HodgeonRepeat blog - palate pleasers - fish tacos with papaya salsa

Healthy Eating 911: a Post-Pandemic Palate Revival

When you’re in the precarious first years of maintaining a significant weight loss like I am, staying committed to your healthy eating habits is mission-critical. After losing more than 60 pounds, I didn’t want to ever get back on the diet roller-coaster and put the pounds back on. To say I’ve felt trepidatious about my ability to maintain my weight loss is putting it mildly. The odds of a woman in her 50s maintaining a weight loss after decades of obesity and yo-yo dieting is slim, but so far, I’ve done it.

I’ve beaten the odds and maintained my weight loss (three years and counting). But, surprisingly, the first big test of my commitment to maintenance came from the life-altering events of the recent pandemic. During the year-long surge of the pandemic, and even now, as we enter into what we hope is a post-pandemic era, I’ve found my palate waning. Foods taste bland, and meals have become uninspired.

HodgeonRepeat blog - post-pandemic palate revival - fork and string beans in canvas utensil pouch

A Food Lover’s Dilemma

Strangely, this food lover has lost her zest for eating, and mealtimes have become a struggle. How is it possible that after decades of loving food, craving food and thinking about food nearly 24/7, I’ve somehow become bored by it? Of course, the restaurant shutdown played a role, but ultimately it’s my palate that has shutdown. For the first time in my life, food doesn’t taste so fabulous. It’s not that I’ve lost my sense of taste; it’s more that the very act of eating has been dulled. Somehow the well-worn path from my home office to the kitchen feels more like another chore than an inviting journey to find a tasty treat.  

This is a problem for someone who needs to work at weight loss maintenance. I rely on a balance of healthy eating and regular workouts to maintain my weight, so protecting my healthy eating habits is essential. While I’ve always eaten most meals at home and love cooking, there were several flavorful meals that I looked forward to eating out each week. They spiced up my mealtime routine and kept me happy while eating a largely whole-foods diet at home.

The Pandemic Shutdown Crushed My Palate Pleasers

How have I kept my sanity while maintaining a 60+ pound weight loss? Before the pandemic, I had weekly palate-pleaser meals. My top picks: a weekly sushi meal, a restaurant salad with exotic greens and my favorite fixings, a spicy Mexican dish, and a hummus wrap or Middle Eastern salad bowl. I’d rotate between these mealtime favorites. For example, I often bought a Middle Eastern rice or salad bowl (greens, rice, baked falafel, hummus, and pickles) on my way home from the gym on Saturdays.  

When the healthcare crisis shut down NYC restaurants, and I started working from home, I lost access to this variety. The first couple of months, I was so focused on getting food in the house safely and taking care of my loved ones that meals were automatic. I didn’t care if they were dull or simple; my focus was elsewhere. But around the six-month mark, my at-home meals and snacks started getting boring. For someone who loves food as much as I do, feeling “eh” about eating was a strange, out-of-body experience. You’d think I would have welcomed it, but it was a sad reminder to me that things were vastly different in the world, and usual comforts could vanish in an instant.

Now a year into the shutdown, I’m happy to see a bit of a revival among NYC restaurants. But, let’s not kid ourselves; we don’t have enough capacity at this time for a safe return to the “eating out” experience we once had. Anyway, most of my restaurant meals weren’t sit-down meals, but take out. Sadly, my favorite local sushi and Middle Eastern restaurants have closed. I walk home from the gym with a sense of sadness that these familiar places aren’t in my life anymore. It’s the combination of losing the meals I love and losing my connection to the community that existed within these restaurants that have me mourning. It seems that some of that sadness has crept into my mealtime angst.

The Palate Pivot

As an alternative to my restaurant meals, and in the face of the strangest sort of eating malaise I’ve ever encountered, I’ve created a few new shopping rituals that are slowly putting the zip back in my meals. In addition, I’ve embarked on a search for foods that excite my taste buds. If your palate has lost its joie de vivre like mine, I hope these foods will resuscitate it from food boredom and mealtime “meh.” These foods are my answer to a healthy eating 911 call.

HodgeonRepeat blog - wooden spoon of spices - palate pleasers

New Shopping/Meal Prep Rituals

  • Mix things up by shopping at a wider variety of grocery stores, farmer’s markets or online vendors. Try Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods Market, local farmer’s markets or online delivery services. During a recent trip to Trader Joe’s, I found these gems: dragon fruit, artichokes, Medjool dates, spice mixtures and frozen fish (red Argentinian shrimp and branzino).
  • Look to social media (especially Pinterest or Instagram) for inspirational recipes, and try new food combinations you haven’t experienced. Here’s my take on some healthy, flavorful recipes that use spices in place of sugar.
  • Shop in local, small food shops and ethnic grocery stores to hunt for new foods (and support local businesses). For example, try green bananas (here’s my recipe for boiled bananas topped with black beans); different varieties of corn, rice and flour tortillas; and alternatives to potatoes (like yucca).
HodgeonRepeat blog - boiled green bananas recipe
  • Visit a local farmer’s market to buy the freshest seasonal produce available. Sometimes eating the best version of a familiar favorite (like apples or carrots) can revitalize your taste for it.
  • Prepare familiar foods in different ways. Roast vegetables instead of steaming them. Baked apples with cinnamon and raisins are a great substitute for raw apple slices. Juice blueberries or add them to homemade pancake recipes instead of eating them on cereal. Stretch the boundaries of food prep to experience familiar foods in new ways.

Produce Powerhouses to Excite Your Taste Buds

There is a long list of fruits available to most of us, extending way past bananas, apples, grapes and oranges. So when shopping for produce, bring home some that you’ve never tried and experiment with them.

HodgeonRepeat blog - dragonfruit and mangos

Palate Revival: Fruits

Dragon Fruit: This brightly flavored fruit reminds me of kiwi but tastes uniquely different and pairs well with banana and raspberries. I blend it in fruit smoothies or top with nuts and bananas in smoothie bowls.

Dates: I love them as a dessert or sweet snack. Two dates and a glass of iced coffee is the perfect afternoon snack.

Pineapple: My favorite fruit! Pineapples are more readily available these days. Just be sure to let them sit out long enough to ripen fully. They should feel heavy, and their leaves should look a bit old to indicate ripeness.

Dried orange slices: I bake orange slices slowly to dehydrate them. I’ll put a few in a pitcher to make flavored water or eat them as a snack alongside a few cashews. I like the slight bitterness of the rind, and the smell of oranges adds a sensory kick.

Acai: I buy frozen acai packets at Trader Joe’s to make homemade acai bowls. Blend them with banana and then top with unsweetened coconut and assorted nuts/seeds.

Frozen wild boreal blueberries: these tiny, wild blueberries have a richer taste and are excellent in breakfast smoothies blended with banana and a tablespoon of almond butter.

Palate Revival: Vegetables

Artichokes: steam them, then top with a garlic vinaigrette or a bit of tapenade (olive spread)

Baby kale/baby spinach: baby greens taste a bit lighter and sweeter; they are great sautéed slightly and added to a hummus wrap (don’t forget to top with the zhoung sauce mentioned below)

Rainbow-colored carrots or parsnips: colorful varieties of food are just more fun; purple carrots make me smile.

Green bananas: this resistant starch is an excellent substitute for potatoes. I boil them, mash and then top them with black beans or garlic shrimp (recipe here).

HodgeonRepeat blog - Trader Joe's spice collection

Spices and Flavorings from Around the World

Grocers like Trader Joe’s have been experimenting with new spice combinations. Spices can transform a simple protein like tofu or shrimp into a unique flavor experience. I pair tofu with Everything but the bagel sesame seasoning blend, soy sauce, a pinch of cayenne pepper and a tablespoon of peanut butter to make a spicy peanut sauce that adds richness to the rather tasteless soybean cake. Here are some flavors that I’m currently experimenting with:

Palate Revival: Spices/Flavorings

Anchovies: great for making my own Ceasar salad dressing

Zhoug (herbal) sauce: I put this sh**t on everything. This sauce is the greatest food discovery since siracha sauce for me.

Tapenade/Olive spread: olives don’t taste like anything else. Spread the love on crackers or use a spoonful to top steamed artichoke hearts.

Date spread: great for adding a bit of sweetness to things like homemade energy balls and granola

Dark cocoa powder: amazing when cooked with black beans or added to a banana/almond-milk smoothie

There you have it—my list of palate pleasers guaranteed to wake up your taste buds (while keeping you healthy and well-fed). I’m seeing some tasty meals in your future!

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