“I do not like them, Sam-I-am. I do not like green eggs and ham.” – Dr. Seuss
Just over three years ago, I asked my omnivore husband to try one vegan dinner a week. He agreed, but he warned that he wouldn’t eat what he didn’t like. Fair enough, I thought. With all the amazing vegan recipes I’d collected over the years, my cooking would be sure to please.
My veggie burgers worked in Week 1 — SCORE! Falafel Salad and Yellow Thai Curry went well, too, in Weeks 2 and 3. But then things started to slide. Out of the next six weeks, he liked three. He rejected Pizza Bowls, Boeuf Bourgignon stew (with vegetarian “beef”), and Spaghetti with Vegetable Meatballs.
What was happening? Was he trying to sabotage my experiment so he could go back to meat? He isn’t that kind of guy. Plus about half the time everything was fine. I couldn’t figure out what was happening...couldn’t see a pattern. I didn’t know what else to do but keep making delicious dishes. It was a crap shoot, but what could I do?
The Spinach Epiphany. It was spinach that finally clued me in. I noticed, at last, that no matter how I used spinach, or how sparsely, he would see it and wouldn’t eat it. Then I realized it was the same with olives. And chickpeas. And cooked carrots. And mushrooms, except when they were finely chopped. And forget about tofu or tempeh.
Doh! I was making things that looked delicious to me. I was completely ignoring any information about what he liked. When I went back to my notes of what I’d made each week, sure enough, it all made sense. He didn’t like the South Indian Curry, White Pizza, or Vegan Turnovers, all of which were loaded with spinach. He didn’t like the Deli-Style Chickpea Salad or Deborah Madison’s Chickpeas with Pasta. Interestingly, he never said anything like, “I don’t like spinach! Enough already!”—that would have helped. Maybe he didn’t realize it himself?
And the pattern went beyond individual foods and ingredients. When I made vegan versions of dishes he liked—enchiladas, tacos, pizza, Thai curry—my record was almost 100% positive. If I started with a dish he’d never tried or didn’t like in omnivore versions— eggplant parmesan, sloppy joes, stroganoff, bowls—chances of success were near zero. It seems obvious now.
Research Studies. In the last year I’ve read a lot of research on food preferences. My husband’s responses to my cooking mirror their results. People’s likes and dislikes develop and evolve over their lifetimes, but at any given moment they’re strong. Food is a major source of pleasure for most of us. If a dish looks dangerous or unpleasant—because of a disliked ingredient, or it looks too healthy, or it’s unfamiliar—we fear we'll be disappointed. And many studies have shown that once we expect not to like something, we usually don’t.
So if you’re trying to make meatless food appealing to someone, it’s important to make it consistent with their likes.
Food preference survey to the rescue. I don’t want it to take other cooks one or two years to figure out the best plant-based dishes for their spouses, partners, children, or other omnivores of interest. So I’ve developed two tools. The first is a food survey covering many different dishes and ingredients. It’s like the surveys personal chefs give their clients at the beginning of an engagement. The survey covers familiar dishes from a variety of cuisines as well as individual ingredients. Download the survey document in pdf format or Word format.
Meatless versions of dishes they love. The second tool is a “conversion chart.” It follows the same order as the preference survey and then links to recipes for plant-based versions of the dishes. It provides ideas for side dishes to go with the entrees. There are also links to recipes that make prominent use of individual vegetables, beans, and meat substitutes, so you can take advantage of any of your loved one’s favorite individual foods. Download the conversion chart in pdf format or Word format.
I hope these tools are useful to you. I’d love to hear about your experiences. Please write to me via email or comment on Facebook or on the site. Good luck!