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 meal. He frequently “pre-eats” before we go out–a 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.