The right to be an adult picky eater

If eating only a handful of foods keeps you in reasonably good health, then why change?



Invite my husband out for a meal and, no matter how well he knows you, you’ll likely send him into a panic. In addition to several food allergies, including rennet and durum wheat, he has visual and textural aversions to most foods that border on the pathological. Having been brought up in a household with a father who has a similarly strained relationship with food, his fate as a picky eater was sealed at an early age. His stubborn temperament has helped preserve his disinterest in broadening his palate well into adulthood. And for the most part, he is okay with it.

So what does my husband eat? Well, it’s a short list. Chicken, beef, occasionally pork, simply prepared. Eggs, but only scrambled to the point of dry, cold cuts and hot dogs. White bread, never multigrain. Carrots, corn, iceberg lettuce and apples round out his produce requirements, though he will eat a canned peach or a grape if offered. And potatoes feature heavily in his diet; chips, fries, mashed, roasted. No sauces, spreads, toppings of any kind. Nothing mushy or spicy, curried or pureed. At certain burger joints, he’s known as “Just Lettuce,” after the only thing he wants on his bun besides the beef.

The other day, he mentioned that he was listening to a Tell ’em, Steve-Dave podcast, and to his delight, one of the hosts, Walt Flangan, mentioned the fact that he only cooks and eats about six things. Ever. My husband felt he’d found a kindred spirit and got to thinking maybe there are more people out there like him; people who have no desire to expand their dinner plate’s portfolio, not due to food allergies or dietary restrictions, but simply a self-imposed exile from the vast expanse of culinary choice.

In fact, this affliction isn’t even rare. According to Nancy Zucker, a researcher at Duke University’s Center for Eating Disorder, there are many adults who suffer from what is now being coined a “selective eating disorder,” in which food is rejected on the basis of texture, smell, appearance or negative mental associations. The Center even started an online registry with a survey for picky eaters that garnered over 7,000 participants within its first five months. While she and other researchers are exploring the idea that this condition is biological and treatable, many people feel it is a choice, and one that only privileged North Americans with more food options and information than most parts of the world could “suffer” from.

Indeed, my husband has felt the sting of shame when eating around other people for most of his life. Particularly when we are invited over to friends’ houses for dinner, what is invariably a conversation starter is also a source of grave embarrassment for him. But he’s developed several coping mechanisms over time to minimize the social fallout of his limitations. For one, we don’t actually go out very much. We both enjoy many of the same foods, so we cook and eat at home most nights. When we do venture out to share a meal with others, and his panic starts to set in, often I’ll send an email to our hosts explaining his situation and what he’s able to eat. As we only really go out with good friends, they aren’t really troubled or offended by this process. But even after the email’s been sent, he’ll still worry that they’ll forget and add a sauce or rogue spice to the mea. He frequently “pre-eats” before we go outa couple of jam sandwiches usually, nothing that will spoil his appetite but enough food to tide him over in case he can’t eat the meal.

Still, not everyone is understanding; comment sections of various food blog posts like The Kitchn‘s Best Strategies To Help Picky Eaters Try New Foods demonstrate the intolerance and irritation felt by the partners and friends of picky eaters who may or may not want to change their habits.

Ideas that are easily recognizable in treating child picky eaters, like sneaking pureed vegetables into dishes or having a three-bite rule at the table, are encouraged to broaden the adult limited eater’s tastes. Nutritionist Ellyn Satter, author of Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family and Child of Mine: Feeding With Love And Good Sense, advocates a gentler, two-pronged approach to reforming picky eaters: repeated exposure to new foods, and no bullying or shaming if these new foods are rejected. If the dinner table environment is tense, there’s a good chance children will keep this association between mealtimes and stress through adulthood.

Much has been written about the personal struggle to overcome picky eating. Writer and former Time editor Amy Sullivan described her struggle in being both a foodie and a picky eater in an article for The Atlantic. Jeffrey Steingarten, food critic of Vogue magazine, documented the odyssey to overcome his avoidance of all the foods he previously hated in his book The Man Who Ate Everything.

But if the picky eater is in reasonably good health, making informed choices, and actually quite happy eating a limited diet, why try to change them? Why not leave them alone to enjoy the few items of food they do like, rather than imparting the task of feeding oneself with shame and angst? Besides, there are benefits to picky eating too. Few food items on the grocery list come with a lower carbon footprint and the ability to save by purchasing items in bulk. And with such a limited diet, there’s a relative ease in meal planning.

My husband is a person who eats primarily to silence hunger, but he loves his 14 food items as much as any foodie loves their 1,400 ingredients. And now, he can silence the awkward discussion of his picky eating by mentioning he’s a sufferer of a mental disorder and enjoy his butterless white bread in peace.

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The right to be an adult picky eater

  1. Of course, people have the right to be picky eaters. People also have the right to vote Conservative, but who in their right mind would wish to associate with them? ;)

    Everyone else also has the right to find picky eaters tedious, self-limiting, narrow and provincial. But if a person is a picky eater due to allergies, or other genuine health concerns, well, that’s a different story, and all should be overlooked.

    • Oh so now you are suggesting we all start vetting our potential friends in terms of their food and political choices…brilliant!  So what about the vegans in the population?  Are they principled or just picky?  No wonder the Liberals got so few votes…for all the tolerance you preach, in practice, you display none!  Just because a person has a limited palate, doesn’t make them a bad or uninteresting friend.

      •  Yes it does.

        • Ummmm…no it does NOT. delusional leftard. And stop slaughtering all those innnocent plants.

  2. Sorry, but the ‘low carbon footprint’ argument doesn’t wash when we’re talking ground meat, hot dogs and white bread.  Or frozen/canned vegetables for that matter.  Meat in general has the highest carbon footprint of any foods, particularly so for regular ol’ supermarket meat raised in feedlot operations.  Likewise, mass-produced grain and vegetables have a huge carbon footprint because they are farmed in monoculture with massive inputs of machinery, fuel, fertilizers, pesticides and insecticides.  

    Then there’s the health argument.  Most people under 40 enjoy “reasonably good health” no matter what abuse they put their bodies through.  Do you really want to take the chance that a lifetime of consuming only a limited variety of processed, nutrition-deficient foods won’t have a dire price to pay in later life?  

    Kind of feels like this article is more about giving crappy eaters a reason not to feel guilty about it.  I know because I am one.  And there’s guilt.  Lots of bitter, christian-flavoured guilt.

    • I remember several years ago when some university students got scurvy from their diet consisting mainly of mac & cheese out of a box.  Something to think about.

  3. When I was young, I ate similarly to your husband (except I didnt like hot dogs, and ate more fruits and veggies). NO sauces. plain food, nothing could touch on my plate. and my mother took the approach that as long as I was eating lots of fruits and veggies, and ate some sort of protein, I was fine. She would always have interesting things at the dinner table, and seeing other people like them so much, I would occassionaly try new things. It was 100% because of the expectation that I would not be forced to eat anything. Not even a single bite! However, when I would visit my Dad, he would make my “try” everything. To the point where I would sit at the table for 4 hours in a stubborn stare-off. I would have tried ham if my mom had made it and I wasn’t forced to eat it, but my dad’s family SUCKED at cooking, and made me try it all.

    And guess what. Now the only foods I refuse to eat are sardines, saurkraut, and olives. And I have tried them all. Moral of the story – don’t force your kids to eat anything. If you present them food in a non-confrontational way, they’ll probably come around. It’s the shaming and apprehension that causes long-term issues.

    • I agree.  What is to be gained over arguing about food.  However, I would not have choices available that have no nutritional value.  If white bread and hot dogs were not options, a picky child would chose something else.

  4. This is an Interesting spin on adult picky eating and
    relates to self-assigned food police who take
    license to tell others what to eat. In my view, picky eating (at any age) is
    less about the food eaten than about attitude: Can you be calm in the presence
    of unfamiliar food? A person with extreme food selectivity can do this, but not
    if they are “sent into a panic” by being invited out for a meal. Can you be
    courteous, firm, and matter-of-fact about turning down food you don’t want to
    eat (don’t complain and don’t explain)? Same. Can you tell other’s to butt out
    and not tell you what you should eat—and not eat? Ditto. Can you take an
    interest in unfamiliar food and gradually sneak up on that food and learn to
    eat it? For a child whose parents are offering – without pressure – a variety
    of food, yes. For an adult who has no desire to increase his or her food repertory,
    probably not. But whose business is that? To continue, is extreme food
    selectivity an eating disorder? Well, it depends. In my view, to be categorized
    as an eating disorder, there have to be three components: 1) distorted eating
    attitudes and behaviors 2) underlying emotional or psychological problems 3)
    one exacerbates the other.

  5. You have a typo. ” But even after the email’s been sent, he’ll still worry that they’ll forget and add a sauce or rogue spice to the mea.%2Pr

  6. Our current 1400 food diet is a recent luxury. Regardless of the benefit of diversity, for most of the world for most of history people’s food choices have been limited by poverty, lifestyle, and geography. The background wounding that causes people to be picky should be dealt with, but the concept of a limited diet is not particularly new or weird.

  7. This is me. and I am so glad that this issue is one that has become present and is starting to gain attention. I have been a picky eater all my life. I grew up eating the same meals and it was torture going to family meals. My family would blame my parents for babying me and I would sit there trying to stuff as many white buttered buns in my mouth to fill up. as an adult- I always try to determine whether food is being served or is the primary purpose of the function before I go. I often pre eat too and when people constantly ask me why im not eating- i say that ive eaten, not hungry, sick or vegetarian. anything to get them to leave me alone. I think one of the biggest issues is that when people serve food- they expect you to have some and when you dont – its considered rude- especially if they personally and lovingly made it and cant understand why anyone would not want to eat their favourite dish. I always said- the food I do like- I like it alot and all the others are to be avoided. Im even picky amongst junk food. I have a favourite pizza place and it is selective. I dont like food to mix or touch. unfortunately- my husband doesnt feel the same way and argues that we shouldnt have kids until I learn to eat normally. It is a huge issue between us and one that Im not sure I can overcome.

  8. As someone with OCD, I can relate to the feeling of anxiety, and why you would want to avoid the triggers of anxiety as much as possible (in this case new foods). For the same reason, I must politely but strongly disagree with you. No one lives in an isolated bubble; your behavior does affect others, particularly a spouse or child. While the people in your life should try to understand the complexity and seriousness of your “pickiness”, you should also try your best to seek therapy or treatment. From personal experience, my husband was incredibly patient and supportive of me as long as I was trying to get better, but whenever I would feel like giving up he’d be extremely upset… Because he loves me and did not want to see me suffer, and likewise, why should I be giving up on him?

  9. I liked this article. As a picky eater it helps me realize I’m not insane. Yes, there are food allergies involved, but also sensory issues and weird anxieties. I don’t judge people who shove whatever they want in their mouths, so I expect to not be judged for being picky.

  10. I’m thankful for this article. Although I am a picky eater, I do attempt to try foods outside of my comfort zone. My main problem is texture. If the food I am eating has a texture I do not care for, I simply cannot swallow it. Although I may try to fool myself mentally, my tongue always seems to know. I may be able to eat most of the food, but the offending textures such as the strings in a banana, the strings in avocado pulp or dried herbs in a sauce will end up inevitably spit out into a napkin. I do not feel sorry for the way I am anymore. I would rather eat most of my food and dispose of the textured bits I cannot swallow (I gag if I try) than to not eat anything at all.

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