Food Neophobia? Yes, It’s a Thing

When you’re trying to get loved ones to eat your meatless dishes, we all know you have to meet them partway. If one or more of them is a food neophobe, you’ll have to be even more careful and strategic. Food neophobes may decide they don’t like a dish even before they taste it, because they’re automatically averse to any unfamiliar food. But many food neophobes want to eat less meat. If you can find the narrow path to lead him or her to new meatless favorites, you will both have reason to be proud. 

Are You or Someone You Know a Food Neophobe?

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If you’re old enough, you might remember Mikey from the Life cereal commercial of 1972. His brother says, “I’m not gonna try it. Let’s get Mikey. Yeah, he won’t eat it. He hates everything!” (Watch the ad). Perhaps you’re not as bad as Mikey, but you like what you like, and you don’t appreciate other people pushing you to try things you’re not interested in.  Or are you on the opposite end with Anthony Bourdain? He’s the Food Network personality who travels the world in quest of culinary adventure, eating ant eggs, sheep testicles, and cobra hearts. Maybe you’re not the ant-egg-eating type, but you like trying a new dish on the menu, you jump at the chance to visit a new restaurant, or you lose hours on the internet picking new recipes to put on your stack.

If you or someone you know is more like Mikey, it may be a case of food neophobia. It’s a real thing, validated by years of research.

For people who are reluctant to try new foods, it’s not just at the moment of tasting that the dislike occurs. Hearing an unfamiliar dish name, reading about unusual ingredients, skimming a description of an untried food, or just looking at a new dish can all elicit a prediction of dislike. (My husband, Doug—a confirmed food neophobe—once said about a soup, “If I ate with a blindfold on, this would be better.”)  It’s often hard to tell whether a food neophobe’s dislike of a dish is because of the taste, or whether it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, a conscious or sub-conscious justification of the pre-tasting judgment. Fortunately, there are things you can do to successfully introduce new ingredients to a food neophobe, and I have some tips below.

Find out if you or someone you know is a food neophobe.

Take the test here (it requires only a few minutes).

Can Food Neophobia be Changed?

Food neophobia appears to be hard-wired in a similar way to personality traits. In one study of female twins, the results suggested that food neophobia is highly heritable: around 67% may be due to genes.  Like personality traits (extraversion, conscientiousness, etc.), food neophobia can be changed, but only to a degree. Increased exposure to new foods can lower the level of one’s food neophobia. But more experience with unfamiliar foods doesn’t completely counterbalance an innate and instinctive aversion to new foods, no more than learning to speak in public turns an introvert into an extravert.

Cooking for a Food Neophobe

If you are someone who is trying to introduce more meatless dishes to your spouse, partner, and/or children, you might have an increased challenge if there’s a food neophobe under your roof. I’ve found the following six strategies to be helpful in planning and serving plant-based dishes to my husband and other family members who fall on the neophobic end of the scale.

Introduce a new food in the context of a familiar dish

For a food neophobe, if there’s anything worse than an unfamiliar ingredient in a meal or dish, it’s an unfamiliar ingredient in an unfamiliar meal or dish. I learned this the hard way with my husband. For example, I first tried Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP) in a new recipe: Mexican Pasta Skillet. After Doug roundly rejected it, I thought TVP would never work. But another time I tried TVP as the basis for a “meat” sauce to go on spaghetti, and he gobbled it up. The same thing happened with TVP tacos—no problem. Duh, he already loved spaghetti sauce and tacos, and he’d never had anything like a Mexican pasta dish.

Introduce only one new ingredient at a time

I’ve found the most success when Doug only has to confront one new ingredient at a time. Early on during our vegan dinner experiments, I thought I’d have an easy winner with vegan nachos. I made a “cheesy” vegan sauce from scratch and a taco-beef-like mixture made from meat crumbles. I piled the tortilla chips high and buried them in the taco mixture and cheesy sauce. Doug wanted to like them but couldn’t eat more than a few—too much change at one time for a food neophobe.

Make new food more enticing by serving it with a favorite side dish or sauce

Never underestimate how a favorite condiment or side dish can help a new dish go down. Doug loves mango chutney, sweet chili sauce, and ketchup, so I make sure to highlight the condiment when serving a not-yet-loved dish. Doug’s favorite side dishes work the same way. Roasted asparagus, baked French fries, fresh corn on the cob, and semi-homemade baked beans have all done their part to increase the acceptance of new ventures.

Give choices

Everyone tends to like a dish better if they’ve had a voice in choosing it. When possible, let them decide on broccoli or cauliflower, green or fruit salad, lentil or split pea soup, these leftovers or those tonight? There is a subtle shift of ownership to the person making the decision, and he or she is likely to be more pleased by the meal than otherwise.

Repeat dishes that were acceptable so that they become favorites

I made the mistake early on of trying one new dish after another, without repeating any of the new dishes for months. Sometimes when we had a new dish a second time many months later, Doug rejected it. I eventually figured out that I needed to repeat any new dish that he liked within a month in order to lock it into his memory as safe and tasty.

Don’t say too much about the dish beforehand, and don’t be defensive or preachy

I recommend saying as little as possible about what’s in the new dish unless specifically asked—give it a nickname (“Dad’s New Enchilada Casserole”) instead of a clinical name (“Tofu-Quinoa-Poblano Enchilada Casserole”). You can cite someone’s praise about the taste of dish, or lightly talk about its healthiness, but don’t come on too strong. Perhaps the hardest rule of thumb is accepting the rejection of new dishes by your resident neophobe. It’s so tempting to whine, “But you love peanut butter! This sauce is mostly peanut butter; it’s on top of broccoli and rice, and you like those too!” Reasonable argument, but the neophobe is not responding to food on the basis of reason. I’ve found that no amount of arguing changes my husband’s mind once he’s decided. And the debating can make meal time more fraught with anxiety in the future. Better to calmly note the dislike and move on. Use your energy on figuring out how to win your neophobe over to the next dish.

Keep at it

The keys are persistence, baby steps, and understanding. If you’re cooking for a food neophobe, remember that somewhere deep in their brain is a strong distrust of new food—it’s part of their survival instinct. You can coax them to like new meatless dishes, and when you do, the accomplishment will be all the sweeter.

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