Navigating a Picky Eater’s Journey

Yesterday, I ate an artichoke heart stuffed with baked brie and bread crumbs, bathed in a gentle white wine sauce. I enjoyed this in good company, backlit by the slowly setting sun peering over the wispy treetops that surround the parking lot of my new favorite Italian restaurant in the area, Donatella’s. If you’d set down that sinfully savory meal I just described to you in front of me literally just one year ago, I would’ve been physically repulsed. I would’ve had an involuntary guttural reaction and I would’ve asked you why the hell you brought a cheesy vegetable anywhere near me. 

The difference between my diet then and now is so dramatic that it’s almost like remembering details about an old friend. And that’s because during this transformation, I shed one version of myself for another. Once I started intentionally practicing the willingness to try new foods, I noticed a corresponding evolution of myself as a person becoming more open to new experiences and more likely to act on opportunities as they arise. Looking back on the inhibited, scared self that refused to try new foods versus the overall more joyful, eager person I now occupy has offered me a valuable perspective I want to pass on. The act of eating is the most full human experience there is, involving interaction, sensation, and pleasure all in one. Only joy can be found in its exploration. I attempt to use my new perspective to inspire abundance in the palates and lives of the picky eaters in my life. Currently, that person is the one I date: Tomás.  

On our first date, Tomás told me that chicken (with rice) is his favorite food. A more accurate description would have been “chicken is the single meal I eat for lunch and dinner every day, no matter if I’m eating at home or at a restaurant, and I refuse to give anything else a chance.” Though there is generally nothing wrong with chicken (and rice), any food becomes problematic when it monopolizes a person’s diet, creating a state of lack. Before my intervention, his diet was lacking fruits and vegetables. At Donatella’s yesterday, he ordered chicken, yes, but he ate the arugula salad topped with tomatoes and red onions that came on the side. He ate the aromatic eggplant dip that came with the bread on his own volition. If you know picky eaters, you know how enormous of a milestone that is- big enough to shock me into realizing his progress. Slowly but surely, Tomás is expanding his diet and though he’s reluctant to admit it, he’s enjoying it. Working through a picky eater’s resistance is a process that can seem based on pure chance, but in my personal examination, I found that there are consistencies that exist across the board. Knowing what those are and how they should be used can help anybody inspire their loved ones to explore their relationship with food. 

Tomás and Ohr stepping out of their food comfort zones.

I cannot point to one solid aha-moment that immediately flipped the switch for me. I can point to a moment where I made the conscious decision to dedicate time and repetition to form the practice. Realistically, though, not everyone will realize they want to change their habits- most will only acknowledge its necessity in retrospect. 

In either case, it is essential to know your person’s current state of being- what your person already likes– so you can build up from there. Consider their favorite “genre” of food: Italian? Thai? American diner? Mexican? This will give insight into the lightness, heaviness, texture, spices, and aromas with which they are already comfortable and more likely to expand upon. For example, I’ve always loved Thai cuisine- its aroma, its fullness, its flavors- but I stuck rigidly to noodles. I had the desire to try soups, curries, and salads but I was so intimidated because of the fact that I had resisted them for so many years. Buddhist physician Alex Licherman, M.D. explains that “Opening our minds to a new thing or a new way of thinking is often frightening because by definition it’s unfamiliar. Unfamiliarity often rings the alarm bell “danger—potentially unsafe.” I had categorized these untasted foods as “bad” in my head not because of any inherent bad quality, but because they were unknown to me. Starting from my home base of pad thai, I followed the noodle trend to pad see ew, followed the vegetable mix combination trend to papaya salad, and followed the unfamiliar combinations trend to green and red curry. It was not dangerous or unsafe; it was all delicious. 

That evolution might seem random, but for me, the common denominator under all of my irrational “don’ts” was texture. I couldn’t even look at most sauces, I refused to eat guacamole even though I loved avocado, refused to dress my salad, refused to eat hummus even though it is my culture. Being conscious of and starting within the boundaries of my comfort zone helped me feel grounded as I strayed further and further from the familiar. I took it slow and steady, gaining confidence with every small change that didn’t kill me.

Pair new foods with the foods you already like. The dare to try and the emotional need for a safety net are not mutually exclusive- especially not in terms of food, which should always and only be a positive experience. Often, when you go all or nothing, you expect disappointment and end up unsatisfied. Last week, Tomás and I had brunch at Art Cafe, a vegetarian meditteranean restaurant in Nyack that reminds me of some of my most beloved spots back in Israel. He ordered the ricotta pancakes, I the picasso salad. As we pored over our meals, occasionally glancing up to admire our waterside view, I caught him eyeing my meal. He ripped his gaze from mine, but it was too late: I pressured him until he gave in (I can be relentless) to take a bite that I made sure I included each ingredient from the arugula, feta cheese, chickpeas, tomatoes, avocado, to the hard boiled egg. He swallowed, turned a sheepish look at me, said “It’s good” and forked a couple more bites. If I had pressured him to order a salad of his own, he certainly would harbor some resentment against both the salad and me, inhibiting his willingness to genuinely give it a chance. The presence of the pancakes as Tomás’ backup released the pressure surrounding a new meal, eased anxieties about missing the opportunity to enjoy food and ruining the day by tasting something terrible by encouraging enjoyment even if the new part didn’t pan out.

Don’t be obnoxious about it once your person starts doing it on their own- I’m saying this as that obnoxious person. When Tomás not only tried the picasso salad but liked it, I was completely caught by surprise. My spirit left my body. I was so certain he would complain, moan, and groan, that he genuinely shocked me into a state of overwhelming joy. Not well versed with these particular emotions in this particular situation, I in turn overwhelmed him by becoming a jerk about it. I can’t tell you how many times I mockingly repeated: “Wait- what did you say? And about what?” The only response he had in store was: “F off”- an acceptable and appropriate one, in my opinion. Because though it was just the two of us, I made him into a spectacle, and that’s embarrassing. My patronization triggered his need to keep his pride intact, reverting him back to his state of resistance, though the barrier had just been broken. Be proud in silence and don’t patronize.

Not all picky eaters are just “picky eaters”, though. Previously referred to as Selective Eating Disorder, Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) is an eating disorder similar to anorexia in the sense of intensely restricting what and how much food goes into your body, but different in that body image issues play no factor. Those afflicted don’t consume enough calories for their bodies to function properly. WebMD includes “Children who never outgrow picky eating, people on the autism spectrum, those with ADHD, [and] kids with… anxiety disorders” as most likely to develop the disorder. Be mindful of where your person falls on this list, if at all, before deciding how appropriate inserting yourself in their journey is in their case.

Improving my relationship with food is arguably the best and most important change I made in my life over the past year. My existence in this world has become immensely more enjoyable; the way we eat represents the way we interact with the world. As Licherman summarizes beautifully,  “straying into foreign lands, both metaphorically and literally, has always forced me to challenge my beliefs. And as painful as that is, nothing, I believe, contributes to our happiness more than shattering the delusions to which we cling, unable as we often are to distinguish between beliefs that are true and beliefs that are false (especially beliefs about ourselves). And for better or worse, we simply seem unable, most of the time, to identify a belief as delusional unless some experience shows us.”