Tuesday, July 6, 2010

adult picky eaters

There was an interesting article in the WSJ this morning about adult picky eaters.

Please check it out! Picky eating is one of the most common issues I help families with. As you see here, some kids don't outgrow their picky eating. If you are concerned, read a book, get some help. (Child of Mine, or Secrets to Feeding a Healthy Family, both by Ellyn Satter.)

Are you an adult who only eats a handful of foods? Will you share with us, and maybe how you were fed as a child?

It was interesting that the adults in this article describe their picky eating habits starting in childhood. One of the moms in the article is so scared her daughter will pick up her poor habits that she breaks into sweats and pushes food/ sticker charts for eating more at breakfast... Can you guess where this is likely headed?

This is pretty sad on many levels. I would imagine that these adults were not fed well as children. Were they catered to, fed special food just so they ate something? Were they provided the opportunity to try new foods without pressure? Were they forced to try new foods or eat "two-bites" of everything? Were they not fed reliably at all and had to fend for themselves? I hope that the Duke study into adult picky eating will consider how these folks were fed as children. The next level that is heartbreaking is how terrified the one mom in particular was of "passing on" her feeding issues and how she has not been given the tools to begin to succeed.

Ellyn Satter wrote a short piece on helping adult picky eaters.

Tell me what you think...


  1. I am a fairly picky adult eater, actually both my husband and I are. My feeding as a child was very controlled because my mom was so worried about me getting fat. My mother also prepared pretty much the same meals week after week on the same day. My parents also never really cared about preparing foods to my palate, they love spicy food and I can't really tolerate spicy foods at all.

    For my husband, he's all about quality and freshness because his mom would buy everything in bulk and would often serve food past it's good by date, he'll tell you about the brown mayonaisse if you get him started. Don't get him started.

    The "Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family" has really helped both of us try new foods without feeling shame of either not liking or not eating a lot of the new food.

  2. Oooooh, if I weren't slammed right now, I'd be commenting more in-depth. I'm the prototypical adult picky eater, but I'm trying to work on it. I did a post awhile back about struggling to add blueberries to my diet. Now I'm a blueberry fan and I'm trying to expand my palette further. I'll be back later.



  3. I do know a couple adult picky eaters. One I don't know well enough to have any idea how he was fed as a kid. The other has mentioned that her parents were really concerned about it, but the doctor had told them not to push her to eat particular things, she'd start craving them eventually. Sounds like pretty good advice, really, even though she never did expand her palate at all.

    I also know that one of the picky eaters has a bunch of food sensitivities, a really low tolerance to anything spicy, and some allergies as well, so I wonder if her pickiness is, at least in part, a defense mechanism (maybe psychological, maybe physiological, maybe both). Eating only a very small range of foods makes sense when your body doesn't react well to a lot of things.

  4. KellyK,
    as to your first example, I hear this from parents, that they are told not to worry about food jags, or picky eating, that the child will outgrow it. (One mom called and said her child has been eating primarily microwaved burritos for 7 years...) learning to like the new foods must happen in the context of healthy feeding (ie continuing to offer a variety of foods without pressure, not always giving the child the easy out) in short, feeding competence with ea Division of Responsibility. This is REALLY hard to do without any guidance. When docs say "don't worry about it," but don't give resources, like Child of Mine, or Secrets to Feeding a healthy family, often parents think this means, keep giving them only what they will eat. (mac n cheese...) If a child is not given the opportunity to learn and be exposed in a pleasant and neutral setting, many will not "grow out of it." Does that distinction make sense?
    Food sensitivities and allergies are a whole other bag. very complex, and definitely a risk factor for feeding problems.

  5. Katja,

    Yeah, that distinction makes perfect sense. Kids *can't* learn to like foods they aren't exposed to, and there's no incentive to try new things if their favorites are always offered.

    "Don't worry about it" without any guidance probably keeps parents from trying interventions that make things worse (two-bite rule, sticker chart, etc.), but doesn't help the kid grow out of it.

  6. Do you count vegetarianism as a form of picky eating? I knew when I was in my early teens that I wanted to be vegetarian, but we did family dinner together (with no substitutions), so I waited until college.

    In my case, giving up meat/poultry/fish spurred me to become an otherwise more adventurous eater, and it helped me get over aversions to foods I thought I disliked (mushrooms, spinach, nuts) that were actually tasty. And I like a number of vegetables (Brussels sprouts, parsnips, eggplant, bitter greens, beans of many sorts) that I rarely or never had as a kid because my parents didn't like them.

    So I'm more picky in some ways and much less picky in others than as a child. Definitely, there was a moment starting college when I talked myself out of a bunch of food aversions: I think I wanted to prove that I could be trusted to choose my own food and not wind up with a deficiency disease.

  7. atchka,
    I's so impressed you learned to like a new food. it is tough, but doable. I will read your post. i think patience, curiosity and kindness are key... Looking forward to hearing more!

  8. I'm a picky eater, I'm also on the autism spectrum and have some bad food allergys. As a child I was a picky eater and many foods just their texture or smell would make me vomit. My partents generally made me my own food, boiled chicken with white rice if the family was having something I couldn't stand. I do like spicy food though, like chili sauce on my chicken and rice or on my beans. Now that I'm older I eat more foods, but mostly prefer if I make them myself to my taste,I also still will skip eating if nothing I can stand is available. My son also on the autism spectrum is also very picky and he doctor he has now told us no to worry, but an eariler doctor told us not letting him eat till he tried something new at each meal and that went badly, he stopped eating entirely ,so we let him go back to eating what he liked. He eats about ten different foods regularly, and does try new things ocasionally now. My daughter and husband will eat almost anything.

  9. I'm a picky eater primarily because I'm a super taster and have textural issues. My mother also had me on a diet from the time I was five, and tried to stuff me full of slimy, overcooked vegetables and bland diet foods.

    I do try things now that I'm an adult, and I have widened my options by doing so, but I still have problems with anything mushy (that's not supposed to be - obviously something like mashed potatoes doesn't bug me), slimy, overly seasoned or overcooked.

    My parents would lie to me about food, which made me probably the rudest kid on the planet. I'd pull away breadings and coatings to make sure something labeled as chicken WAS chicken; I'd pick things out of stews, soups, and other blended dishes; I'd ask endless questions about ingredients (especially condiments, which I couldn't and can't stand).

    Luckily, I'm doing better with my daughter, largely because I found blogs like this before she was eating a lot of solid foods. We watch Food Network together to see what looks yummy, and she knows that if she wants to try something, even if I have to go out of my way, I'll get it for her.

  10. My roommate is a pretty picky eater, having met her family I know that she got it from her mom. She refuses to eat bell peppers, brussel sprouts, and a whole host of other vegetables. When I've pressed her on it, she admits to never having tried brussel sprouts, but won't eat them because her mother never prepared them. She hates trying new things, and has a list of one or two things she'll eat at any restaurant.

    By contrast, my mom (and dad, as both are great cooks) fed me a huge variety of vegetables as a child, and to this day there isn't a vegetable that I won't eat. I'm also an adventurous eater, and will usually try something new at a restaurant rather than picking what I know I like.

    To contradict my point, however, I'm very picky about meat. I can't eat anything with a lot of fat on it, or anything that isn't well done (no sushi, no rare steak) because the texture is so off-putting that it makes me nauseous. I don't eat much pork, and don't eat any meat off of the bone. This can't be blamed on my parents because my mom is big on ribs and pork chops, well-marbled steak and dark meat chicken.

    So it's hard to know if pickiness can be blamed 100% on either nature or nurture. My roommate might not eat anything her mom didn't prepare, but I hate a lot of things my mom really enjoys and cooks on a regular basis.

    It's interesting to me that Elaine mentioned being picky and on the Autism spectrum, because I had a friend with Asperger's Syndrome that was a VERY picky eater. She pretty much only ate breaded chicken strips with fries. She explained to me that any new thing she tried would make her feel as though she had to vomit, regardless if she LIKED the new thing or not.

  11. I am so completely unpicky, as is my husband. It's not that we'll just eat things we don't enjoy, but rather than we enjoy basically everything so it's not really a problem. We're not working with any food intolerances or allergies (except for my newfound problem with eating more than one small scoop of ice cream at any time or I get a flippy stomach afterwards) and I've always wondered if that was part of it.

    I was raised with a "Well, try it before you knock it" idea, but also by very basic people, a farmer and his wife. Food tended to err on the side of potato-heavy or meat-heavy meals, basic stuff like ground beef in basic tomato chili or things like that. There wasn't a ton of random stuff on my table as a kid, but I ate all of it. Even stuff I decided I didn't like, I'd usually try again after a few months.

    One of the thigns that helped was my mother's general rule of "If you don't eat it, too bad, that's all we have for dinner." Of course I could get an apple or a cheese stick if I absolutely could not stand dinner, but what's the point of that? We did not go through multiple drive thru's to satisfy each member of the family, but came to a decision as to where we would eat and then we, individually, would need to find something we liked there, but that was the only place we'd be going. The fact that this was not a pressure issue but rather a simple fact of my existence was really helpful in creating a kid (and now adult) who can just go with the flow of whatever restaurant is picked... I'll always find -something- I like.

    My husband and I are hoping not to raise picky eaters: I don't know how we'd deal with that.

  12. I too can not believe that adult picky eating is entirely nature or nurture. I am a super adventurous eater and like almost all food. Seriously, the only genre of food I can think of that I don't like is Ethiopian. I eat tons of different vegetables and am always up for trying new things in restaurants. My sister is an INCREDIBLY picky eater. She basically lives on plain turkey sandwiches (white bread, turkey, cheese, no condiments) and when forced to go to restaurants will order from the kid's menu and get things like fried chicken fingers or plain chicken and rice. And of course, we were raised in the exact same household by the same parents. We had family meals every single night when my dad walked in the door at 6:00. My mom served a vegetable every night and everybody had to at least try everything. I thought my parents did a decent job getting us to try new things, evidence my adult eating habits. So I'm not sure what went wrong with my sister.

    Further, I'm now a young pediatrician who tells parents, probably every single day, to not worry about picky eating or repetitive eating habits. I'll sometimes try to offer further advice or ask how long the habit has been going on to assess whether they need additional help, but it's not like I have actually have substantial training in behavioral modification of eating habits either.

  13. Bergamot,
    I don't count vegetarianism as picky eating... Glad you learned to like so many new foods. being curious and pleasant exposure, delicious too! helps!

  14. Miku,
    I think you can have likes, and dislikes without being "picky." Certainly having a big lump of grissle or fat in your mouth is off-putting. It's perfectly OK to politely spit out something in your mouth if you don't want to swallow it. (napkin, or I think I actually saw on a show about manners that you can spit it on your fork discreetly and place it on the edge of your plate...) My bro can't handle cracking bones, but loves meat. He gets light-headed and spleeny about carving chicken or cracking the wishbone, so of course as a kids I tortured him with that!!

  15. Katie, I love your description of your moms calm insistence that what you get is what you get... That is critical... She was following the division of responsibility, food was just food, not fancy, it just was, and it sounds like overall it was a pleasant time. Another thing Ellyn says is that (paraphrase) your child's attitude about food is more important than what he eats on any given day...

  16. Ashley, are you out there? I read your awesome comment on my phone, and now can't find it on said phone or email. CAn you resend? I really want to email with you!

  17. I'm late to the party, but I'm 30 years old and a super picky eater. I primarily eat meats, pastas, and potatoes. I try really hard to like other things. I want to, but I just can't make myself do it. I gag when I try.

    A lot of it, I think, comes from two things: One, my mother used to try to force feed me things I didn't want to eat as a child. I distinctly remember one instance involving green peas and projectile vomiting that, according to family legend, cured her of that desire.

    Two, as soon as I was tall enough to reach the stove, I was on my own for breakfast and lunch, which usually consisted of spaghetti noodles and plain sauce from a jar or ramen noodles. Dinner leaned toward frozen dinners which I usually ate the entree and starch and left the rest for the trash.

  18. Kristi and Kate, I love your point about how your mom hiding food destroyed your trust in the food, and made you more cautious and suspicious. I am clearly not a fan of Sneaky Chef or Deceptively Delicious...

  19. Karmaschild,
    Did you happen to read the link to Satter's piece on adult picky eating? Maybe you're trying to hard? be curious, get rid of the pressure... Maybe cook a food you think you would like several times (small portions) or order it at a restaurant with the plan to just look at it, or smell it if you want, maybe dip your finger in it and lick the taste, or just throw it out after you look at it. I think the key to this, especially for someone who had extreme pressure is to totally get rid of that pressure...You were not given the opportunity growing up to be exposed to a variety of foods in a neutral and pleasant atmosphere without pressure. Maybe you can do that for yourself now? What do you think?

  20. I wish I could get rid of the pressure! I'm currently staying with the family of a friend while I'm in school out of state and one of their biggest amusements is to hold up a food and ask, "Do you like THIS?" It will become the latest, biggest joke if I say no. If I say yes (lie), then it is still a joke. "You LIKE IT? Oh my god! Are you feeling well?!"

    At least they think it's funny, I guess.

    Oddly enough, I'm in culinary school at the moment, too. For baking and pastry, though. I can handle just about anything sweet, but savory foods are a minefield and my Chef instructor made it clear on the first day that you won't make it through the savory course if you're a picky eater.

  21. Oh Boy,
    That's tough. Can you ask them to stop? Maybe something like, "I know it seems odd, but I'm trying to work on it, especially with my classes, and the teasing isn't helping. Would it be OK if you guys backed off for awhile?" Would that work?? There will also be pressure in the classroom setting. Have you done any mindfulness work around eating? Do you feel anxious and upset around new foods?

  22. My husband is a vegetarian that doesn't eat most vegetables. It is very hard to cook for my family. I have one child (age 3) that eats less than 10 foods and another who eats the opposite as him. I've learned a lot from this blog and I do agree that many of the issues that my family is dealing with stem from my husband's family's attitude towards food. They all have food issues of one sort or another. This blog has helped me have dialogue with my husband about how we move forward and help our children not have the same problems. With our youngest (9 months), we are trying Baby Led Weaning and it is going wonderfully. THANK YOU!

  23. Letts family, Good luck! A great resource is that Secrets to Feeding a Healthy Family book. Really good with adults and kids! I hope that without pressure, and with curiosity, and perhaps inspiration from the kids, your husband might be open to experimenting with exposing himself to new foods, just like you would with a child. Frequent, neutral, non-pressure exposures. And remember what food acceptance looks like. Curiousity, watching, smelling, looking, licking, poking, chewing and spitting out, maybe swallowing in a few months... It takes time, but I have heard from picky adults who have learned to like new foods. Cool!

  24. I have always been a picky eater, and really want to change. As a child, my mom would do the "this is dinner. eat it or go to bed hungry" thing. I remember two nights distinctly that she forced me to eat it (once was hot dogs, she actually put the food in my mouth and moved my jaw for me as I cried) and another time was with spaghetti(yum) with meat sauce (yum...as long as it isn't on the noodles!) well, the sauce was on the noodles and I ate it. Both times, I was very sick afterward. I can't eat anything even mildly spicy, nothing that is soft and mushy like potatoes, nothing that is an extreme taste, no soups, not a vegetable fan, no sauces, no dressings, no mayo, nothing. everything has to be plain, but then everything is boring and I don't like it. So, I live on goldfish crackers, cereal, noodles (white because I'm in college eating at a buffet style cafeteria with limited choices), bread, and wheat bagels. I believe my problem is being an overtaster. Everything that has flavor has that flavor X 10 to me. So things seem disgusting because of the extreme flavor. The only vegetables I like are carrots (only occasionally), celery (only with peanut butter and raisins, also occasionally), spinach (raw, and only sometimes because it gets boring), and corn. I love corn...but it's technically a grain, not a veggie. I also don't like much meat, only cheeseburgers, brats, and baked chicken breast, so I hardly eat meat. So you'd think I'd resort to beans for my protein. Even if beans are in something, I can't eat it. I don't like the flavor one bit and it will make me sick. So I thought maybe it was psychological...no. blind tasting has proved that. I just hate beans, whether I know they're there or not. I know my diet is really poor, and wish to make it better, but I can't figure out how if everything I smell or taste is disgusting to me. Any advice?!

  25. I am currently 17 years old. When I was younger guess you can say that my parents never forced me to try new foods. They would offer but of course I would say no because I was enjoying food that I already liked. I don't like the typical spicy foods, vegetables, and extreme spices. I like plain food. I am pretty embarassed of myself. More people are starting to take noticeand make fun. I perfer avoid eating with people. I know it's a turn off and people will reject me. I am desperatly hoping that experimenting will help broaden my range. I am also worried about my health.

  26. please head over to my new blog www.familyfeedingdynamics.com/blog. i work with adult picky eaters. there is also a newlsetter in on ellynsatter.com for adult picky eaters, and another great book is Secrets to Feeding a Healthy family. With my adult picky eating clients, I find that planning reliable meals (every 3-4 hours) with foods you enjoy, giving yourself permission to only eat what tastes good, getting rid of the guilt and pressure is needed to even open the door to new food experiences. Please don't give up! Good luck