature no more, so presumably he either actually threw up during one of them, or put his foot down and said enough was enough!
What’s interesting about ‘Stephen Eats’ is that it demonstrates the importance of the context of food on both fronts. Admittedly many of the foods he is given are foods that a lot of people dislike, but in the main they are fed to him on their own. LOTS of foods are really not that nice on their own, but, when prepared appropriately, taste acceptable or even very nice – just like my avocado story! One of the foods Mulhern was asked to eat was sauerkraut – a food that only sounds more disgusting when described (it’s fermented cabbage) and that I certainly put off trying for a long time, even though I knew that the raw, unpasteurised version is highly beneficial to gut health. Now it’s actually not too bad even on its own – if you’ve never tried it, it tastes nothing like you’d expect and is like a cross between pickle and coleslaw. However, like a pickle or coleslaw, most people wouldn’t eat sauerkraut on its own – they’d have it with something. If you’re trying it for the first time and you’re nervous about it, try popping a little bit with your normal relish at the side of whatever you’d usually eat relish with. It looks a lot less scary that way and if you mix the first couple of tastes with the normal relish to hide the taste a bit, you’ll probably find you’re soon brave enough to eat it as an accompaniment to meals in its own right. And it’s fine, honestly! The idea is much worse than the reality!
The same is true of hummus – another food Mulhern was made to eat. I know some people love it and spoon it straight from the pot, but for those who’ve never tried it, it can seem pretty disgusting. It looks horrid, it’s made from pureed chickpeas and to be honest, I wouldn’t want to eat that much of it all on its own either. Spread it on some multigrain gluten free toast with some butter though and the taste is transformed! It’s gorgeous! In short, if there are foods you want to incorporate into your diet for health reasons, but you just don’t think you’ll like them, Google a few recipe ideas for them first and ideally mix them with safe and familiar foods for the first few times while you get used to the flavour and texture. It makes a world of difference. Also, try something a few ways before you conclude you definitely don’t like it. I thought I didn’t like sweet potato when I first tried it mashed (and I still don’t like it mashed or plain), but when I tried making one into wedges with some smoked paprika it was delicious! I couldn’t live without sweet potatoes now – I have them almost every day!
Not only is the way we serve new food a factor in whether or not we will enjoy it, but so to some extent is the way we are feeling when we try it. If we go into the experience believing that we won’t like the food, seeing the food as threatening in some way, or feeling forced to eat it, we are far less likely to enjoy it. I’m sure lots of people will have been forced to eat their vegetables as children and it’s never a happy experience for anyone concerned. Luckily my parents never made me eat anything I didn’t want to, but I saw a childhood friend being horribly bullied by her father to clean her plate and it made very unpleasant viewing. I firmly believe that in the quest to properly nourish our children, we should examine our own cooking and should aim to entice rather than force. There are plenty of ways that fruits and vegetables can be included in meals almost unnoticed, whether we’re cooking for faddy youngsters or ourselves.
Stephen Mulhern once again provides a useful example of context affecting outcome in some footage from 2014. Before he became quite so high profile, he used to appear as a guest presenter in The Hub on ‘This Morning’. (In case you’re wondering, I don’t sit around all day watching TV and listening to the radio – YouTube once suggested that I watch some ‘This Morning’ clips of Holly Willoughby getting giddy and it turns out they’re highly addictive!) In one episode, he mentioned that he’d never eaten a fish pie before, so the following week, chef, Phil Vickery, made a fish pie live on air, which Phillip Schofield, Holly Willoughby and Mulhern were all expected to taste. The full video is available to view online, but the gist of it is that Vickery makes the fish pie in the presence of all three presenters, who watch what he is doing and are allowed to ask questions. They all see exactly what goes into it and he checks with Mulhern that it’s okay to add peas and sweetcorn. He offers not to put in any egg, since Schofield doesn’t like them. He is generally just very nice and tries to accommodate everyone, saying, “I’m here to please people, that’s what I’m here to do.” To make things easier for Mulhern, a special no-salmon pie is made for him to taste first to ease him into the with-salmon version more gently.
When the food is served, it isn’t spooned into Mulhern’s mouth for him as in the ‘Stephen Eats’ challenges. It’s given to him on a plate and although he seems quite nervous, he forks it into his own mouth. Besides interruptions for chatting there are no failed attempts at getting it into his mouth and there is no retching. For a moment it looks as if he’s preparing to hate it or spit it out, but he doesn’t. He eats it. And then he eats a bit more just to check. And then he declares that, “It’s actually really nice.” He then feels confident to taste the salmon version as well and even volunteers to try some roasted cauliflower.
It would be easy to conclude that he is able to eat the fish pie because he likes all the individual components of it and has just never eaten them in that particular combination before. However, one of the ‘Stephen Eats’ foods was garlic bread, which he stated on his Twitter made him “feel physically sick”. One of the few foods he DOES seem to like is bread, so even if he doesn’t like garlic very much, the garlic bread challenge should have proved easier than, say, the olives challenge, because the larger component of it is familiar and safe. It appears this was not the case. From the video, it seems that the environment in which the fish pie was cooked and served helped him to feel more comfortable in trying it. Maybe seeing it being prepared – each ingredient benign in its own right – made the finished result appear less threatening. Maybe being asked whether bits of it were okay to include helped. Maybe being gently encouraged instead of revved up to take it like medicine created the expectation that it wouldn’t be too bad. We’re not bigtime enough to conduct celebrity interviews at Tiny Towers yet, I’m afraid, so we’ll never really know!
It would be really interesting to know, though, whether Mulhern would have had more success with meatballs if he’d seen a high quality example of the dish being prepared from scratch. The ingredients of a meatball can overlap quite significantly with those of a burger (some people even use the same recipe for both, dependent on where they stand on breadcrumbs and eggs). For those who eat burgers, the meatballs themselves need not necessarily present a concern and the sauce that they’re served in can be changed according to preferences or left out completely! The same is true of curry – if you’re not a fan of Eastern spices then you’re probably never going to like it, but there are lots of different flavours and types of curry. And if you watch one being made, starting off with fried pieces of chicken and onion, for example, its transformation into the eventual curry seems less scary. After all, the spices, other vegetables and sauce components can be anything you want them to be really. You don’t have to end up with something that looks like a cheap ready-meal! For us picky eaters, so much of our faddy-ness comes from fear and if the fear can be transformed into ‘oh, that doesn’t seem so bad actually’ we’re far more likely to give it a try.
The Saturday Night Takeaway point is that if we’re in a situation where we must try to incorporate new foods into our diet, but we think we’re not going to enjoy them, we can help ourselves by preparing them in ways that feel as safe and familiar as possible. We can use favourite herbs and spices to give things flavour. We can phase the new foods in alongside foods we really enjoy and gradually work up to bigger portions and undisguised forkfuls. We can look up some recipe ideas before we begin, in order to incorporate the new food into something lovely. We can experiment with a few different ways of cooking – chips, mashed potatoes, boiled potatoes and jacket potatoes all taste quite different, for example. Why should this be different for broccoli, sprouts, sweet potatoes, swede, pumpkin, tofu, or beans? We can hide veg that we think we don’t like, but know don’t actually taste of very much in blended soups, in salsas, or in ratatouille type things. Courgettes, I’m talking about you! We can ask people who have tried a particular food before what it tastes like. We can find out if it’s an acquired taste – alcohol is famously an acquired taste, yet the majority of the population choose to persist with that until they’ve developed a liking for it! The same can be said of tea and coffee! We can try things when we’re feeling relaxed, confident and happy. We can read about all the ways the new food will benefit us, so that we can be eager to like it instead of determined to hate it. In short, to round up with a final TV analogy, trying new foods need not be a Bushtucker Trial!
As a last tip for those of you facing the task of incorporating some healthy new foods into your diet, don’t worry about where to buy strange ingredients. Nowadays supermarkets have most of what you’ll need, but there is an excellent website, www.healthysupplies.co.uk, where you can get all sorts of larder ingredients. For those who dislike cooking, I heartily recommend the cookbooks written by leading nutritionist, Patrick Holford, and Fiona McDonald Joyce. Although some of the recipes are a bit virtuous, lots of them are takes on very familiar foods and they’re notably written with the inexperienced in mind. Necessity is very much the mother of invention, so I’m now a great cook – but I’m also a fairly unenthusiastic one. I cook because I love to eat, not because I love the task itself. I want to create as little washing up as possible, eat as soon as possible, and preferably be able to do other things while the food is cooking. Until you find your feet in the kitchen, these cookbooks are really helpful. There are numerous websites devoted to every dietary requirement too, so you can find recipes for most anything you want online.
Making dramatic dietary changes can be difficult, but when you’re doing it for health reasons, the rewards eventually more than outstrip the sacrifices, I assure you. Be adventurous and stick at it – one day you’ll be so glad you did!
Wishing you the best of health,
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