Part 2: How can I eat healthy foods if I’m a picky eater?

Yesterday, I covered the weight-related and healthy-eating related parts of a reader question from Mealtime Hostage. Today I’m going to address the possible picky eating aspects.

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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.

Motivation

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.

Removing Pressure

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.”

Setting Boundaries

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.

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Tales of picky eating in comments.

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23 Comments

  1. Alyssa
    Posted August 11, 2015 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    I really appreciate how you consistently remind us that how we eat, what we eat, and when we eat are not barometers of our worthiness.
    This is contrary to most of the messaging I receive and it’s something i need to be reminded of regularly. It wasn’t until I started reading your website that I took this message to heart and started reminding myself of it on a regular basis.
    Thank you for helping to decrease my anxiety around food and social situations that involve food!

  2. Elizabeth
    Posted August 11, 2015 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    How does the DEAR MAN technique work when the person commenting/asking about your eating is your doctor? They probably won’t comment while in the middle of a meal with you, but will inquire into what and how you eat in the course of a physical. Do you recommend just not answering at all? Telling them that you are happy with how you’re eating now? Promises to improve that you know are lies? I for one find the whole shame thing much intensified when talking to a doctor as compared to almost anyone else.

    • Posted August 11, 2015 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

      You can choose not to answer if you don’t trust your doctor to take the information and deal with it sensitively. But I would seriously consider finding a doctor I trusted more if that were the case for me. Asking about your diet can be very relevant to a physical, it’s just unfortunate that sometimes it devolves into a lecture, and sometimes not a very well-informed one if the doctor is not trained in nutrition, or has poor counseling skills.

  3. Bodhisvaha
    Posted August 11, 2015 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    Pickiness can be a result of external forces. Until I was in my early twenties, I was a very, very picky eater. I grew up in an emotionally abusive home where there was tremendous pressure to do what I was told. Food was one of the only areas that I was allowed any control, but it was still heavily policed. If I tried a new food and my parents saw or heard, I would be pushed to eat it regularly even if I hated it. That made me very, very picky.

    This started changing once my highschool boyfriend’s family (6-12 people depending on the event) started inviting me to dim sum. For the first time it was *safe* to try things. All the dishes were just a bite or two. I could choose exactly what went on my plate, instead an authority loading it for me. Finally, nobody was watching what I ate or didn’t. Nobody was watching anyone! Both the atmosphere and the food were revelations.

    The key for me was feeling safe trying a new food. Often that meant just one bite, or that it was similar to something known and liked. Later it meant that we’d order several dishes, some experimental, some familiar. It definitely meant not being watched and judged! I got more confident and adventurous as I kept trying new foods, and most of them were yummy or at least tolerable. I still have preferences, both in general and for specific meals, but by now my horizons have enlarged so much that nobody realizes I was/am a picky eater, unless I tell them. It’s a lot less work to maintain boundaries about food this way too.

    It turned out, when I got to explore food on my own terms, that I LOVE variety in cuisine and ingredients. My childhood diet was so very, very dull and food-as-fuel that tasty=sweet, and so all cravings for tasty food were read as cravings for sweets. It was like being colourblind! My tasty-food cravings have gotten much more diverse and healthier: I’ll crave savoury dishes (even vegetables) followed by the delicious contrast of dessert.

    • Posted August 11, 2015 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

      YES, picky eating often is related to the dynamics in the family and at meals, thank you. I’m so glad you found a supportive way to try new foods. I’m going to write about that process a bit next.

  4. Erica
    Posted August 11, 2015 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    This is such a perceptive and sensitive post! It really holds a lot of advice for anyone struggling with food choices, picky or not.

    I saw once on a TV show that a picky eater was diagnosed with OCD – he liked things of a certain taste and texture because it allowed him to maintain control. Sometimes with my own daughter (who is 9 and very picky) I believe her pickiness may be at least in part to sensory issues — she is sensitive to texture in not just food, but clothing, surfaces she walks on, and things that go on her skin (like lotion).

    For either and any case, I really like your approach and agree that anything that removes pressure and keeps the eater from feeling like he/she is a bad person is fantastic — sometimes really hard for parents — but fantastic.

    • Posted August 11, 2015 at 9:41 pm | Permalink

      Texture can be a big, big issue for people. And thank you!

  5. moseyonby
    Posted August 12, 2015 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    Wow–only after reading this article do I realize that I am kind of a picky eater! For me, pickiness comes in my distrust of new and different foods, and in my inability to branch out at favorite restaurants away from my tried-and-true plates. I’m “picky” insofar as I have a tiny repertoire of foods to eat–I have, for example, NO IDEA what kinds of vegetables I might like.

    As much as I enjoy the simple, plain, tried-and-true staples of my diet, it really does get boring, and I know it’s not bad but also not very nutritious.

    In the second paragraph under “Motivation” you ask, “How would your life be better?” in terms of broadening repertoire of foods you like. I’m thinking, at a basic level, it could be sort of adventurous and fun!

    I often think of people who have great palates and like a lot of foods as adventuresome and daring people. I would love to think of myself that way, and food would be a nice metaphor, bridge, and literal way of expressing that side of me.

    In small doses, though… lol. I am, after all, still a bit picky and stubborn with the stuff.

    So excited about your next post! Every post of yours I read, I learn something new about myself and about human nature and culture. It’s wonderful!

  6. Maura
    Posted August 12, 2015 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    Thank you so much for this sensitive post. Being a picky eater, still, in my 40’s, is very difficult. I am extremely motivated to add more healthy options to my palette, not least of all because I now have a child and I want him to have more options. But new foods terrify me and frankly they generally just taste awful, like punishment and anxiety and yuck all represented in this tangible thing in my mouth. I would LOVE to enjoy new foods.

    Like PP’s above, my most successful attempts to add new foods to my diet have come in climates of complete safety. My childhood home was full of chaos and yelling and violence. Food was comfort and predictability, so generally I only enjoy foods that I “trust” through familiarity. Complicating this is I have a deadly peanut allergy as well as allergies to shellfish, lots of other nuts, many fruits, and who knows what else in the legume family.

    My most successful new food acquisitions have come when I can make a safe connection from one trusted food to another. Like, my college roommate, who never pressured or shamed me, once observed, “Hey, you might actually like kidney beans. They’re basically like teeny tiny baked potatoes once you open them up.” And sure enough the white fluffy stuff inside WAS potatoey and familiar and awesome.

    But I can’t find bridges to most new foods. And yet I try. I so, so desperately want to add more fermented foods to my diet for the probiotic benefits — kefir or plain yogurt to start maybe. But, wow, they taste AWFUL to me. How can I get myself to LIKE the taste of new things? Or how do I tell myself that food doesn’t have to be enjoyable or safe – sometimes I ought to do something that’s good for me even if it doesn’t taste good at the time?

    I’m eager for your next installment!

    • Bodhisvaha
      Posted August 14, 2015 at 11:45 am | Permalink

      I also did not like yogurt but wanted to. Full-fat lemon yogurt was a good bridge. Because it was lemon, it was supposed to be sharp and sour — the flavours I was having trouble with in yogurt but was okay with in lemony things. Full-fat and Greek yogurts have much better texture — they feel rich and creamy, instead of slimy or gluey. (Full-fat: at least 5% and up to 10%) Treat yourself to something luxurious on your next experiment. Gradually I branched out from there, though I still don’t like plain yogurt, and I won’t eat low-fat yogurt with fillers.

      • Mich
        Posted August 16, 2015 at 2:59 am | Permalink

        I was forced to find a new yoghurt as chip dip since the brand I was using changed it’s whole product line. It was a 13% Greek yoghurt, but after the change it is now just 2%. I have found that a plain jane yoghurt (I use 2% since that is the only lactose free one that the store offers) plus full fat sour cream (14%) makes a nice thick-ish chip dip, and you can add any seasoning, or leave it plain. So far it works good on ketchup and sour cream & onion chips, as well as plain.

      • Posted August 22, 2015 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

        I like to use full-fat yogurt mixed with fresh or (thawed) frozen fruit (often mixed with chia seeds, especially if I’m using non-Greek yogurt). Like you, I’m not a big fan of the pre-mixed lowfat yogurts.

        Nonfat yogurt is an abomination.

    • Amy J.
      Posted August 26, 2015 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

      So, I don’t consider myself a picky eater, but I am not adventurous (in general, not just when it comes to new food!) and when I try something for the first time, I almost always dislike it. One bite, wait a minute. Second bite, wait another minute. Third bite. Fourth bite. By the time I get to bite 12, something that I thought was weird or gross often seems… kind of good. (Not always, and that’s okay, too.) It’s a big commitment, to try 12 or 15 or 20 bites before making a decision. And it doesn’t have to be “well, I *have* to try 15 bites even if I hate the first 3.” It could be, like, a scientific experiment. “What is bite 8 like, compared to bite 1?” If things don’t start improving as time goes on… just stop. You can stop whenever you need to. It’s not a law or anything. If the texture or whatever is just HORRIFIC, stop after one bite. If it’s a day when you’re just not feeling it, take a pass. But all of this is just a suggestion, so shake it off if it’s not the right suggestion for you. :-)

  7. Posted August 13, 2015 at 2:29 am | Permalink

    I love your usage of the sad trombone noise. And also your approach to boundaries.

  8. Posted August 14, 2015 at 3:15 am | Permalink

    I encourage my nephew and my niece (9 and 8 years old, respectively) to try each new food they don’t know – under one condition: If they don’t like it, they can disgorge it immediately without any comment from me, they don’t need to swallow it or eat more of it. But I want them to at least give it a try. – Is this ok from me?

    • Posted August 14, 2015 at 9:42 am | Permalink

      I think this can work. Key question: does it seem to be working for them?

      • Posted August 24, 2015 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

        If I may chime in here: it certainly worked for me and my siblings many years ago. We do have our preferences: for example, my sister does not touch cheese, my brother hates raisins and I want to throw up if someone next to me eats fried eggs and/or spinach, but apart from that we all became adventurous eaters, which makes life much easier, especially when you are travelling or living abroad. (But I must admit that I my stomach will tolerate anything, it might be different if you have health issues in that area).

  9. April
    Posted September 3, 2015 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    I’ve always been a picky eater, and as I grow older (29 at the moment) I notice it more and more because I continue to eat unhealthy. Even when I do spring for a boring salad (because I don’t usually like anything else in it besides lettuce!), it’s a one-time deal. The rest of the lettuce goes to waste.
    I was on an awful, anti-carb/anti-calorie diet years ago where if I didn’t particularly like something, I’d just rather not eat anything at all. Like carrots. They’re alright I suppose, but I’m not really into them for a snack or any other vegetables and most fruits. And when I tell myself these healthy things are what I’m “allowed” to have for a snack, I’d just as soon as eat nothing than eat something I don’t honestly want or crave. It’s frustrating because it’s either eat something I don’t want OR go hungry, and on that diet more often than not I’d rather just not eat anything than sacrifice the calories (even good calories) than eat something just to fill my stomach. It’s annoying how after years of throwing off that diet, I still have this problem. I buy fruits and vegetables with good intentions and most of them go to waste because I don’t want them, and half the time I eat nothing or something unhealthy instead. I have to be really “in the mood” for a fruit or vegetable, and even then it’s short-lived like the salad. I wish I enjoyed healthy foods but it doesn’t seem to change my opinion of them no matter how I fix them!

    • Posted September 4, 2015 at 6:07 am | Permalink

      What you describe is what I sometimes call “aspirational shopping.” It’s when people go to the store and buy fruits and veggies with the best of intentions…and then they sit in the fridge and rot. Then they feel bad about the food going to waste. This can also happen with a CSA box if you’re not really good at using it up/cooking/planning.

      When people get stuck in this cycle, sometimes I suggest they not buy those foods at all for a while. Take a break from that. Nothing terrible is going to happen, except you’ll have less food rotting in your refrigerator.

      I find that salads I get from a restaurant often taste better than ones made at home (though I have, with enough practice, learned to like my own salads at home too.) I also really like canned vegetable soup, which I know makes me An Unclassy Eater, but who cares. Sometimes I cannot countenance the idea of another raw vegetable on my plate — we all go through food phases where we like something for a while, and then suddenly we go off it — so I find other ways of getting them, if those ways exist. Like soup, green peppers on my pizza, frozen vegetables (particularly good roasted or sauteed with garlic), applesauce.

      I think the awareness that there are fresh vegetables about to go bad in the fridge is a source of pressure. It might be a useful experiment to remove that pressure and see what happens.

  10. Patrick Wood
    Posted September 9, 2015 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

    I’m a 46 year old man & have been overweight and/or chubby my entire life.

    I have been ridiculed, picked on and embarrassed more times than I could ever list here. My paternal Granddad hurt me the worst on my wedding day by telling me how fat I looked after the ceremony. He has been gone over ten years now and his fat shaming still haunts me. He made unsolicited comments about my weight my entire life.

    Thank you for your website! I have lost and regained weight for years, but thanks to this website I think I’m done with that approach. I am no longer going to let anyone devalue me over my weight.

    • Posted September 10, 2015 at 6:57 am | Permalink

      So nice to hear, Patrick! You definitely don’t deserve to be devalued for your weight, by anyone. Best of luck.

  11. Robin
    Posted December 8, 2015 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    For me, being a picky eater was always synonymous with what they call being a super taster. It’s not that I am afraid to try new foods. It’s just that certain foods that don’t bother other people taste bad to me. In some ways that can be good for my health. It’s also largely because of the shitty things they feed kids. For example, I always thought I hated cheese as a child–but really I just hated that horrible American cheese I still can’t stand. I always thought I hated peanut butter–but really I just hated that garbage fake peanut butter with the sugar & hydrogenated oil added to stretch the peanuts. So, yes, as an adult, I do eat a wider variety of foods than I did as a kid, but it’s mostly because I have more control over the quality of food choices open to me. ( Yes, I am fat. I gained most of the weight & got gas & diarrhea as well when corporations started adding piles of HFCS to everything from tomato sauce to terriyaki sauce to meatloaf. Took 30 years to figure it out because HFCS is or was in practically everything. Now they’re trying to hide it by changing the name.)

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