In Defense of Picky Eaters (and Why You Shouldn't Shame Them) Laura Donovan

I babysit two elementary school boys twice a week, and they always demand I make mac n’ cheese for dinner.

The kindergartner loves it so much, he offers to assist with preparation, begging me to hold him up high so he can watch the pasta boil and stir in the cheese, milk and butter before serving time. They would eat it every night of the week if they could, but what the children don’t know is that their 25-year-old babysitter is the same way. Their palates will mature before the next iPhone comes out, but because I’ve reached a quarter century and still refuse to give up my bean and cheese burritos and boxes of Kraft Mac n’ Cheese, it’s safe to conclude you can’t teach this old dog new tricks. I’m Randy from A Christmas Story, all grown up.

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As the youngest of four, it’s unsurprising that I’m a finicky eater who favors comfort foods and bland, processed products. The “baby” of the pack often gets away with more than the other siblings, and though it would be easy to chalk my mellow dietary preferences up to birth order, there’s a lot more to the situation than anyone realizes or cares to realize. Picky eaters are often considered selfish, childish, rude and all around thoughtless, and while I see how it could be frustrating to live with a less-than-brave eater, these characterizations are wildly unfair and actually discourage people from trying new things.

I have mild Selective Eating Disorder (SED), which the Daily Beast has labeled the “eating disorder no one is talking about.” The woman profiled in that piece is a solid example of someone with the condition: she lives on fries and almost nothing else, and while there’s a larger variety to my diet than hers, I understand the urge to chow down the same thing forever. I’d go to Chipotle 365 days a year if it didn’t break my bank, clog my arteries, or burst my jeans open, but the sad reality is the chain’s burrito bowls are one of a few things that make me feel well-fed and satisfied.

I also have a violent aversion to specific textures. Shrimp makes me feel like I’m eating an eyeball (not that I’ve done that before, but I bet chomping on shrimp isn’t a vastly different experience), shredded pork (and shredded meat in general) is grating on my throat, clams feel like lumps of snot and certain kinds of broth remind me too much of blood to go near. Though SED isn’t listed in the DSM, thousands are said to suffer from it every year, and like me, they’re ostracized for it.

When I was little, I refused to expand my palate or give “adult” food a chance. I liked what I was used to and saw no reason to change. Mary-Kate Olsen put it nicely in It Takes Two: “All this money and these people eat slugs?!

MKH

it takes two

My parents thought I’d outgrow it, as most younguns tire of mac n’ cheese around middle school and start eating like, well, “grown ups” during puberty. But high school came along and I still clung to the kids menu, which I argued was better for my mom and dad anyway. It saved them money, as the items on the regular menu were double the cost. It also kept my portions a reasonable size, which is necessary for people of all ages.

“You’re a cheap date,” my mom would joke at restaurants. My late father, the eldest of five, wasn’t so quick to give this limitation of mine a pass.

“What’s going to happen when you head off to college and everyone wants to try Ethiopian one night? Or Cambodian? Or Greek?” he’d ask. “Are you going to tell your classmates there’s nothing for you at any of those places? See how many friends that lands you.” It wouldn’t make me so popular, as I’d probably react like Lloyd and Harry in this wondrously silly Dumb and Dumber pepper scene.

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Though harsh at the time, my father’s concerns were understandable, as he wanted to groom me for a world of company dinners and parties, romantic dates, social outings and more. But anytime he and my mom wanted to order Thai food or anything else “non-Laura friendly,” one of them would have to prepare something different for me, and this made others feel like I wanted the entire meal to revolve around me and my needs. My mom had no issues picking up a burrito, but the greater issue at hand — my lack of flexibility — alarmed my relatives. They were right: I couldn’t be picky forever. But I still am, and I wholeheartedly attest it’s not a choice.

I don’t do this to inconvenience others. In fact, I wish they’d let it go, because what I put in my mouth shouldn’t be anyone else’s business. Unfortunately, so much of our culture circles back to food — it’s how we connect and relate to each other, and when even one person in the mix wants to play it safe, everyone else feels the effects whether they have to or not.

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  1. I also hate when people (specifically my mom and stepdad) get offended when I don’t like the same foods as them. They treat me like I’m crazy and/or stupid. Like…what?! Not everyone likes the same foods. That should be common sense.

  2. “It’s extremely unreasonable to expect a person to put something in their body that feels wrong to them. Should I really scarf down a plate of shrimp even though the texture and taste leave me feeling ill for hours to be nice? Is it fair to make someone suffer for the sake of politeness and etiquette?”

    Of course not. Everyone dislikes a food or two, or a few. But steadfastly refusing to try anything beyond your food comfort zone is close-minded, stubborn, & frankly, all in your head. I grew up refusing to eat anything that wasn’t mac & cheese or PB & J or chicken fingers or mozzarella sticks. Hell, I ordered grilled cheese sandwiches at McDonald’s. I was this way until at least age 22, & I certainly assumed it was going to be a lifelong struggle.

    When I moved to D.C. at age 22, I initially refused to try foods like Thai & sushi, & even “lesser” uncomfortable foods, like hamburgers (which I’d never tried). But when it caused friction in my relationships, particularly with friends who were more wordly (read: less Midwestern) than me, I recognized that my food issues made me look ignorant & unnecessarily stubborn, at times even borderline xenophobic. As much as I didn’t want to try foods I knew I’d hate, I REALLY didn’t want to live my whole life in a bubble of refusal & indignation, that person who won’t even try.

    I slowly worked my way toward other foods, finding at least one food I could eat at every type of restaurant. Usually, I began with appetizers because they felt a little bit less extreme than entrees, & I”d ask my friends if I could try their meals so I could taste other options without committing to (& wasting) entire dishes. Now, years later, I love certain Thai dishes, tolerate sushi (I still don’t eat the kind with raw fish, but I really like vegetarian sushi options), & have expanded my palate to include tons more foods I’d previously have thrown an *actual fit* about before eating. There are still things I hate & refuse – ketchup, meat on bones, pickles – but it’s immensely gratifying to have opened myself up in this way, in a way I literally never imagined possible.

    So no, sorry, I don’t buy Selective Eating Disorder. There was a time in my life when I would’ve embraced this “diagnosis” & used it as an excuse for my own unwillingness to try new things. I would have clung to that label & insisted that it meant I had a real issue, that it was OK for me to be so damn close-minded because, hey, doctors say so! Having pushed myself so far beyond my own food boundaries – & I swear on my life I was just like you – I don’t buy this as a valid diagnosis for a minute.

  3. Oh my goodness this is so me. I am terrified to try to fish or seafood. I have been dating a Japanese guy for three years now and he always tries to get me to try sushi- never going to happen. Foods that smell different give me anxiety. The funny thing is that I’m the oldest child of 7, so I guess I gave my parents a rough start and that’s probably why they’re so lenient on the other 6 haha

  4. I spent most of my life having similar aversions. My mom would even make me my own special meal for thanksgiving and make sure there was Mac and cheese being served at Christmas. It wasn’t until I was a couple of years on my own that I started to be more adventurous. Mostly because of being ashamed about what I would and would not eat. A friend invited me out to a Thai restaurant and made me split a huge plate of tofu pad Thai and that was the first time I tried something so far out of my comfort zone. That first bite was both terrifying and life changing. There are still many things I refuse to eat, like beans or raw tomatoes. The texture of those things I will never get over- but my diet is far more adventurous- I even cooked my first thanksgiving dinner last year. Thank you for sharing your story!

  5. Thank you for opening my mind. When I read Selective Eating Disorder, my first thought was “what is this nonsense?” but I’m glad I read the whole way through. As someone who has grown up eating a multitude of cuisines, from a family who self-confessedly do “live to eat” and from a city where we are so spoilt for choice that I am overwhelmed by the sheer volume of cuisines and dining experiences I can’t wait to try, I find myself extremely frustrated with people who refuse to try new foods or expand their palates, but it never occurred to me that it was a psychological disorder. I realise now that I have been a hypocrite. I am a vegetarian and I often face criticism with the same level of intensity as described in this article. I do not appreciate being judged for my choice not to eat meat so who am I to judge you or anyone else based on what they do or don’t eat? Next time I encounter a fussy eater, I will think twice. Having said that, I don’t think all fussy eaters have had the same experience as Laura, I think some people are genuinely fussy, close minded and uninterested in trying new things. Those are the people who disappoint me.

  6. Thank you so much for this article. As a doctor who focuses on diet and lifestyle as much as possible, I tend to get quite a few people who fit this description. It’s difficult to try and encourage healthy foods for people who also don’t want to take vitamins, minerals or medication (they also dislike the taste, texture or are unable to swallow pills, etc). I know they want to try, otherwise, they wouldn’t come and see me. I’m very familiar with orthorexia (too much focus on a healthy diet where it becomes extremely restrictive), but I have never heard of “selective eating disorder.” I really appreciate your courage in sharing your story and look forward to finding other practitioners whom I can learn from to help better address my patients!

  7. I’m not a ‘picky eater’. Personally I don’t see why it matters to other what people eat. I’m willing to try almost anything, but if I wasn’t I’m glad that I grew up in a family that didn’t try to push other than the occasional, “Just try one bite”. :D

  8. This describes me to a T. It’s so embarrassing to be a professional at business dinners around the world sometimes eating nothing but the bread. I now pre-eat before events and then fake food allergies to make myself seem less strange. But nothing is worse than when the person feels bad for you. I’m cool with it, why do people have to treat me like I’m a leper?!

  9. Laura, you just described my entire life. As an extremely picky lady with a degree in psychology, I’ve been trying to diagnose myself for awhile now. Thanks for letting me know about selective eating disorder. I feel the same way as you do, that I want to make things easier for the people around me, but at the same time, I physically cannot do anything about this. Thanks so much, girl. Gonna follow you on Twitter and we’ll be friends and stuff.

  10. I can completely relate to this *picks all the beans out of chili* and may print many copies out *sends back eggwhite omelet bc there was yolk and it tastes of pennies* to share with friends who think I am just being picky.

  11. I really loved this story because you made me discover that I’m not picky or just unpolite, I have a real problem with lots of food which taste I can’t stand. When I eat out, I have to order my food in ways like “no onions, no vegetables at all, no sauces and the meat as thin as it can be”. As you said, it is not a choice and is really difficult dealing with it in some social situations. Thank you for making me see that it is more common than I thinked and is not a “spoiled” girl thing
    (sorry for my english)

  12. I love hearing stories from fellow picky eaters because growing up I thought that it was just something me and my cousin did. I also always thought I’d grow out of it but here I am… still particular about everything edible. Thanks for posting a spreading awareness about this situation, no one I know seems to get it. The more people aware of this the better!

  13. Thanks for this! I am 42 and I am always embarrassed about how picky I am. I order the same thing when I eat out, like I have always ordered the regular hamburger at McDonalds and still do. I avoid eating at peoples houses because I am looked at like I’m being rude when I don’t eat something or pick things out of my food. I could write a book about how picky I am. For example, I have a problem with white creamy foods like sour cream, cream cheese, cottage cheese, mayo and ranch dressing. YUCK! And, ALL fish/seafood is out of the question. I also smell my chicken strips before I eat them because they look like deep fried fish. I’m a freak. I live in a part of the country where we have Friday night fish fry and I can’t eat out on Friday nights because to me everything smells and tastes like fish, and once it gets into my head, that’s it. I could live on pizza every day for the rest of my life, but I’ll spare you with my pizza rules, there are too many. :)

  14. I am right there with you. Eat to live not live to eat. I am a great chef, stemming from only eating complex meals if I put every ingredient in it. I read labels religiously so no culprits surprise me (onions) and I end up gagging for days to come. I relive the experience and taste for longer than one should. I am also a very slow eater. It is becomes a problem when people want to clear the table and I am but a few bites in. I cringe at crockpot meals, dressings, and any red sauce I did not make. I often feel rude, but I can not help what my body, psyche, and taste buds refuse. I luckily have a very understanding man that slows down his vigorous eating habits to keep food on his plate as long as possible. I have learned very well the art of turning down food at anyones home and they have learned that being my friend is not feeding me.

  15. Thank you for writing this! I am currently studying abroad, and it has been so hard for me to hang out with people because they always want to go out to eat! I always get so worried that I won’t be able to find anything on the menu that I will like…and spending money on a dish that I won’t enjoy just seems ridiculous. I wish that more people in my life understood that I’m not trying to make things difficult for anyone!

  16. Thank you for this! I am also a picky eater, and at 25 I am constantly getting judged for it. Your texture explanation is a perfect description for my issues. I can’t stand “hidden” bits in anything I eat, bits of onions and peppers being the worst offenders! As soon as I feel that texture in my mouth I gag and start picturing bugs in my food. I can’t order soup or really anything complicated when anyone but me is cooking. I even have to pour jarred sauces through a strainer! But it’s not that I like plain food, I love buffalo sauce and I put more herbs and spices into my cooking than anyone I know.

    I do not have control over this! Just because it’s “in my head” doesn’t make the gagging, nausea, and squicked out feeling any less real. When I can add items to my diet (like when I gained beans a few years ago) it is the most exciting thing in the world to me because it allows me to explore more flavors and insult fewer people. But there isn’t really anything I can do to force this process, it takes a long time to build up a resistance to something and I don’t really understand how it works. I’m just trying to live my life, and nothing drives me more crazy than people making a big deal over a simple reality of my life that isn’t their problem.

  17. Thanks for explaining this to me. I had never heard of this before and it must be hard on you. I’m totally the opposite. I will eat anything. God Bless

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