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.
I’ve written extensively about my lifelong war with food, which has hurt my personal relationships, given me nightmares and caused crippling anxiety in social settings. It’s of course a first world problem, but I believe more than anything else that 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?
Even when I agree to try something new, I dislike the experience, as it feels like I’ll be judged if I’m anything less than an adventurous eater. Luckily, I’ve developed somewhat of a tolerance over the years, and this proves I have some control over the situation, but it’s not something I really want to take hold of, as the end result remains the same: I walk away with a headache, nausea, stomach problems or vomit-inducing migraines. Foods can have a very physical affect on my tiny frame, so while I’m not allergic to much, I have an aversion to more foods than I can name.
I see how an individual like me might infuriate cooks and folks who live to whip up tasty treats, and I’ve definitely done so in the past. I promise to at least try everything now, but when I dislike what I’m given, it’s sometimes perceived as a personal dig against the chef or people I’m with. I wish I could tell these guys that picky eaters aren’t out to insult them or their masterpieces. It’s not about you, but I know you’ll never believe that.
In the past, I worried my selective eating habits would prevent me from having a real relationship with anyone. Champagne and wine give me headaches, I find most foods too spicy, I haven’t touched sushi since hating it at first bite 11 years ago and an abundant plate of food at dinner parties stresses me out more than I can say. When people offer me food, I tense up, fearful it contains something that’s going to upset my taste buds or leave a lingering taste in my mouth for the rest of the day. It doesn’t help that I’m a slow eater and not so good at talking and eating at a reasonable pace.
And yet I ended up with a city-dwelling foodie who doesn’t look down on my eating habits or take them as a blow to his ego. He doesn’t fault me for the fact that I eat to live and not the other way around. He accepts me for who I am, and that’s the best (and perhaps sole) way to open up the world of a selective eater. We may never crave oysters or get psyched about the prospect of tasting sea urchin, but we can agree to taste these things if it means that much to the people we love. I can imagine it’s not very fun to dine with a girl who never cleans her plate, but I’m getting better at taking more risks, however small, to please the people I love. That’s really the best I can do.
What are your thoughts on Selective Eating Disorder and picking eating as a whole? Share in the comments section.