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!
- 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!
Were you a picky eater? Are you now? What changed?
What are some foods you detest now, as an adult?