You can only say “eat your vegetables” so many times before everyone is sick of hearing it. If you, your kids, or your spouse just don’t like vegetables and can’t figure out how to change that, don’t worry. I’ll give you seven easy ways to make them more delicious.
Before going into those, there’s an interesting reason why they’re the common dinner villain, and having an understanding of it can really help in overcoming vegetable resistance.
There are five flavors that we taste in foods: sweet, salty, savory, sour, and bitter. The sweet and salty flavors are the most popular, and savoriness, by definition, means good taste. Some people like the sour taste, but usually in a form that comes along with sugar-like lemonade or sour candies.
Most people don’t like foods with a bitter taste, and there is a good reason for all of these preferences. The sour and bitter flavors alert us to foods that might be toxic or harmful to us.
Vegetables, although very healthy, do have a component of bitterness to them. This could be from a low level of toxins created by the plant to avoid being eaten, or a kind of bitterness camouflage to make an animal think the plant is toxic.
Since children in general have more sensitive taste buds than adults, designed to protect their more sensitive digestive systems, they’re not fond of bitter flavors. When you look at it that way, it’s not really very surprising that kids don’t want to eat their vegetables.
As you grow up, it’s common that foods you disliked as a child aren’t so bad, and you might even grow to love some of them. For some, the aversion to vegetables continues into adulthood. It could be that they simply never learned to like them, or it could be a special sensitivity to the bitter compounds in vegetables.
The good news is that once you understand why vegetables don’t taste good to you or your children, you can work with that knowledge to make them more appealing.
Here are seven easy ways to reduce the bitterness of vegetables and hopefully end the battle over eating them.
1. Use of Salt
The best flavor for overcoming bitterness is saltiness. It also goes well with vegetables, which have natural salts in them. Although salt is currently seen mostly in a negative light, if you eliminate processed foods from your diet you will have taken away the major contributor of sodium and can use a moderate amount of salt in your cooking with no worries. In fact, a bit of salt is good for you.
Salt can come in the form of pure salt, tamari (or soy sauce), miso, mustard, olives or other pickled foods. For pure salt, I recommend using a mix of sea salt and ground kelp to both increase the mineral content and reduce the potency of the salt.
Some of the more bitter vegetables can be marinated before cooking to reduce their bitterness. Things like eggplant, broccoli and kale are particularly bitter and are much more appetizing if you rub them with some salt and let them sit for 15 minutes or so before cooking.
Using a bit of tamari or soy sauce while they marinate adds both the salty and the savory flavor, and is a great way to neutralize bitterness. Balsamic vinegar or other flavorful sauces are also excellent marinades.
3. Cooking Methods
The way you cook vegetables results in different flavors. Roasting causes the carbohydrates in vegetables to caramelize, which makes them much sweeter than other cooking methods. Root vegetables like sweet potatoes, carrots and parsnips taste amazing when roasted. Tomatoes and red peppers are fantastic as well.
Some vegetables lose their bitterness when cooked lightly, but get a more intense flavor if they’re overcooked. Broccoli is a good example of this, and is at its best when it’s lightly steamed or stir-fried. All of the cruciferous (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, etc) vegetables form sulfur compounds when they’re overcooked, which give them a bad flavor.
4. Sauces and Dressings
A delicious sauce or dressing is immensely helpful in creating an irresistible vegetable dish, whether you’re eating raw or properly cooked vegetables. Salads in particular can go from having to be forced down to being gobbled up with a flavorful dressing.
There’s no substitute for balsamic vinegar, which makes for a slightly sweet dressing. Mixed with olive oil and a pinch of salt, it makes a basic dressing. Try adding some crushed garlic, herbs and a bit of pureed raspberries, leaving it to marinate in the fridge as you use it, for a richer flavor.
To make a rich, creamy dressing without dairy, puree some avocado with water, a pinch of salt and whatever seasonings you like. If you like Asian flavors, a dressing of rice vinegar, tamari and a touch of toasted sesame oil is wonderful.
5. Use of the Sweet Flavor
Sweetness can’t neutralize bitterness in the same way saltiness can, but enhancing the sweet flavor can help make a dish more delicious overall. Using a small bit of sweetener is the trick Italians use to make tomato sauce so good.
A small amount of maple syrup in salad dressing can help balance the flavors and make the whole salad more appetizing. A piece of fruit or two can work wonders in that way as well. Apples, oranges or dried cranberries are all great options.
6. Choice of Vegetables
Some vegetables are sweeter and/or less bitter than others. Choosing these ones, and maybe mixing them with some other vegetables, makes it easier to get enough daily vegetables. Sweet potatoes, carrots, beets and other root vegetables, along with certain squash like butternut, have more sugars than other vegetables so they’re usually well-received.
The stems of broccoli have much less bite than the florets, and red and yellow peppers are much sweeter than green ones. Young vegetables are also softer in flavor, so baby spinach, zucchini and others can be helpful in developing a taste for the fully-grown versions.
If all else fails and the habit of not liking vegetables is winning over any attempts to persuade the taste buds, try camouflaging vegetables. They can be blended into soups --- squash or sweet potato make fantastic creamy soups with no need for dairy.
Blending can work wonders for hiding vegetables in tomato sauce, in a bean dip or even in a fruit smoothie. Try adding a few leaves of lettuce to a banana-peach smoothie and see if you can get away with it.