My niece is still a picky eater. I was, too, and I didn’t start to turn it around until I moved into my own apartment. Nothing magical happened in my case; I responded to peer pressure, a new ideology, and the necessity of learning to cook for myself. I thought I would help my niece, one Questioner to another, to explore this issue of resisting most foods. I had recently seen her eat a dinner of nothing but potatoes and cake, and she’s old enough now, at 10, to start learning to eat in a way that works for the long term.
We were eating my Mexican casserole, a crowd-pleasing dish. It’s so good that on more than one occasion, someone has emailed me days later asking for the recipe. Teenagers inhale it. Most people eat seconds. My niece and a 6-year-old picky boy have been the only people who didn’t like it.
Niece: [picking at plate, making a disgusted face and grumbling something about tomatoes]
Me: The last time I made this, you complained about the onions and I left them out this time, just for you. What do you like to eat?
Me: Pizza? Soup? Cookies? There must be something. What’s your favorite?
Niece: I don’t know.
Me: What’s the worst thing that would happen if you put something in your mouth that didn’t taste good?
Niece: [immediately] You’d throw up.
Me: And then what? What’s the worst thing that would happen if you threw up? Would it catch on fire?
Niece: [laughing] Nooo!
Me: Would your head explode?
Niece: [laughing] No.
Me: Being able to make yourself eat things that aren’t your favorite is a super power.
Picky eating is sad and limiting. I know some extreme picky eaters who haven’t been able to conquer the problem as adults, and it can be socially embarrassing. It can also lead to health problems. I was fortunate in two ways: I learned to fight my gag reflex as a child when we were too poor to afford much, and I learned that I can force myself to eat things if my rational mind tells me I should. That’s how I found out that eventually, things that started out tasting nasty and gross can and will taste delicious. It takes repeated attempts and preparing them in various ways.
I am still picky in some ways. Basically anything that even resembles anything I ate during a particular period of my life is a downer for me. I don’t even want to look at a picture of macaroni and cheese. I don’t cook with spaghetti or macaroni noodles, even in completely different dishes like soup. Arguably, it tastes exactly the same, but I use other shapes. The only comfort food I still like from childhood is tater tots. My ex-husband, an excellent cook, made a meal once that was reminiscent to me of a particular tuna casserole recipe. The only ingredient they had in common was dill, which I love. It wasn’t a casserole, it didn’t have tuna, it didn’t have noodles, it wasn’t even the same color. Somehow, it reminded me of this other dish, and I couldn’t eat it. I still wonder what was going on there. Was I suppressing some anxiety about our marriage? Was my immune system fighting off something that day? What’s different now is that I would have cheerfully forced down the weird dish, thanked him for making dinner, and maybe brought home a new cookbook. My picky, irrational feelings about a food are nobody’s business but my own, and I’m sorry I was rude to my ex.
Of course, another valid solution is to take over the meal planning. Grabbing the ladle and cooking for others can be a sneaky way of providing for your own picky pickle-ness.
There are SO many factors that could objectively play a part in picky eating. I think it’s almost entirely a physical, mechanical, or chemical issue, and only partly an issue of psychology. Obviously, the sensation of disgust that makes us gag or spit things out is a survival trait. When we open a container of moldy leftovers, and the sight of blue spores makes us gag, that’s biology’s way of telling us DO NOT PUT THAT IN YOUR MOUTH. What is going on, though, when we feel disgust at the sight, taste, and texture of fresh, healthy foods?
Most picky eaters like and dislike the same foods. I listed some off once, to the 6-year-old picky boy I mentioned earlier. I was complaining about how hard it is to cook for young children. “Kids only like to eat creamy peanut butter and jelly on white bread, macaroni and cheese, chicken nuggets, cereal, Capri Suns, pizza, French fries, and sugar.” The boy nodded and replied, “And corn dogs.” Adult picky eaters tend to have issues with vegetables, fruits, whole grains… in other words, anything that contains dietary fiber. “IT’S THE TEXTURE.” I really think that’s the issue. If it has fiber, they don’t want it, so they end up eating a diet almost entirely deficient in micronutrients. I think these two things are part of the problem.
My hypothesis is that picky eating is driven by a combination of gut flora, micronutrient balance, and blood sugar levels. Further, I think it can start at any time, but that it usually begins in infancy or toddlerhood. Every week that it continues would then further exacerbate the condition. I know a lot of picky eaters who “can’t eat breakfast,” and I think that morning nausea is another clue. Picky eating may not be a part of someone’s personality as much as a natural response to a particular physical state. The physical state then causes anxiety, disgust, and dread, rather than the reverse.
I don’t have the training or ability to test out my hypothesis at this time, although if I do go back to school in pursuit of nutrition certification, this is something I would really like to explore. What I do know is that dietary fiber helps to regulate the release of insulin, and that eating particular foods contributes both to micronutrient intake and to supporting colonies of gut microbiota. That means my idea is objectively testable, that it can be proved or disproved.
Anecdotally, the majority of people in my acquaintance are obese or severely obese. It appears to me that picky eating correlates with size. The obvious guess would be that larger people are less picky, that their willingness to eat anything and everything is the reason they are heavy. I think it’s the opposite. Not only do my friends and acquaintances have very specific ideas of what they do and don’t want to eat, they will sometimes only eat a particular food from a specific brand or location of a specific restaurant. These restaurants typically don’t have so much as a single healthy option on the menu. When I go to places like these for social occasions, I marvel at how there is virtually no overlap between the Venn diagram circles of my diet and my friends’ diets. Some of my friends won’t even drink water because it “tastes bad.”
Here is some stuff I refuse to eat on the grounds that it disgusts me: Ranch dressing, Pop Tarts, marshmallows, gummy candy, coffee, peanut butter-flavored desserts, alcohol, meat (especially bacon), white bread, popsicles, diet soda, artificial sweeteners, Cadbury Crème Eggs. The very idea of a breakfast of crêpes with whipped cream and hot chocolate. Bleargh!
See, that’s the weird thing. I look at something like “caramel drizzle” and it makes me shudder all over. It feels like my teeth are trying to crawl away in fright. Some of these foods have disgusted me since childhood, but others only started to be repulsive to me after I transitioned to a healthier diet. I didn’t intend to lose my taste for chocolate; it just happened. Instead, I found myself developing a strong taste preference for foods like kale, eggplant, pumpkin, avocado, sweet potatoes, and other healthy whole foods. Some of these new foods I had not only never tried until adulthood, I had never seen or heard of them. I wonder if sometimes the age of first introduction is part of how we decide whether we like a certain food; as a child, I hated asparagus, broccoli, and artichokes, but I love them now. The taste buds supposedly change every two years, so it certainly seems possible.
It would be a good idea if we periodically reviewed what we eat with an eye toward longevity and optimal health. I had a conversation with a friend who, it emerged, drank soda every day but did not drink water or eat cruciferous vegetables, lumping them all under the category of “broccoli,” although I strongly suspect she had never tasted at least two or three non-broccoli vegetables on the list. How can you know you’ll hate something you’ve never tried? Picky eaters know, because they base their revulsions and preferences on sight as often as anything else. I see it and I know, I just know, I will hate it. That’s how I wind up creating a world in which I behave as though soda is good for me and vegetables and water are bad for me.
When I was a picky eater, I had weird health problems, and then I got fat. When I started changing my diet, eating healthy foods and giving up unhealthy foods, my results changed, too. Suddenly everything changed. I lost the weight, I quit getting migraines, I quit having night terrors, and suddenly it was easy both to maintain my goal weight and to sleep 8 hours a night. It seems like more than a coincidence to have such disparate results correlate with a specific point on the timeline. Even if it really was something else, like astrological influences or the lifting of a voodoo curse, there are no arguments against eating more cruciferous vegetables. I made a decision, I made a commitment, I started doing something that definitely did not come naturally, and before I knew it, it had become my preference. Learning to eat weird stuff over and over again is the only way to make it stop seeming weird.
Our bodies are made of cells, and those cells are made from food. We behave as though all foods are interchangeable, and that what we eat should be determined by taste preference alone. We truly don’t know better, because we aren’t taught nutrition in school. Our doctors aren’t, either! It stands to reason, though, that there might be a difference in results between someone who drinks soda every day and someone who never does, or someone who eats zero cruciferous vegetables compared to someone who eats 2-4 cups a day of them. It’s worth testing it out for at least a few weeks. Going back is usually an option, unless you find out that you no longer have a taste for the junk you used to like.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.