If you have trouble eating healthy food because you’re a picky eater who experiences significant anxiety when trying new things, or eating things outside your comfort zone, and because you have a very small repertoire of accepted foods, the way to expand that repertoire is to take it one step at a time.
First, identify the reasons why you want to learn to like more foods. Now that we’ve dispensed with weight loss as the primary reason, come up with some other reasons. And remember, there’s no “should” here either. How you eat is your business. Whether you have a tiny repertoire, or a huge gourmand repertoire has nothing to say about how good a person you are. And while variety is preferable for nutrition, some people go their whole lives eating very limited diets and do just fine.
So, ask yourself: what would be easier for you if your repertoire of accepted foods were expanded? How would your life be better? Could you dine out more easily with friends? Actually have fun at business dinners instead of worrying about what the restaurant serves? Would family meals be easier (or possible?) Could you travel to another country without worrying that there literally won’t be a single thing you know how to eat? Could you just eat a wide variety of foods and enjoy the physical sensation that comes from being well-fed, and feel good about taking care of yourself?
You need to think of your own personal reasons why it would be worth doing this. Think of something rewarding.
Once you’ve got a good reason, maybe write it down somewhere, or find a photo that represents that thing, and save it. Look at it periodically to remind yourself of what good things are ahead.
The next step to learning to eat more kinds of food is to remove any pressure that’s put on your eating. By this I mean, pressure coming from other people. If someone else has a problem with your eating and lets you know about it on a regular basis, it can interfere with your progress.
With eating, I always return to Satter’s Division of Reponsibility. This is usually applied to parents and children, but it can also be applied to adults. No one has the right to tell you what to eat. No one has the right to even comment on your eating, really. Your eating is no one’s business but your own. You are the person who has to put food in your mouth and then deal with it being there, and then deal with whatever effects it has on you once eaten, so therefore you alone are in charge of what goes in and what doesn’t.
If you have a friend or family member who is commenting on your eating in a way that violates the Division of Responsibility (i.e. they are trying to decide for you what, when, or where you eat, how much, or whether), there is a good way to respond: use the DEAR MAN technique.
This is a technique from DBT, and it is a way of requesting something from someone without turning it into a fight. Here’s how it goes:
D – Describe the facts of the situation. Leave any emotions out of it right now. “You just made a comment about my eating, and repeatedly asked me to try something I don’t like.”
E – Express how you feel. “I think you mean well, but when you do this, I feel pressured, resentful, and hurt, and I’m less likely to want to try that thing now or in the future.”
A – Ask for what you want them to do instead. “When we eat together, I would like you to not make ANY comments about my eating at all. We can talk about other things instead.”
R – Reward them, either by thanking them now, or telling them what rewards are in store for them if they fulfill your request: “This will make our meals together a lot more pleasant for both of us, and we’ll get to spend more time together as a result.”
This is the part where you let them talk. Just listen, even if what they are saying is nonsense. In the meantime:
M – Stay mindful of what you want. Don’t waver from your request, which is completely reasonable. If they are defensive or putting up a fuss, simply repeat your request in a neutral tone, using the broken record technique: “When we eat together, I would like you to not make any comments about my eating.” Ignore any personal attacks. These are just attempts to distract you from your purpose, which is to get them to stop making comments about your eating.
A – Appear confident. Don’t apologize; do keep your head up, make eye contact, and try to keep an even tone of voice. You are asking for a very reasonable thing, and you are standing up for yourself without being aggressive. You are doing the right thing.
N – Negotiate. Be willing to offer the other person something they would like in exchange for their agreement…as long as it’s not something that involves you promising to try any specific food. “In exchange, I won’t pester you to come with me to polka class every week.” Or, “I won’t make comments about your eating habits either.”
Once you’ve made a request, you can also set a boundary by choosing what you will do if someone makes a comment about your eating or pressures you to eat. Choose something that is an action, something you will follow through on, and that you can do without losing your temper. You can inform the person of your boundary ahead of time if you like. Just say what you will do, matter-of-factly.
Possible boundaries to try:
- If someone makes a comment about my eating, I will excuse myself, take my plate to the other room and eat until I feel done.
- If someone pressures me to try something, or to finish something I don’t want, I will excuse myself, take my plate to the other room, and avoid eating with that person for a week.
- If someone makes a comment about my eating, or pressures me to eat, I will make the sad trombone noise.
Then, if the person crosses your boundary, as simply and as automatically as possible, do the behaviour.
If you are absolutely surrounded by pressure, and the people putting on that pressure will not, do not respond to your requests or your boundaries, there is a radical solution to take the pressure off: eat alone for a while. Make a space for yourself in some private room, and decide to give yourself a week or a month to take all your meals alone. Or visit a friend who likes to cook and doesn’t pressure you. Or make plans to go out to eat alone, or with supportive people.
Once you’ve figured out WHY you want to expand your eating repertoire, and created some space for yourself to work on it, then you can begin taking baby steps toward exploring new foods. Which I will talk about next.