The Private Hell of an Adult Picky Eater
Life's a bitch, and it's way worse when everything except Chef Boyardee spaghetti and plain hot dogs fills you with disgust.
Growing up, I ate a can of Chef Boyardee’s spaghetti and meatballs for dinner almost every single night. As I type that, I salivate a little. With lingering guilt, I still crave the mushy noodles and salty meatballs and that unnaturally orange, ketchupy sauce that comforted me through the years of my youth. Every can of that stuff is loaded with fat and sodium, and let me tell you, it’s delicious.
My mom sometimes tried to trick me—sneaking in ‘real’ meatballs, mixing them with the canned sauce, hoping I couldn’t tell the difference—but I could always sense an imposter. Despite her efforts, my taste buds and nose deciphered tiny distinctions that rendered the outwardly similar dish unpalatable. In addition to cans of Chef Boyardee (shamefacedly packed with me for sleepovers or dinners at other people’s houses), I was also willing to eat Campbell’s Double Noodle Soup (without chicken—perish the thought) and hot dogs without buns. Bread and sweets were safe, while fruits and vegetables seemed impossible.
I was a Picky Eater. I remain one, though I have markedly improved, and I was never as bad as those poor sods on TLC’s Freaky Eaters who got hooked on maple syrup or ate exclusively raw meat—at least, I didn’t think so.
The only ‘healthy’ food I liked was apples (only if peeled) and corn on the cob. A scant few other goods passed my lips. I could do pizza, but no toppings. I liked cheese, but only a soft farmer’s cheese my mom specially ordered from Michigan. I liked bread, but a special sort of that had to be summoned, too; I’d discovered it on a family trip to Florida, so every few months my grandparents shipped the same rye to us in New York.
Anything with seeds or nuts or a mysterious ingredient was out of the question. Products with pits you had to spit out (like cherries) and the slimy, juicy textures of most fruits horrified my delicate sensibilities. Grapes were my ultimate kryptonite. Something about their squelchy wetness, the vines they dangled from in clumps, how they were wont to fall on the ground and get squished by someone’s unsuspecting shoe—it all deeply disgusted me.
I would hazard a guess that picky eaters feel more shame now than ever, with the ubiquitous pressure to eat organic and ‘clean’ and healthy.
Picky eating in children has been well researched. It’s common knowledge that most kids don't want to eat their broccoli, but it is assumed that they will eventually grow out of it. Adult picky eaters are far more likely to be dismissed or ridiculed, told to grow up, to toughen up.
It's not that we don't have adventurous personalities, as smug foodies usually assume—it's just that the sheer number of foods that taste, smell, or even look unappetizing (to us, anyway) often prevents us from exploring beyond our comfort zones. In recent years, adult picky eating has become a more popular topic of public discussion. It’s now known as ARFID, or Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder in the medical community, and is formally recognized as an eating disorder. The disorder’s cause can range from obsessive-compulsive tendencies to Asperger’s syndrome to general sensitivity to strong flavors and stimuli. We found a celebrity ally when Anderson Cooper came forward as one of us, and restaurants are becoming increasingly willing to accommodate our preferences.
But shows like Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown make discovering ‘exotic’ flavors into a valiant quest for worldliness, and cooking programs like Chopped—which favors unusual ingredients—are beloved by hungry masses. I would hazard a guess that picky eaters feel more shame now than ever, with the ubiquitous pressure to eat organic and ‘clean’ and healthy. Millennials are supposed to love sourcing fresh ingredients and trying new things, so twentysomething and thirtysomething picky eaters like myself stay quiet about our habits, lest we’re classified as difficult, stubborn, or lazy. We regularly disappoint friends who want to eat at some cool Vietnamese joint or partners who want to experience our home-cooked dishes. Speaking of which, cooking isn’t of much personal interest; since I have trouble touching raw food products and find no thrill in the prospect of slaving over something I might not like the taste of at the end. I make the same handful of meals over and over for myself. The way to a man’s heart might be through his stomach, but that’s never been a realistic route for me.
Dr. Nancy Zucker, Founder and Director of the Duke Center for Eating Disorders, has publicly discussed picky eating at length. She told The New York Times that picky eaters have an innate heightened sensitivity to the world, a "sensory experience … more intense in the areas of taste, texture, and visual cues." As a sensitive only child whose parents didn’t get along (rendering happy family meals few and far between), I asked Zucker whether conflict or tension at home can help spur avoidant eating patterns lasting into adulthood.
“Eating is such a complicated and rich behavior,” Zucker told me. “We learn things by association. It’s not hard to imagine that a child who had the opportunity to see eating role models in a very peaceful environment will associate food with positive things.”
Zucker also warns parents against guilt, assigning blame, or a clean-your-plate mentality; forcing kids to try food might only make things worse. (My parents let me eat what I wanted, but they definitely thought I was a pain in the ass.)
Stephanie Lucianovic, author of Suffering Succotash: A Picky Eater's Quest to Understand Why We Hate the Foods We Hate, recalls her own childhood days of covert nibbling and food bullies.
“I was pretty good about hiding it,” Lucianovic said. “I didn’t want people to know. I thought it was immature. As a kid, I didn’t care about being polite—but as an adult, you don’t want to offend people or put anybody out. I had to get really good at getting stuff down I didn’t like.”
One memory stands out: A weekend spent at a childhood friend’s home, during which an unfamiliar mother forced Stephanie to sit in a cold dining room long after everyone else had finished their pureed squash and consume her entire portion. “I was miserable,” Lucianovic said. “This woman is a minister. It was mean. So incredibly unempathetic.” Sounds like that tortuous scene from Roald Dahl’s Matilda where Bruce Bogtrotter scarfs an entire chocolate cake to appease Miss Trunchbull.
Lucianovic wrote Suffering Succotash about her journey from picky eater to culinary school graduate and food writer. She became interested in cuisine watching Jacques and Julia Cooking at Home on PBS Food; one day, the pair concocted their own vinaigrette, and Lucianovic realized she could replicate the tasty dressings she’d had in restaurants rather than buying it bottled. Cooking finally put her in control. She advises against the assumption that there’s only one way to prepare any particular food. “In my opinion, almost no vegetable should be steamed if you want it to taste good,” she said. Growing up, her family ate vegetables steamed and tasteless; so learning how to sauté was like being a prisoner freed from Plato’s Cave.
Disgust helps you detect the potential for contamination. Slimy things, odors, visual features. A lot of people who are picky eaters just have a very highly tuned disgust system. Maybe in an earlier life, you tasted foods for the king.
I’ve recently begun describing my picky eating with the analogy of eating roadkill: For me, a lot of what I see people put on their plates or in their mouths is akin to slapping a bloodied raccoon on the table and digging in. It’s gross. I still have to look away from movie food fights or “sexy” chocolate body-licking scenes. But according to Zucker, I’ve practically got superpowers. She cites disgust—one of the strongest and most pivotal human responses, at least as far as Inside Out is concerned—as the culprit.
“Disgust is an emotion designed to protect us from pathogens, getting infected by things,” she said. “We’re disgusted by feces, urine, and vomit because [they] could be contaminated. Disgust helps you detect the potential for contamination. Slimy things, odors, visual features. A lot of people who are picky eaters just have a very highly tuned disgust system. Maybe in an earlier life, you tasted foods for the king.”
Strangely, many foods repulse me more than any loathsome bodily fluid ever could. But I persist in my royal predilections. Zucker first targets social avoidance when treating adult picky eaters, lest the disorder get in the way of jobs or relationships. Endless explanations and awkward dinners can be tiring, and picky eaters get lonely.
We master revulsion all the time, Zucker reminded me. Changing a baby’s diaper, for example, is necessary—but we don’t try to make it less disgusting, we just get it done. “You have to think about how you approach things,” she said. “Let go of liking them. You need to experience food because of some higher purpose; I want to be able to go with my partner out to dinner and have adventures, or I want to be more physically strong. Whatever the heartfelt reason is.”
The worst stage of my avoidant eating lasted faithfully until high school, at which point I began—tentatively—to eat more. I tried a hamburger for the first time and fell in love. I sampled chicken and fell in love again (a healthier love; one with less saturated fat). I realized there was a single salad I enjoyed immensely that could be found almost everywhere: the Caesar. I even found a few vegetables I liked, and blended frozen fruit into smoothies to bypass their sickeningly juicy texture.
Within the last year, I’ve come around to eggs (though only when scrambled). I’ve still yet to taste seafood, tofu, or avocado (I am a bad, but apparently soon-to-be wealthy, Millennial). And there are many things I’ll never try. But the older I get, the more comfortable I grow with food. Each year I add something new to the menu.
I’m no longer embarrassed, and I’m willing to explain my preferences. The best part is that now, other people are willing to listen.