My Life in Food (Story of a Fussy Eater)

As a child, I didn’t like meat because of sensory issues. I didn’t like the look of the soggy red packages from the store, or the cooking pans full of fatty drippings. I didn’t like the effort of trimming off the fat and bone. I wouldn’t eat any meat that you had to pick up and chew, like chicken wings or ribs. I hated onions and garlic and wouldn’t eat anything that even faintly tasted of them. Worst of all, I dreaded the future: someday I would grow up and prepare my own food and I would have to know how to clean a fish!

I didn’t like vegetables either. I came from a community in which everyone had boiled potatoes and vegetables every day. Corned beef and cabbage was a thing; also stews with turnips in them. Salad was iceberg lettuce with tomatoes and cucumbers. I liked potatoes, peas, corn and baked beans. I hated carrots and string beans. I wouldn’t eat tomatoes or anything made with tomatoes, which ruled out pasta, chili and pizza.

Needless to say, I was not a bundle of fun for my parents to feed. I have no doubt I spoiled many family meals with my sulking and complaining. My mom would kindly cook onions separately so they didn’t touch my food, and she would make me up a burger without garlic in it. Otherwise, there were no separate meals. I was forced to eat meat, fish and carrots every day. I remember sitting at the table crying over cold food when everyone else had finished. I didn’t go to friends’ homes for meals because I would invariably be served things I “couldn’t eat.”

In their defense, my parents truly believed I wouldn’t get enough protein unless I ate meat. They wanted me to get nutrition from food and not from (then-popular) Flintstones vitamin tablets. And just as parents are told today, they thought repeat exposures to a food would wear me down.

In retrospect, I think I was a “supertaster” who detected the bitter notes in each food. It’s no wonder I developed a fondness for starches and sweets. I loved fresh fruit, and still do.

I had a couple of good experiences. The first time my family ever went out for Chinese food, I loved stir-fried green peppers and water chestnuts. I tried broccoli for the first time at my aunt’s place and it was fantastic. It looked like little trees!

As a teen, I thought about becoming a vegetarian so I would have an excuse to refuse meat. But I knew my parents would not buy or make separate meals for me, I wouldn’t eat more vegetables, and I wouldn’t have the commitment to cook for myself. So I let it be. I stayed at home during my university years, and as my schedule diverged more from the rest of the family, I made myself rice and beans more often, and ate trail mixes for lunch (after years and years of peanut butter sandwiches).

My tastes began changing when I left home and got out into the world. As I accepted more invitations for dinner, I kept my mouth shut about things I didn’t like, and I appreciated the effort that others made to prepare meals. After being served a chili that didn’t taste too tomatoey, chili was added to my list (I liked beans anyway). Maybe I could make my own pizza with a very thin layer of tomato sauce? I found out that pasta with real tomato sauce tastes better than spaghetti from a tin with its weird orange paste.

When I became a manager at work (when I was 27), my manager co-workers were always the first to try new restaurants and they discussed food constantly. It was my first “taste” of foodie culture. Through work events and invitations from my colleagues, I discovered I loved Indian food (Curry! Who knew!), Thai, Greek and Mexican food. The only things I wouldn’t eat back then were olives and fresh cilantro – two of the bitterest foods on earth.

All this leads me to the present day in which I am the most adventurous eater in my family 😊

When I became a parent, I wanted to create a lower-pressure food atmosphere in the household. But I didn’t want to be one of those parents who catered to their child’s every wish.

Link ate everything offered up to age 2, then became fussier. I decided Link could refuse any food on their plate, at home or away, but not ask for a substitute. We had 3 meals and 3 planned snacks a day. If they weren’t full at the end of a meal, they waited until snack time, but were never threatened with taking the snacks away. As it turned out, the same system was used at daycare, so that was good reinforcement.

I taught Link that they could turn down food at other people’s homes or leave it on their plate, but not complain or comment that a food was yucky or gross. I was really surprised by how this was received. No matter how little or how well we knew the person, they would always pry and pry, trying to get Link to make comments about the food. I would be quietly shocked when we had other kids over for dinner at our house and they would loudly proclaim, “Eww, that’s disgusting! What else do you have?”

Link always loved meat, milk, and vegetables of every kind. But it was a chore getting them to eat breakfast because they didn’t like cereal, oatmeal, bread, bacon or eggs! Today, in their mid-20s, Link doesn’t eat breakfast – but still loves meat and veg.

If you have a picky eater at your house, I’d invite you to try a few of the following suggestions. I would try them with a child, a spouse, a friend or an ageing parent! But be aware that people of any age can be extremely change-averse. Your success might have to be measured in nano-steps!

I am assuming that if you’re responsible for a picky eater, you will follow up on any signs of allergies and physical intolerances.

  • Have vegetables and fruit in the house, prepared and ready to eat. Grapes and cherry tomatoes are not like cake – lean toward not limiting serving sizes too much. Everyone should know how much they are allowed to eat without taking someone else’s share. Allow grazing.
  • Try out different ways of serving fruit and veg – raw with hummus or ranch dip, on skewers, in a smoothie, chopped into tiny pieces, roasted and caramelized, pickled, with cheese sauce. In my family, all vegetables were boiled soft. Stir fry was a revelation.
  • How many vegetables do you really expect your person to eat? Will you be happy when they can tolerate 10 vegetables? Six? Two, but actually enjoy them?
  • Decide how important it is for you that every person in the house eats food prepared the same way. Oddly, I was discouraged from eating raw vegetables before dinner even though I liked them. I’d refuse the same vegetables cooked. Obviously, they didn’t taste the same, but they had the same nutritional value (or better). I think conformity was the more important value – I had to eat the same as everyone else, otherwise maybe I would become too coddled?
  • Go grocery shopping together and have the picky eater choose some fruit and vegetables to eat. They’ll start with the same ones each shopping day. You can point out what is in season or on special. Even better at a farmers’ market when they can meet the grower.
  • Visit farms, gardens and orchards to see the food in its natural surroundings. There is usually something to tempt, even if it’s apple cider or jam from the farm shop.
  • Encourage extended family and friends to serve your picky person a new food when they are visiting without you. Your person will be able to try something without seeing your reaction. They’ll be able to “save face” and be more graceful about accepting or declining when you’re not there to badger or look disappointed.
  • Beware of hiding vegetables. If your picky eater is a supertaster, the whole dish will taste bitter and they won’t eat it. The amount you can add without impacting the taste may be too low to add any nutrition!
  • Don’t bother adding a little bit of a strong flavour such as garlic, onions, cumin, turmeric or mesquite – we know it is there! (If you normally cook with strong flavours for everyone else, the scents may smell like “home” to your picky person, and they may gain good associations for later life).
  • If a person has strong food aversions (maybe to something that made them sick in the past, or that literally makes them gag), they may not get over it. Let it go.
  • Know your/their texture profile. Some people won’t eat anything with seeds, some won’t eat smooth and crunchy foods together, some won’t eat “slimy” things like mushrooms. I would never eat shrimp or scallops – they are so springy to the teeth, they feel like they want to jump out of your mouth!

Does this look like a vegetable to you?

  • I would avoid going with the least nutritious option. “Don’t like baked potatoes? That’s fine – you can have fries every day!”
  • Celebrate small successes – your kid survived a slice of bread with the crust on it, your elderly dad ate a few peas that weren’t mashed, and he didn’t choke on them
  • Discuss that not everyone likes everything. People of all ages have strong likes and dislikes. Maybe I love vegetables but hate cheese. Most people would not think less of me because of it.
  • It’s probably OK to avoid whole categories of food, such as meat or dairy (hey, vegans!) On the other hand, it is probably not OK to live without fruit and vegetables for a lifetime. Examine your assumptions about nutrition.
  • If you’re responsible for the care of a picky eater, do an analysis. Write down everything they eat for a day or two and run it through a food tracker like the one on My Fitness Pal (not a sponsored link). How do they score for their macros (carbs, fats, proteins) and fibre? Do they get enough calories, or too many for their activity level? Do their choices balance out over a week?
  • I still think it’s not OK to spoil other people’s enjoyment of food by whining and complaining, and that people of all ages should have some meals together, whether they spend the whole time eating, or just sit in each other’s company.

  • Finally and most importantly, enjoy life together. Food battles can cause lasting divisions between people and wreck relationships. If you are the “responsible one,” you’ll have to do your part for the sake of nutrition. But the picky eater may never enjoy food or be a foodie like you are. It could be an insignificant part of their life, and an insignificant part of their social life. You will have to draw a line between giving in to keep the peace, and taking on the role of Commander in Chief. Err on the side of fresh, healthy, real foods and lots of activities that have NOTHING to do with food. If you can’t eat together: walk together, paint together, play games, sing, read side by side!

Good luck!

Were you a picky eater? Are you now? What changed?

What are some foods you detest now, as an adult?

Please head over to Brett Chalupa’s blog, Big Picture, Little Details and read the post that inspired this one, here!

23 comments

  1. I have gotten much pickier about food as I’ve gotten older but have also broadened my taste in terms of variety. Thai, Mexican, Indian, Italian: YES. But within my texture/digestive-issues/vegetarian (now, after 9 years, slowly stepping toward pescatarianism) limitations.

    I mostly don’t eat with/around other people (except my spouse) so I don’t have to deal with explaining my dietary issues to anyone. But when I do, because of a social obligation or work-related event, I find that when offered something that doesn’t work for me, a polite “No thank you” does the trick. For people who press (or are just aggressive/nosy), I say (politely) “It just doesn’t sit well with me.” They assume that means I’ll have an adverse physical reaction of some kind (which is mostly true) and leave it alone.

    • I don’t eat with/around other people very much either! I’m not as fussy as I was when I was a kid, but now I have stronger preferences (like fresh healthy food).

  2. I am not keen on aniseed tastes like Fennel and I have an intolerance to garlic which makes eating out difficult these days and I know if we go out to a restaurant for a meal I will pay for it next day by being ill.
    For me the texture of foods is the important factor in whether I like a food or not – no meat or fish of course – don’t like the meat substitute soya either as it is similar texture and I hate what I call ‘claggy’ foods – white pasta, doughy white breads – I prefer bread at least a day old and wholemeal.
    My kids just ate everything we did but not peas, neither liked peas. They ate meat too at grannies and friends and if their friends came to tea I cooked fish fingers sometimes so we would appear a normal family to them!
    Love your list of suggestions for making mealtimes bearable – luckily I didn’t have any problems with my girls.

    • You’re very lucky not to have fussy kids! Claggy is a good word. This month because of the food basket challenge, I had to fill up on pasta a couple of times, and didn’t do so well with it.

      • I realise I am lucky especially since my granddaughter can be a fussy eater – she doesn’t like mixed foods but will happily eat most of them when eaten individually and no sauces or gravy!

  3. Ah, food battles with children. I agree that sometimes it is concern about good nutrition, sometimes about wanting to be a “good” parent, sometimes about everyone having to do the same thing, sometimes about inability to understand differences as fundamental as taste, smell and texture, and sometimes just about control. Nutrition can be complete in many ways as you point out so well and food prepared in one way may be great and rejected if prepared differently. I wish there was lots of education about nutrition and food prep in school so everyone would see all the options that abound.

    My food rejects as a child were grapefruit with sugar on it and cantaloupe with salt. Although I happily ate either plain my Mother seemed to take it as a personal rejection that I didn’t like it the way she did. And soggy overcooked (boiled) vegetables were a thing at a point in time and happily for me my parents learned to enjoy them prepared in many different ways and would also let us eat raw veggies. Sounds like you did a great job with Link.

    • Cantaloupe with salt – I can’t imagine! I would like to see more nutrition education in schools too. I know I wouldn’t have tried new foods at school, but at least I would have been exposed to them and got accustomed to having them around – a good first step!

  4. Margie from Toronto

    I have some food sensitivities and serious food allergies so that causes some issues – but I learned very early what I could and couldn’t eat and not to make a fuss – especially if I was a guest!

    At home the one food I refused to eat was macaroni & cheese – no idea why – my mom made it HM, I love all other pasta and I adore cheese but that slimy elbow macaroni just made me gag. Since it was the one thing I outright refused to eat I was excused and given something else when it was served – still can’t eat it to this day.
    I got used to ethnic foods very early on as I had friends from many different backgrounds – and they all seemed to have grandmothers who were fantastic cooks. Chinese food at a real restaurant was a big treat as a child!

    My mom was a fantastic home cook and my dad would have liked to have been a chef so there were lots of experiments in the kitchen – one night I came home to discover that dinner was shrimp stuffed zucchini – I had no idea what zucchini was! We kids still laugh over that one.

    I love fresh food – good bread and cheese and I cook from scratch a lot. I hate “cheap” food and think I’ve maybe had a mouthful of canned pasta once in my life – never again!

    I don’t think mealtime should be a battle field but neither do I think children should get to dictate what they will and will not eat. With 5 kids my dad used to say “your mom’s not a short order cook – if you don’t like what is being served there’s bread and peanut butter in the kitchen”!

    • Haha, I had peanut butter sandwiches for lunch every day – I might have chosen them as an option for dinner too, if I was allowed to get out of eating carrots and fish!

  5. Fiona

    Ah – the 70s and soggy, overcooked veggies! It seems to have been the same all over the world. I feel sorry at the thought of a child at the table crying till they eat their food. As a kid, I had more sensory issues with clothes than food but I can imagine how distressing it would be to be forced to have things daily that really caused strong aversion.

    I think J has taken after me, in having clothes textures that I only have 1 child who is not picky with food so the only fussy one in our house is Mr D! He has a few foods he avoids, such as mushroom and beetroot. But not too many so we easily work around it!

    • That’s funny – I think Rom’s favourite food is beets! What was it that bothered you about clothes – tags? itchy wool? the fit?

      • Fiona

        All of the above – general scratchiness!

      • I can’t buy clothes online because the feel of the fabric is so important to me. I just cannot wear certain material. I will end up fidgeting and itching and feeling sick. As to clothes labels, most are sown in such a way that after a couple of washes, the label is like a razor to me. I forget to cut them out, and during the day I get a rash and pull on the clothes and fidget that I am so distressed I am reduced to just hacking at the label. I have ripped holes in a couple of items this way.

        My touch sensitivity means there are certain plastics I can’t touch. Those covers on display folders, for example, that have little ridges so the cover looks “interesting”. Can’t touch them. I get goosebumps and my hair stands on end and I feel sickish in my stomach. I just recently found someone who shares the same touch sensitivity.

        Do you have this, Fiona?

  6. Fiona

    Oops! Hit send in middle of a comment! Was going to say J has issues with clothes not food, but similar cause of consternation!

  7. I really admire your ability to make everyday topics like this so interesting.

    I was a pretty picky kid. I didn’t like tomatoes either (but would eat ketchup and pizza), so spaghetti (and all pasta) and chili were out. I wouldn’t eat mac and cheese, meatloaf, eggs or drink milk. I’ve never loved chocolate cake or peanut butter (unless it’s with jelly or chocolate). 😊 I did however eat most vegetables (including lima beans and Brussels sprouts but not cooked carrots) and seafood. In high school I was an exchange student in Norway and quickly got sick of boiled potatoes and veg, so I get that! In college I lived on spaghetti, mac and cheese and ramen. These days I’m fairly adventurous and find something to like in most cuisines. But I still hate milk by itself and will pass on mac and cheese.

    • Thanks! I never liked homemade mac and cheese (like reader Margie) but I would eat Kraft Dinner! It was the gloopy cheese I didn’t like. I am not a big fan of cake 😊

  8. Onevikinggirl

    Good advice. I do not like chocolate – and I dare each one of you, I double-dare you, to not spontaneous tell me of your astonishment. Everybody, everywhere.

  9. Jamie

    I was quite a fussy eater as a child. We were a “meat and three veg” family. My mum wasn’t the best cook, and so vegetables were boiled until limp, and fatty cuts of meat were the go. I would sit there painstakingly trimming the fat off to find parts I could stand to eat.

    When I left home I wouldn’t eat capsicum, garlic, onion, etc. I wonder how much that was due to the fact my mother didn’t eat them, would be vocal about her dislike, and never cooked them at home.

    After many years of slowly introducing foods to me my husband has me eating the above plus curries, chilli, etc. We only buy lean meat!

    We have one fussy eater out of our three children. I wonder how much it is linked to his lactose intolerance. He was at the 100th percentile when born, but dropped down to the bottom of the chart over his first two years. By the time he was a toddler he was very slim, very picky, and had a lot of tummy troubles. I took him to a doctor who said what he was eating was fine (cheese, avocado and mayo sandwiches. One vegetable at a time for 6 months, then refusing it in favour of a new vegetable). I saw a dietician who said his tummy troubles were because I let him eat too much fruit, and that I needed to offer more jelly (yes, sugary ones from a packet), and savoury snacks like pretzels and chips. I didn’t take that advice, but there were many difficult meals over the years. You are right about hiding vegetables – he refused bolognaise and lasagne for a while when he found out there were veggies in there!

    As he got to school age we removed lactose from his diet and his tummy troubles cleared up. We continued with the one vegetable at a time, cooked or uncooked, whichever was his preference. Now he is 14 and still super lean. He does eat more than one vegetable at a time. He will even eat some vegetables he doesn’t like. His sister likes peas, but he doesn’t. Occasionally we will have them with dinner and he will ask how many he needs to eat. I might say “one forkful” and he does a good job of it. He is a very slow eater and will often be at the table after the others are on their way to bed. This isn’t him being forced to sit there, but one of his quirks. Some nights we have to remind him to not chat too much at dinner and forget to eat, because we know once he starts it will be slow going!

    My mum is visiting tomorrow and I still need to do the meal plan for her visit. It is extra tricky, because I know her husband loves spicy food!

    • Thanks for your comments, Jamie. This is the reality of most people I know – I can’t imagine a family without at least one person with food “issues”! When I make meals for my parents, it is tricky for me, too, because they are real meat and potatoes eaters and hardly any spices or seasonings!

  10. Good advice.

    I eat so many foods and flavours and I love food. But there are foods I never liked and still just won’t eat. Fried egg. Yuck. The smell! The texture. The taste. Really don’t like any eggie dish except soft and hard boiled eggs. Those I have always loved. Quiche, I can handle very occasionally. As long as there are other flavours and the egg flavour is “hidden”.

    My youngest was a fussy eater. He wouldn’t eat “normal” breakfast but would eat leftover curry or spag bol. And he didn’t like sandwiches for lunch, except peanut butter ones. And sometimes he’s get sick of them. Sometimes he’d only want the same food for breakfast and dinner for days – like a curry. Then he’d go off that. He was always underweight and short so my mother used to worry that he wasn’t getting enough nutrients or calories and his fussiness would affect his development. The age old worry of all grandmothers and mothers. I’d worry too. And bought fortified chocolate drinks to get some calories and nutrients into him.

    Now he still loves dinner-type foods and eats them for breaky. Though he’ll fry himself some bacon sometimes. And he’ll eat baked beans. Dinner is not a worry. He loves everything. Thai, Indian, Italian inspired foods. BBQ and salads. Fish. Roasts. Except soup. He doesn’t like soup. (I join him on fussiness there. I won’t eat cold soup or certain soups.)

    And he’s 6 foot and doing OK at uni. Still very slim and trim.

    • Sorry I missed your comment – I was on my way to Cuba 🙂 I can understand people not liking eggs because of the sulphury smell and the textures.

      Any news about Arborview? Or replaced by uni?

      • No worries.

        I’m not sure why I hate eggs in most forms except boiled.

        Drummer has left for another band. They’re auditioning another drummer. So hopefully they will continue. But yes, uni is taking over.

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