I’m picking on picky eaters

We all know picky eaters.  Carrie Bradshaw famously claimed to be allergic to parsley so as not to wind up with any on her plate at restaurants.  Sally Albright of “When Harry Met Sally” had the most anal way of ordering apple pie imaginable:

Sally Albright: But I’d like the pie heated and I don’t want the ice cream on top, I want it on the side, and I’d like strawberry instead of vanilla if you have it, if not then no ice cream just whipped cream but only if it’s real; if it’s out of the can then nothing.
Waitress: Not even the pie?
Sally Albright: No, I want the pie, but then not heated.

When I read this paragraph at the opening of a Wall Street Journal piece about picky eaters, I immediately thought of a friend, an adult professional friend, with the palate of a four year old, subsisting on grilled cheese, chicken tenders, hot dogs, plain turkey sandwiches on white bread, and mac & cheese:

This is what Heather Hill eats: French fries, pasta with butter or marinara sauce, vegetarian pizza, cooked broccoli, corn on the cob and cakes and cookies without nuts.

And what she doesn’t eat? Pretty much anything else.

Ms. Hill is what you might call a picky eater. But she isn’t a child. She’s a 39-year-old mother of three who runs her own business in Raleigh, N.C. She says she is unable to eat other foods.

Unable? Is she allergic?

The piece seems to suggest that extreme pickiness that persists into adulthood may soon join anorexia and bulimia as an eating disorder. To my non-doctor mind, they have many similarities. I even have a theory that adults who are picky eaters, like my friend, have, at root, a control issue– they see food as a socially acceptable area in which to exert exacting control of a sort they are unwilling or unable to exert in other areas of their lives.  I also have other theories that they’re simply unwilling or too inhibited to experience true pleasure, but, like I said, I’m no medical or mental-health professional.

The thing is, I used to be a picky eater.  Hoo boy, I could gag on a green bean in a performance worthy of an Oscar.  I refused to eat bell peppers, because I thought they tasted like Windex.  I cried if faced with hominy.  I hated honey.  I hated asparagus and artichokes.  I could sniff out a mushroom a mile away in order to avoid it.  I despised poppy seeds.  I wouldn’t touch spinach or any other greens.  My husband, when he was still my boyfriend, used to keep a running Word document of all the things I didn’t like, marvelling in particular of my preference to only eat blueberries in pancakes, never muffins.

You could say I took after my Uncle Jimmy.  My Memaw loves to make broccoli-cheese rice casserole.  My entire family calls it “Goop,” even Memaw.  Why? Because, as a child, my Uncle Jimmy would always proclaim, “I’m not eating any of that goop!” about the casserole.  And then one day, left alone in a room with a dish full of Goop, he ate the whole thing.  Turns out, without pressure to like it and a desire to refuse, just to be a punk kid, it turns out he liked it after all.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve found that repeated attempts to try things I thought I hated eventually led to me liking them.  Bell peppers, it turns out, can be delicious.  I even eat them raw!  Green beans are one of my favorite veggies.  I love honey!  Wilted spinach with garlic is one of my favorite foods.  Blueberries, while still my least favorite of all berries, have become acceptable in cakes and muffins, though I’m still working on liking them in their more overwhelming form in cobblers and pies.  I will no longer avoid mushrooms if they’re part of an ensemble of other ingredients, though you’d not catch me ordering portobella fajitas just yet.  And I’ve been known to make a mean poppy seed lemon cake.

What changed? To some degree, it was learning to cook and discovering ways to prepare things in ways I could enjoy them.  Being a member of a CSA, in particular, challenged me to find at least one way I’ll eat any number of veggies, forcing me to find ways to make turnips, mustard greens, and rutabagas, among others, tolerable.  In addition, I just decided to be more adventurous, to see if I couldn’t embrace the adventure of trying new things and seeing if they were, in fact, pleasurable.  I stopped being so uptight and rigid about my food rules and found out most of them were stupid.

Having been a picky eater who’s now seen the light, I have little tolerance for truly picky adults.  While everyone will always have a few foods they just can’t groove on, people who have fewer foods they will eat than those they won’t will always drive me nuts.  My husband hates corned beef and he hates olives.  I still haven’t learned to like the taste of beer or avocado, though I keep trying, and I’ve got some progress to make yet on blueberries and mushrooms.  But I’m determined to keep trying things I think I don’t like, because I never know when I’ll be surprised.  The world is too full of deliciousness to spend my life hemming myself in with silly rules.

As for the extremely picky folks in the Wall Street Journal piece: in a way I pity them, because they’re really missing out.  And I hope they never come over to my house for dinner.

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17 thoughts on “I’m picking on picky eaters

  1. Oh crap, I didn’t know you had a thing about blueberries!

    I think avocados are pointless, like iceberg lettuce. But my only no-way, no-how foods are mayonnaise and sour cream. They make me retch. I can’t even rinse dishes with mayo on them without getting sick.

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  2. i, on the other hand, find avocados delicious- but refuse the likes of beets, black olives, and any (ANY) form of food that crawls or swims in the water for a living (seafood)

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  3. At my wedding, the dinner choices were salmon, cornish game hen, something vegetarian (I can’t remember what, no one ordered it) and the kid’s meal – chicken fingers. Several adults from my husband’s side of the family insisted on the kid’s meal, while my elementary school aged cousins picked salmon. I think that kind of picky eating is based on a lack of creativity, willingness to try new things and old-fashioned buttheadedness, with a dash of weak parenting (as in “Ok honey, you don’t have to eat that, I’ll make you a peanut butter sandwich).

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    • Suzanne- yeah, I agree that a lot of it is parenting. I bet the overly strict “YOU MUST EAT THIS” parents cause picky eater adults too, if only because they’re trying to reclaim some level of control over what they eat now that Mom can’t make them. It’s a fine line between the people who enable their kids to only eat 5 things and the people who give their kids a complex by being too forceful with unfamiliar foods.

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  4. I am the same way about blueberries and mushrooms! I cannot do avocados, although I keep trying. I want to know the deliciousness of guacamole, but foods that expand in your mouth are still unpleasant to me. My latest endeavor is with tomatoes. I’m slowly coming around. :)

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  5. GREAT POST!

    I was such a picky eater when I was a kid – now I’ll eat anything and as a point of pride order it ‘how it comes.’ I can’t stand adult picky eaters, or people who order things with byzantine commandments about things on the side, or left out, or added in.

    Whether it’s an Applebee’s burger or a gormet meal, a chef considered how to make it the best it could be and it’s kind of arrogant to ‘have it your way’ and kind of defeats the object of eating out in the first place (if you wanted it ‘your way’ just eat at home.)

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  7. I’m on the fence about how much taste aversion is due to some kind of psychological conditioning (self-induced or otherwise) as opposed to genetic predisposition.

    From the beginning of my remembered childhood, I had a severe phobia of ingesting most vegetables. Not just an aversion, but a real pulse-pounding kind of dread, which I imagine went along with a fear of vomiting–one of my palate-forming experiences may have been when my kindergarten teacher forced me to eat a green bean in front of the entire class and I threw up my lunch.

    Since then I’ve come to terms with several of my former dietary bugaboos (I now love corn, carrots, and most kinds of beans and peas, and can easily stomach green beans, broccoli, and lettuce), but I still have that same kind of primal fear kind of response to raw onions and tomatoes, despite a great desire to enjoy them or at least be able to tolerate them. I can’t speak to other people’s experience, but I always felt my pickiness was more a lack of control than an exercise of it–I was always self-conscious of my inability to stomach certain foods while others did it so effortlessly and even enjoyed it–and so my efforts to expand my tastes I think have largely been motivated by a desire to gain some measure of control over inclinations that have many times compelled me to refuse someone’s cooking in embarrassment or sweat out a meal trying my best to conceal my involuntary grimaces/gags.

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  8. Really enjoyed this post! I worked with a staff person who had so many “food allergies” that the colleagues and I would keep track and laugh to ourselves whenever she mentioned it. Mainly because these were not allergies at all. They were simply a way for her to draw attention to herself using food. It seems she had absolutely no problem eating processed, fast foods, and carbs. But she never ate a fruit or vegetable to save her life. Of course, I feel awful for people who have actual allergies. Yet I don’t think powdered sugar counted just because if she enhaled it wrong it made her wheeze (non, I’m not making this up).

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  9. I really liked this post. It resonated with me not just because our palletes seem similar, but also because I have had my food quirks as well.
    I used to have a REALLY hard time handling meat. I’ve always eaten, but I would think too much about it and get grossed out.

    I don’t do avacado, But I like guacamole (in limited quantities). Not a beer fan. Can tolerate mushrooms, but I don’t ask for them.

    I don’t like eggs. The texture and smell get me.
    Same with bananas. I have to have them the day they are ripe, or the smell makes me sick (now they go in smoothies, so I’m not wasteful!)

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  10. I’ll eat anything but yogurt (any kind), green olives (especially the ones stuffed with stuff), and grits. Luckily, those things are pretty easy to avoid, even if I am a “on the side” orderer.

    But, as a child I was super picky. Which was weird, because I never once, that I can remember, was given the option of ordering off the kids menu. New foods weren’t forced on me, but they were always presented. I guess as I grew up, I realized that if I could get those foods the way I wanted them, with whatever sauce on the side, or with different veggies, they would be way better, which made me more willing to try them. Learning to cook also helped me be less picky.

    I’ll eat them, but I’ve always thought bell peppers tasted like Windex too.

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  11. i actually had a yl girl who ate only these things: breadsticks, plain spaghetti noodles, peanut butter with saltines, and honey nut cheerios with 2 % milk. seriously. her brother was apparently the same way, but her sister was normal. the mom was so worried about her going to camp that she wrote a 3 page letter to the kitchen staff. sweet kid, but wow. i’ve heard we are supposed to try things every few years because our tastes actually change. i don’t know if there is any science behind that.

    on the tervis tumblers (your comment on my blog)- they do have plain ones, and they are magnificent. they have lids with straws and coffee lid. and they are dishwasher safe unlike my other reusable coffee mugs.

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  12. It kind of raises my hackles to blame ‘parenting’ on a child who is a picky eater.

    Our middle child came out of the chute that way.

    He never, ever voluntarily put any kind of beef in his mouth.

    Even as a tiny little guy before he could speak, if you’d try and spoon something with beef in it into his mouth it would come right back out.

    It’s only been recently (he’s 9 now) that he has decided to eat a little bacon and the occasional bite of bbq brisket.

    Anything with a strong flavor – citrus, spicy, tart, etc., is just too much for him.

    Our theory is that he is an extreme sensate, and his perception of citrus is more citrusy, spicy is spicier, tart is tartier and so on, than it is for the normal person and his palette is overwhelmed.

    We’ve never insisted that he eat things that he clearly is in distress over. Just recently, we’ve started encouraging him to enlarge his palette, but we aren’t ‘control freaks’ about it. Just give it a tiny taste and if you don’t like it, that’s fine.

    And I was much the same way as a child. I’ve outgrown it to some extent, but citrus, tart and sour things make me retch. Trying to eat an orange is an exercise in trying to not vomit. Even a slight whiff of yellow mustard is enough to make my stomach boil. The texture of raw coconut makes my skin crawl.

    As an adult, I can still be picky about things, but it’s not from lack of trying. I’ve learned to love seafood, sushi, curry and lots more, but if you bring me a cheeseburger with mustard of mayonnaise on it, I’ll have myself a little ol’ hissy fit.

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