Hi, I’m Jordan. I’m 21 years old and I’m a picky eater.
I’ve always felt I should be ashamed of it. People say I should be starved for a few weeks until I learn to appreciate food. They say my mom should’ve force-fed me anything I hated until I learned to like it. They say I’m spoiled. Entitled. That clearly I haven’t suffered enough because if I had, there’s no way I would be picky.
You can imagine, then, that I don’t like talking about it.
But I know I’m not alone. I wonder how many other people silently pick at their food at fancy restaurants because they don’t want to admit they think it tastes like poop.
Here’s the truth about picky eating.
I’ve been picky since I was born.
My mom lamented that there was nothing she could feed me that I’d eat from about the time I was born. I’d go through phases where I was obsessed with one food and one food only. Trying to feed me anything else was a lost cause.
And believe me, my mom did. We had a really varied diet growing up. My sister didn’t end up picky, even though we were given the same foods to try. I can only assume that means there’s something more to it than “your parents raised you poorly.”
My family often says I was “overdramatic” and that I’d act like I would vomit if I tried a food I didn’t like, but I remember it differently. I remember it truly feeling like I’d been fed something rotten. My stomach turned. I couldn’t take another bite.
It’s how I’ve always been.
Picky eating is not a choice.
As I’ve gotten older, my palate has expanded substantially. I used to not eat ground beef, but now I love tacos. I’m learning to like broccoli. I eat more salad than I did as a child.
But the very thought of some foods makes me want to vomit. Beans. Peas. Nuts. When I say I can’t eat them, I mean it. I really, truly cannot.
It’d be like if someone served you a big ol’ plate of steaming hot cow shit. Sure, it’s technically a choice for you to not eat it. But I wouldn’t judge you for it. It’s repulsive. Vomit-inducing. No thanks.
That’s how I feel about certain foods. I could choose to eat them, but the projectile vomit that would follow is not a choice.
I hate being picky.
I’ve worked so hard over the years to be less picky. I’m lucky that my sister’s a great cook and that she loves making healthy food. She’s helped me find ways to actually enjoy the foods I used to hate. Salmon has become a go-to for me because of her. So has broccoli.
Picky eating isn’t fun. So many people have told me to “grow up” and “stop acting like a child.”
Y’all, I wish I could. I seriously, desperately wish I could.
Loving food seems so fun. I wish I could try and enjoy more foods! I wish I didn’t have a severe amount of anxiety around going to new places! I wish this was fun for me!
It isn’t. Again, telling me to grow up is like telling me to just “be taller.” Easy to say, impossible in practice.
Shaming doesn’t work.
Namecalling, threatening, and forcing picky eaters to get them to be less picky is nonsense.
Like I said, I don’t want to be picky.
But forcing a picky eater to try a food won’t stop pickiness. It will make their anxiety worse. It will likely make them hate that food forever. And it will likely make them resent you. (Depending on just how forceful you are, of course)
Picky eating has to be tackled in its own time. It’s a slow, slow process. I think a lot of it is waiting for your tastebuds to mature, and there’s no way to speed that up. It also takes time to experiment with new cooking methods to see if a hated food can become a liked food. It takes time to explore foods you used to hate to see if your feelings have changed. And it takes time to get your body used to these new foods.
For picky eaters, this will not happen overnight.
Telling me to stop acting like a spoiled, rotten brat won’t change it. Maybe it’ll make you feel good about yourself. But it won’t help me.
How do I support a picky eater?
Start by finding out why they don’t like certain foods.
If you’re in charge of cooking for a picky eater (say, a parent or spouse), then start by asking why they don’t like the food. Is it the texture? Taste? Temperature?
Even a young child should be able to say “it feels weird in my mouth” or “it’s sour.”
If they don’t know, they don’t know. Some foods are just ick. But if they do know, think about ways you could fix that food to be something they might like.
For me as a kid, broccoli was always a big one. Soggy, weird, flavorless. Eww. As an adult, my sister introduced me to roasted broccoli, which I actually have come to really enjoy.
Same food. Different format. Now I like it.
Don’t shame them for what they choose to eat.
Making snide comments about how they “never like anything” or “only eat garbage” is only going to exacerbate the problem. The same goes for sarcastic comments when they do try something new — “Oh wow! The picky eater eating something new! Someone take a picture!”
When it comes to mealtime, take all the attention away from their pickiness. Don’t mention their food choices, unless you intend to say something encouraging like “You like the roasted broccoli? That’s awesome! I’ll be sure to make more of it next time.”
Keep it positive. Make meals a safe place to explore food.
Respect their no-go foods.
I can’t speak for all picky eaters, but for me, there are some foods that I will not try no matter the circumstances.
Beans, nuts (and most nut butters), peas, corn. It doesn’t matter how you prepare them. It doesn’t matter what they’re in. I will not eat them.
No amount of force is going to change that.
Accept that there may be some foods you just can’t win with. Everyone has those foods — picky eaters are no different.
Don’t starve them, beat them, or continually reheat the same foods until they eat them.
Picky eaters already feel anxious about food at mealtimes. Adding abuse and brute punishment to the mix will not fix the issue (unless your goal is to ruin their trust in you and damage their relationship with food… in which case, have at it).
As an adult I’m better able to work through my picky eating because my mom didn’t traumatize me. She didn’t force me to eat foods until I vomited. She didn’t reheat the same food for every meal until I caved. She didn’t beat me if I didn’t comply.
She let me deal with it in my own time. Now I’m older and I’m coming to like some of the foods I used to hate all on my own.
Don’t fight over food. You’ll both lose, no matter who “wins”.
Like I said, developing new tastes takes time — in some cases, a lot of time. Like years. Know that one well-made kale dish isn’t likely to change their mind immediately.
It’s a process. Be supportive, be kind, and be willing to wait.
Picky eating isn’t fun. But with time and some hard work, an extremely picky eater (like me) can hopefully be only moderately picky (yay).