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

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.

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?!

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.

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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