The subtitle of this post should be “Especially if You Don’t Like Them.” Picky eaters, I feel your pain. A truncated list of the vegetarian staples I dislike includes pinto beans, garbanzo beans (and therefore hummus), cauliflower, eggplant, summer squash, butternut squash, olives, artichokes, tofu and mushrooms. I gag over the grimy paste of lentils mashed between the flat plates of my teeth, the slimy flesh of an eggplant slipping towards the back of my throat. Once, in a nice restaurant in California, I accidentally put a slice of mushroom in my mouth—masked under the thick alfredo sauce on my manicotti, which I had ordered without mushrooms—and the gritty edges of it, its slickness against my tongue, made me so sick I had to run to the bathroom to spit it out in a trashcan.
Did I mention I was a vegetarian for seven years? Right, go see how well that worked for me.
So at the request of Lindsey, I decided to compile some of the lessons I’ve learned as a picky eater, unhealthy vegetarian and ethical omnivore about how to best incorporate more vegetables into your diet. Bear in mind, these are tips for people who struggle with this, or who find themselves resistant to veggies, even though you know they’re good for you. If you love vegetables and have no trouble eating any of the things detailed above—awesome!
But if you want to do better (because you know, in your heart, it truly is better for you) this advice might be the place to start.
1. Incorporate veggies into existing meals.
One of the most frustrating things to me, as someone who really loves to cook and bake from scratch, is the dreaded recipe rut. You develop a list of old standbys that you make every five days or so, over and over. And that gets boring.
One way to change that up is to find veggie add-ons, an easy way to rotate one standard dish into many variation. My favorite personal example is this homemade baked mac and cheese recipe. Aside from being really easy and much better than a blue box, it’s easy to switch up. I’ve added in garlic chicken and sliced red onions, or, the favorite, cubed ham and frozen green peas.
2. Find small ways to substitute vegetables for meat.
This is more of an anti-tip, and is specific to the picky eaters or meat lovers out there. Don’t try to replace your meat staples with veggies. If you love black bean burgers, great! Keep it up! But if you love a nice grilled buffalo burger or homemade Juicy Lucy, don’t try and sell yourself on a black bean burger. You’ll only be reminded of what you’re missing, and that’s the path to a strong dislike of vegetables.
Eating veggies doesn’t work if you always feel like you’re being deprived. Instead, try to swap out meat where you won’t notice it. I found I much prefer a hearty, chunky vegetable bolognese, instead of a meaty one! Less heartburn, too. This is so flavorful and chunky you won’t miss the meat — you might even prefer this version.
3. Tack veggies onto existing meals
This seems overly simple, but sometimes having vegetables on hand and always thinking about adding them is all it takes. Keep your fridge stocked with the makings of a simple salad (go for spring greens or spinach rather than iceberg) and a variety of toppings. I love blue cheese, walnuts and dried cranberries, but chopped avocado, egg and cheddar, feta and black olives, etc. work too. Other simple vegetable side dishes like these Israeli carrots make adding vegetables easy. That way, when you’re planning chicken and rice, or steak and potatoes, you can add a couple handfuls of veggies.
4. or – Tack meat onto veggie meals!
Can’t take credit for this one—comes straight from Scott. He’s always said one of his biggest hangups when it comes to eating vegetables was feeling like a meatless meal just isn’t complete, even if it’s filling. So if you find eating salad a chore, try sliced flank steak on top! Not a fan of brown rice stir fry? Try adding cashew chicken. You might be surprised at how you expand your vegetable-heavy entrée options by doing the counter-intuitive thing and adding meat to round out the meal.
This also works as a way to transform vegetable-oriented side dishes that you enjoy into whole meals. The avocado-mango salsa I made for last weekend’s gathering has also made a well-received appearance on top of a piece of pan-fried tilapia with rice, a meal that could have easily appeared “complete” without the produce.
5. Try new veggies – then try them again
Now we get into the suggestions that involve less concrete advice and more of a shift in your mental state. A willingness to expand your horizons is key. I went into more detail on this in my ode to swiss chard, but I have countless examples. As a picky eater, I spent most of my life defiantly standing my ground against changing my diet, adamant in my belief that no one else had the right to tell me what I did or didn’t like.
But sometimes, our tastes change. Sometimes, we don’t even know how or why we dislike something. Sometimes we just don’t like the look of a vegetable, so we never learn what to do with it, or how wonderful it could be. Giving it a shot can make all the difference.
A few months back, I drooled over a recipe in Cooking Light, by Mark Bittman, for chicken and Gruyère quesadillas with mustard greens. I’d never had mustard greens and they sounded like they would be bitter and pungent. But then, the very next week at the co-op, bunches of shiny mustard greens waited for me fresh from a local farm. I figured – why not? I already had a recipe in mind.
You know what happened? I discovered I like mustard greens. Bittman’s a great chef, and he knows what he’s doing with these ingredients. The greens, wilted in garlic and tossed with the sweet, sharp cheese, are mild and savory, delicious.
But that’s a first-time-around success story. What happens if you try a recipe with a new vegetable – and you hate it?
Try another one.
Most vegetables have multiple preparation possibilities, and taste different in each one. The first few times I cooked kale at home, tossed with sausage and tomato into a pasta with lemon juice, or baked into a chevre macaroni and cheese, Scott was not a fan. But a few months later, he had a kale salad at a restaurant and loved it. While this may be because that chef possesses greater culinary talent, I choose to believe it’s because raw and cooked kale taste very different.
Expanding your horizons might take time. You have to be willing to acknowledge the possibility of liking something you didn’t think you could.
6. Learn how to prepare vegetables well
This goes hand-in-hand with the last tip. If you don’t know how to steam or saute asparagus, or what on earth to do with a kohlrabi, one of two things is going to happen. You’re either going to skip trying this vegetable (kohlrabi) or you’re going to let someone else do the work (asparagus). That is, you’ll buy frozen or canned vegetables instead of the fresh, seasonal options in the produce section.
Do not succumb to this. While I usually keep corn and peas in the freezer, I believe vegetables belong in the crisper, not the icebox, because the difference in taste between the two is enormous. A fresh, crisp green bean beats the pants off the soggy, microwaved frozen version. If your vegetables don’t taste good, you won’t like to eat them. And it’s important to remember they really can taste good!
A simple Google search will give you plenty of recipes and preparations. Seek out those from sources whose food you usually like. I rely heavily on Mark Bittman, Jamie Oliver, Cooking Light and the epicurious group of magazines, because I trust them to know what they’re doing. Or, you could always ask me!
7. Don’t be afraid of deciding you don’t like something
We come full circle, back to picky eating. While it’s important to keep an open mind about vegetables, and to dig your hands into figuring them out, and learning the best way to prepare them to their ultimate deliciousness. But if you do all that, and you still can’t stomach a brussel sprout?
Well, ok. You don’t like brussel sprouts.
You don’t have to eat every vegetable on the face of the planet. But there are a lot – way more options than for grains or meat. I’ll bet most of us eat only a fragment of available produce. Once you’re willing to give things a shot, a real shot, you can also be willing to cast them aside.
This is key, because it keeps eating your vegetables from feeling like a chore. Like something you have to do. Like all those nights I couldn’t leave the dinner table until 9PM because I hadn’t finished my broccoli (which I still don’t like!) You won’t eat your veggies if they don’t taste good, and you won’t do it if you feel like you’re being forced to.
The only way to know what you don’t like is to try a lot. And then try them again, and try some more. Eventually, you’ll discover it’s actually pretty fun. Every trip to the store becomes like a choose-your-own-adventure book.
My next adventure: parsnips. This is my “I have no good reason for not eating this vegetable” vegetable. People love parsnips. I even have bookmarked recipes. But they just don’t look appealing to m: the key is, I know now that’s not a good reason not to try something. So next week, I’ll be giving them a shot. I’ll let you know how it goes!
What advice do you have for incorporating more vegetables (or fruits!) into your diet? What are your favorite vegetarian or vegetable-oriented main dishes? Have you overcome your dislike of some food to later discover you loved it?