I am a picky eater. But I'm not the kind of picky eater who will only eat a limited number of foods, like the girl who only ate chicken nuggets. I'm the kind of picky eater that will eat pretty much any real food, except it has to be prepared either by someone I trust or it needs to be well-prepared. I'm not too huge on highly processed foods or foods that are altered beyond recognition.
Broccoli? Bring it on! Steamed, roasted, grilled, baked, deep fried, raw, sauced or plain. Not a huge fan of it being slathered in cheese because I'm not a huge fan of cheese on my food. Same for cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, broccoli raab, cabbages, mustard greens, kale, kohlrabi, rutabagas, rapini, and other brassicas. Love them all.
I have friends and the friends of my children who loudly proclaim their utter hatred of assorted vegetables or meats, yet they devour them and ask for seconds when I prepare them. It's not because I make them differently or do anything unusual to the food.
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One of my daughter's friends claims to hate bell peppers, that he can't eat them, yet he devours my chili, beef stew, and stewed monkey heads. The first two I can understand - the peppers are not always obvious in them. But the stewed monkey heads are just stuffed bell peppers, and he'll eat one, pepper and all, knowing it's a stuffed bell pepper and seeing that it's a stuffed bell pepper.
He also ate the bell peppers off the Halloween Salad:
I think he eats them when I make them because of my expectations. I don't hover over him, don't make a big deal of the food, and it's usually served dished up and during conversation or playing games. The food is not the focus, there's no stress, no ego, based on whether he eats the food or not.
That might be part, or even most, of it. For a lot of picky eaters, the food assumes an incredible importance and is the focus of intense scrutiny. Is there the slightest hint of green in the dish? A tiny golden globe that could possibly be a corn kernel? Is that orange bit a carrot? Eeew, the whole dish is ruined. When the food is there, but the eater is distracted so they can't concentrate on the food to dissect it to be sure not one single molecule of the dreaded food is present, they'll eat it and not know or care that they did.
Mind you, picky eating isn't the same as being allergic. The picky eater had some trauma or some deeply emotional connection associated with the food at some point in their lives - usually as an infant or toddler. Finding out why they are picky isn't near as important as helping them overcome that pickiness. The girl who only ate chicken nuggets started it when she was 2 years old, the right age for some sort of food related emotional attachment or trauma to occur. She's old enough now that no one remembers what triggered her response. The girl claims it's because she fell in love with the taste with the first bite, and that could be true - toddlers do fixate on one food over others. But her fixation became (so far) a life long fixation.
Some people are attracted or put off by the color, shape, texture of the food with the flavor hardly being noticed. By changing the color, shape, and/or texture of the food, it could alter the person's willingness to eat it. A friend of mine claimed to hate mayonnaise, yet always loved the foods I made with mayonnaise - even sandwiches. When she discovered I'd been feeding her mayonnaise (we'd never discussed picky eating), her first reaction was to gag. I told her that didn't fly with me because by then, she'd eaten years' worth of mayonnaise from me in pasta sauces, potato salad, sandwiches, dips, dressings, and more. After a discussion on it, and a listing of all the foods she'd eaten with mayonnaise in them, she conceded that she liked the flavor of the mayonnaise, it was apparently the color and texture that put her off. If it didn't look like mayonnaise and didn't give the mouthfeel of mayonnaise, she could eat it.
I read through the Mayo Clinic's 10 suggestions to entice a picky eater to stop being so picky, and I disagree with their list.
The first one - respecting the picky eater's appetite - is applicable all across the board and really has nothing to do with picky eating so much as it has to do with eating in general.
The second one - sticking to routines - made me laugh out loud. I raised 8 children and fed all their friends, many of whom came to me as picky eaters. Routine was never ever a part of our lives when it came to meals. Still isn't.
Being patient while introducing new foods was also never part of my lifestyle. They either ate the food or they didn't. I was never a "clean plate" mom. I was, however, always a "take a taste" mom, and "teeny portion" mom. My kids always had to take a bite - and chew and swallow - any new food they were given. They could then tell me what they liked or didn't like about the food - temperature, texture, color, method of preparation, shape, size of the food pieces, and flavor. They'd get the same food prepared different ways, and each time I gave it to them in a different way, they were required to treat it as if it were a totally new food. I did the same to their friends, and I told them that it took 20 bites of a food to learn whether they really liked it or not. I also told them that their tastes would change every 7 years, so if they hated it 7 years ago, they needed to try it all over again just in case they now loved it. It would be a shame, I said, to miss out on a new favorite food because they got stuck in a food rut. And I always gave them teeny portions, a quarter of the size of a full portion. They didn't feel overwhelmed with too much food and if they wanted more, they were always welcome to seconds. Or thirds. So that takes care of the Mayo's third suggestion - being patient.
Mayo's next suggestion - to make it fun - has some weird ideas of what "fun" is. It's not necessarily the food that needs to be fun as it is the ambience. A stressful environment at mealtimes makes children associate the stress with the food and sets up a negative perception of the food being served. This could be the traumatizing event for the food - nothing big or dramatic, just a strong underlying emotion the child picks up on and associated with the food. You make food fun because it's fun to do so - bento meals, for example. They were made fun and interesting out of love for the eater, not to make the food itself more attractive or to entice a picky eater.
This kind of ties into another of Mayo's suggestions - to minimize distractions. I don't think so. Watching a movie during meals is about the only time my family had to sit and watch "tv". My kids came along just as beta max and VHS came out, so I used the tech to prevent them watching commercials during TV programming while still getting to watch TV. I'd prerecord cartoons, TV serials, and movies, and buy movies, to show during meals. I'd also prerecord commercials I liked to share with them, but they wouldn't be imbedded in the show, they'd be a show of their own. Because it was recorded, we could pause it and discuss what we were watching as we ate, so it became lesson time as well as dinner theater. We'd also have lively discussions on a variety of topics - none of which were of the grilling variety ("what did you do at school today?", "I heard you got in trouble, tell me what you did" etc.). Sometimes, we'd play games - RPGs of various sorts. Meals were filled with interesting distractions. The only things I didn't allow at the table were things they had to manipulate - no Atari game controllers for instance (I know, it was a long time ago...). Today, there would be no computers, tablets, iPhones, iPods, MP3 players, cell phones, or other electronic devices that they could hide behind allowed at the table. It had to be interactive with the others present at the table. And the food got eaten - sometimes it starred as playing pieces that got eaten as part of the game - there's nothing more satisfying than designating your peas as the "goblin horde" and getting to devour them all. Poor goblins, did they need some pearl onion protectors? Too bad, here comes the butter sauce sweeping them all into the Screaming Cavern!
That then leads to Mayo's suggestion to be creative with the food. I can see being creative in the way of playing with your food as we did, or the way of bento - of making the food cute or pretty or beautiful, but to sneak foods into other foods for the sole purpose of forcing someone else to eat that sneaky food? No. That destroys trust. And if the child is allergic to something, that lack of trust makes it harder for them to eat foods - small wonder they'd become picky. If they ate some food that was adulterated so they'd eat "healthy" food and had an allergy reaction, yeah, I'd become a pickier eater real quick. Sneaking foods into other foods is mean - that's why I hate so many manufactured foods - if I wanted corn in my cherry pie, I'd put it there myself. Don't sneak it in on me. I really hate the trend of sneaking probiotics into things it should never be in, or adding extra vitamins into foods that shouldn't have those vitamins to begin with. It makes it really hard to control your diet. I never have and never will sneak food in as an ingredient. It's going to be openly an ingredient, and I'll tell people when I do odd things like stirring extra dark bittersweet chocolate chips into my chili, or flavor my cream of chicken soup with Amaretto.
Dispersing a food throughout a dish is one way to encourage a picky eater to eat a greater variety of foods, but the dreaded food should still be recognizable - for instance, spinach as a pizza topping or tossed in a pasta dish or as part of an airy soufflé - not an unappetizing heated up canned spinach glob plopped between the mashed potatoes and a burger patty. Strands of spinach in a clear soup, or pureed and baked into a loaf of bread can also work because the spinach, while still recognizably spinach, isn't in a form or texture that might trigger the gag reflex or make it inedible.
Sometimes, picky eaters are that way because they are the opposite of super-tasters - they are under-tasters, and the food is unbearably bland to them. They make the food edible by drowning it ketchup or pepper sauce, or insisting it be deep fried. Go with that trend - spice it up, cover it in rich and flavorful sauces, make intense dips for it.
Dessert was rarely a part of our meals. Dessert was always a meal in itself. Mostly, it was a snack - a scoop of ice cream, a handful of berries or grapes, a slice of cake or pie, a couple of cookies. Holiday meals got a dessert - often an entire dessert bar with rows of pies and cakes and piles of cookies. We would kick off the holiday with the main meal, and then the rest of the day we'd treat it like a buffet - there was always someone taking just a few slices and dab of this to "snack on" all day. When the desserts were all done, they'd be set up buffet style, and we'd gather to make a meal out of the cakes, pies, fruit desserts, puddings, candies, and cookies, then the rest of the day, until late at night, we'd snack on everything - the sides, entrees, salads, soups, and desserts, all mixed up on our plates. Everyone would be assigned a plate, and they were responsible for keeping track of it and keeping it cleaned between trips to the "buffet". Dessert was never a reward or an incentive to eat a meal.
Some moms sent me lists of foods their child would not eat. I only paid attention to "allergies" and discovered along the way that many of the "allergies" were actually foods their child refused to eat. They weren't allergic at all. The moms were using "allergy" to justify their child's adamant refusal to eat something. This pissed me off because I couldn't trust that the child truly was allergic to something and I finally had to start requiring a doctor's notarized statement of the allergy from those moms. Once I did that, suddenly, all these kids with all these severe allergies weren't allergic. There was one who was allergic to cassia, but not to true cinnamon, and a couple allergic to tree nuts, and one that was lactose intolerant, and I respected that. But all those kids formerly "allergic" to oatmeal, spinach, broccoli, carrots, all potatoes except french fries, or peas didn't get any special treatment from me once I learned it was picky eating, not a true allergy.
And sometimes, you just need to embrace your picky eating habits. There's nothing wrong with being a picky eater, so long as you get all the nutrition you need. And if you want to change your picky eating habits - you can. It's not easy, but it can be done.
You can overcome picky eating. You might outgrow an allergy. Nothing's engraved in stone.
brillig here: We had an open evening for Top Commenter scheduling, and Noddy graciously had placed this draft in the Top Comments queue for such an occasion. Even if I were picky, this diary would have been on my list to collaborate with! :)