Part 3: Offering yourself new foods.

This is the third part of my very long-winded response to a reader question forwarded to me from Mealtime Hostage.

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It didn’t really hit me until I wrote the second post in this series a few days ago, but there’s a huge part of my work that I never blog about: I work with a lot of adult picky eaters who just want to learn to eat more foods. These are people who never learned, as kids, how to eat more than a scant handful of things, and it makes their lives difficult enough that they seek me out.

I love working with picky eaters. I can’t tell you how beautiful it is to watch someone try a food they’ve never tried before, perhaps with some trepidation, but determined to stop feeling afraid. And whether they turn out to like it or not, forever after, that food no longer holds power over them. It just becomes food, not something suspicious and terrifying…even if they never eat it again.

When you’re learning to like new foods, it’s important to observe the Division of Responsibility within yourself. That sounds weird, doesn’t it? But when you consider that, for children, good-enough parenting leads to children who grow into adults with good-enough emotional regulation, interpersonal skills, and self-image, it also makes sense that good-enough feeding by parents will lead to an adult who is good enough at eating.

But because we live in a frankly eating disordered culture, most of our parents probably breached the Division of Responsibility in Feeding at some point. This is not unusual, and most of the time, it isn’t done with malicious intent. (Where there is malice, there is usually abuse happening in other domains as well.) Maybe it was just an occasional lapse, a mild lack of structure and permission, or maybe it was a full-blown assault of constant pressure, restriction, or total neglect. Either way, as an adult, if it affected you enough that you now struggle with food, you’re the one who has to pick up the pieces.

In a sense, you have to provide for yourself what you didn’t get as a child: structured, predictable mealtimes, in a pleasant setting, where a variety of foods — some familiar, some challenging — is at your disposal to pick and choose from. And where no one pressures you (or cajoles…or suggests…or makes innocent commentary…or holds you to a one-bite rule) about what you decide to eat.

If you can provide this to yourself consistently, over time your repertoire will grow.

Eat What You’re Already Eating

To establish a foundation, once you’ve removed external pressure from your eating, you also need to remove some internal pressure. You do this by giving yourself unconditional, unalloyed permission to eat the foods you already know and like. If that means you eat chicken nuggets every day for the next year, well, okay. The important thing is that you’re getting yourself fed, and you’re the one making the decisions. This will preserve your physical survival and your bodily autonomy, both critical tasks.

If you like vending machine snacks, it’s okay to eat them. If you like cereal and toast, it’s okay to eat them. Humans are remarkable omnivores, which means that, yes, while wide variety is preferable for health, people can also live on wildly different, limited diets, and do just fine for long periods of time. Eating only cereal or chicken nuggets or toast or snacks for a while is not the end of the world.

Give yourself permission to eat only the foods that you feel safe with, for now. If you have a truly and extremely limited palate and you’re concerned about nutrient deficiencies, consider taking a supplement (whether it’s a multivitamin or something like Ensure) to cover your bases. Let yourself relax. You’ve got the rest of your life to learn to eat new foods, and you deserve to start from a secure foundation where you feel comfortable.

All of us begin life eating only one thing: breastmilk or formula. From there, we gradually add in more foods, step by step. No one has to do it all at once OR ELSE. As long as you’re eating something, eating is not a dire, life-or-death proposition. You can eat what you’re already eating, and do it with full permission.

Offer Yourself New Foods

To me, offering is the core of learning to eat new foods. Offering means just that. It doesn’t meaning pressing, or pushing, or wheedling. It also doesn’t stop at merely asking yourself whether you theoretically, maybe, might possibly want to try something today (the answer will always be no.) Offering doesn’t stop at just taking a quick glance in the fridge. Offering means putting food on the table, in front of yourself, and then letting it sit there whether you eat it or not.

What’s the point of this, you ask? Exposure. Over time, neutral exposures to things that previously made you feel anxious will take the anxiety away and build new, more positive associations with those things. If you can eat a meal of foods you already know and like, while happily and calmly sitting in the presence of a food you’re not sure about — even if you never touch it or taste it — you will become more relaxed around that food. Eventually you might become curious about it, or exasperated with its presence, and in a fit of pique you might even touch a bit of it to your tongue.

Once you’ve done that, whether you like it or hate it, it is a known quantity. Now you begin to know how to navigate it.

To put offering into practice, you can focus on one new food at a time. Make a list of foods that might be useful to know how to eat, and rank them in order from least-intimidating to most-intimidating. Start on the least-intimidating part of the scale: buy the food, bring it home, and while you’re eating a meal of foods you already like, try putting it on the table in its simplest or least-intimidating form (ask someone else to prepare it for you if that helps, but I often find that doing the prep yourself, even if it’s something as simple as rinsing and cutting a raw vegetable, takes some of the fear and mystery out of it.)

Don’t put it on the plate you’re eating from unless you feel really confident about it. Put it in its own bowl or on a plate, and sit with it while you eat your other food, and notice how it makes you feel. If you get curious about it, approach it, but remember that approach does not necessarily mean “eat.”

You can approach a food without eating it in the following ways:

  1. Simply glance at it while it sits there.
  2. Pick up the plate and look at it more closely.
  3. Poke it with your finger, or move it around with your fork, or cut it in half to see what’s inside.
  4. Sniff the air over the plate.
  5. Put another food or a sauce or salt on it, and look at it or smell it again.
  6. Put a little of it on your eating plate and let it sit there.
  7. Touch your finger to it, and then taste your finger.
  8. Touch a tiny part of the food to your tongue.
  9. Put it in your mouth and take it out again.
  10. Put it in your mouth and chew it a little, then spit it out (napkins are handy for this.)

The only thing I would suggest is not to play with your food. None of the above things are playing, they are exploring or examining. When I say “play,” I mean use the food for some other intended purpose — making it into a tabletop football, or dancing it around like a puppet, or making it talk, etc. You’re trying to develop an association that this is food, meaning it is something to eat, not a toy or a supply for arts and crafts. Once you have a firmly established food association with it, play all you want, but for now, limit yourself to exposure and exploration. Eventually you’ll get bored and actually want to eat it, just to see what all the fuss is about.

You will have to waste some food in this process. I know, no one wants to hear this, but if you want to make an omelet you have to break some eggs. Children tend to be prodigious food-wasters, and for now, you will probably be one too. Take heart, though: the better you get at feeding yourself, the less food waste there will be. In the long run, you will get so good at feeding yourself that you’ll probably waste less food than if you never learned to eat more foods. So give yourself permission to waste food if you need to, for now. (And provide yourself with napkins, for polite spitting-out as needed.)

You Don’t Have to Like It

Offering also means learning to tolerate the presence of food, and maybe learning to manage to deal with that food, whether you ultimately like it or not. In fact, when it comes to expanding your food repertoire, “liking” is almost irrelevant. You cannot make yourself like a food. Liking is a nice side-effect that sometimes happens when you try a new thing, but it comes in its own time, usually with repeated exposures, and sometimes not at all. And that’s okay. It really doesn’t matter much whether you like certain foods, so don’t put that burden on yourself.

You don’t have to like anything. But what is useful is knowing how to navigate a food, how to deal with it if it shows up at a dinner party, or how to eat it if you’re lost in the woods and it’s the only thing around. It’s also useful to learn, through actual experience rather than vague anxiety, which foods are not worth having in your mouth at any cost.

Trying to convince yourself to like a food is coercive and it undermines your autonomy. Sometimes people have very good reasons for disliking a food. For example, I do not like the taste of raw tomatoes — they taste vaguely of poison to me — and, as it also happens, I once had an allergic reaction to a raw tomato. So I don’t have to like them, and I have a good reason not to. On the other hand, I can tolerate eating them if needed, and if I were stuck on a mountaintop with an inexplicable supply of raw tomatoes, I would not starve to death.

That’s what it means to learn how to navigate a food.

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More offers and explorations in comments.

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21 Comments

  1. moseyonby
    Posted August 14, 2015 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    This is all very interesting and I’m sure helpful for those with anxiety about actual specific foods. My situation shares some similarities with it, but also some differences–I’m more anxious about daring to spend money on a food (or ingredients) that I’ve never used before or tasted or liked. If somebody gives me free food, cool! I’m afraid of nothing–if it were free I would try anything with excitement and mischievous curiosity, even something “gross”.

    But to buy ingredients, or a meal I’ve never tasted? That potential waste of money is daunting to me (and that’s an understatement). That’s where my anxiety is–it stops me waaaaaaaaay before the new potential foods even reach the plate upon which these exercises you list could be practiced.

    I have never felt anxious about trying foods if they are free–but I *always* feel anxious and guilty while shopping in the grocery store or at a restaurant. Like, always. (I am at a moment in my financial life in which this worry is somewhat irrational.)

    I’m trying to think how I could edit the above tips you wrote to fit my anxious and picky eating situation. I guess it’s more of a picky *buying* situation, but the effects of what reaches my stomach are the same, I imagine, as for anxious eaters.

    Perhaps I could take a trip to the grocery store WITHOUT the pressure to buy interesting groceries. Instead I could get my staples, then wander around for another 20 minutes or so exploring different aisles and noticing different products. If I did that a few times I am sure that my curiosity would get the better of me and my anxiety about wastage… Or at least I hope so!

    Do you think picky eating and picky buying have similar ways of working past these issues?

    • Posted August 14, 2015 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

      I do think that would be a worthwhile experiment. I have spoken with some of my clients about permission in the grocery store – a lot of people experience the anxiety you describe with shopping. It’s probably something I should write about but, in short, yes, I think giving yourself permission to stock up on your already-preferred foods at the grocery store, and then to let yourself explore without pressure is a good way to start.

      • moseyonby
        Posted August 14, 2015 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

        Thanks for the response! My apologies if I derailed–but thank you!

        • Posted August 15, 2015 at 8:24 am | Permalink

          Not at all! That’s what comments are for.

    • Nof
      Posted August 14, 2015 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

      Would getting things that are on sale help?

      I get irrational anxieties about money too, but I’ve noticed if something is on sale or I have a coupon, that anxiety is lessened.

      • moseyonby
        Posted August 14, 2015 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

        That’s true, that might help, as long as I do some more careful budgeting at the same time, too. Thanks!

    • rydra_wong
      Posted August 14, 2015 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

      Just a thought, but might it be any use to budget a small amount of money specifically for food experiments, separate from your normal meal planning?

      Then you can set that budget at a level where you’re confident you can spare it, and at which the anxiety is manageable, wherever that is for you right now.

      And if the point of that expenditure is to experiment, then it’s not wasted. If you try a new food and find out that you loathe it and never want to try it again, that’s actually a successful experiment — you’ve acquired new information about what you do and don’t like.

      • moseyonby
        Posted August 14, 2015 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

        Good idea! I will try this.

    • Camilla
      Posted August 15, 2015 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

      Perhaps not a widely applicable solution, but I buy a farm share for choice reduction. I can figure out what to do with the vegetables if they arrive pre-paid, but I’m likely to turn to only a few specific things (or decide that nothing looks good) if I have too many choices in the store. It did take me several years to learn how to deal with the farm share smoothly (I was willing to eat most of the vegetables once prepared, but some things just rot on me if I put them in the fridge unprocessed).

    • Camilla
      Posted August 15, 2015 at 9:44 pm | Permalink

      An idea that comes to mind might be to resolve to buy an item per trip for the food bank, but to let it sit in your kitchen for a week or two before taking it there.

  2. Posted August 14, 2015 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

    A lot of my anxieties around new foods are linked to not knowing what’s in them. I love how working with Michelle through this stuff led me to discover that if I prepare/cook a new food myself then I’m much more comfortable about trying the pre-prepared or commercial versions of it. I expanded my eating into many new things by cooking them myself this way!

    • Posted August 18, 2015 at 12:09 am | Permalink

      What a great observation! I have had this experience too, particularly with salad dressings and not knowing what’s in them. Now I make my own, usually with only lemon or lime juice, olive oil, honey, and salt & pepper. And I’m less suspicious of mystery-dressings that appear all by their own on my food at cafes.

      But sometimes it goes the other way with me as well. In isolation, I am kind of freaked out by fish sauce, but I don’t mind eating it in Thai food at all, if someone else has prepared it, because it all mooshes together to create the singular meal that I enjoy.

  3. Nebet
    Posted August 16, 2015 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    Not directly applicable to me, but I am curious as I have a number of friends in this situation: what about difficulties tolerating certain textures or flavors (as in, immediate emetic response) resulting in a very short list of tolerable foods?

    If (if!) that is something one wants to change, is there a way to go about this? (I have seen resources — e.g. Dr. Rowell’s book on extreme picky eating — talking about working with infants and children, but haven’t been able to find much for adults.)

    • Posted August 17, 2015 at 8:21 am | Permalink

      This is an issue that I haven’t dealt much with (the immediate emetic response), but my guess is that 1) supporting oneself with permission to only eat preferred foods, and removing pressure and 2) gradually exposing oneself to the food in question in different ways (depending on the baseline tolerance, it could be a series of steps from having it on the table, smelling it, touching it with fingers to get familiar with the texture, brushing it across the lips but not tasting, etc.) may help build new, more positive associations with the food. I think the trick would be to keep the level of exposure just below actual gagging/emesis, and that possibly the level of tolerance would increase with time.

      BUT, I would first suggest seeing a doctor and maybe working with an SLP (speech language pathologist) for really severe issues like this, to rule out other underlying problems. There might be more going on physically or neurologically than just a negative association with the food, and that would be worth addressing at the root. There could be a swallowing reflex issue, or more. If that’s the case, then simple exposure might not resolve the issue and could possibly just further reinforce any negative associations. But if the bulk of the issue really is anxiety related to negative past experiences with the food, then exposure (in a supportive, safe environment, without pressure) is the key.

  4. TeslasLightning
    Posted August 17, 2015 at 10:28 pm | Permalink

    This series of blog entries has really spoken to me! I’m a fairly picky/plain eater: I like a wide variety of things, but I prefer if they don’t touch and cooked fruit/veg were right out. Sauces in particular used to be really hard for me, and don’t get me started on soup!

    About five years ago, I decided I wanted to expand my palate, mostly to see if I could. I pre-plan all my meals for the week for nutrition, cooking, and shopping ease, and so started to have at least one of them be based on something I historically have been iffy on. This could be a new sauce, a soup, a cooked vegetable, etc. I didn’t have to get or eat a lot of it, I had all week to eat it, and I got a treat once I did (usually chocolate or cheese). If I veto something once, I also try to revisit it a few months later, as sometimes it’s just a matter of getting used to the texture/taste (such as ramen noodles).

    I think the me from even five years ago would be astounded by the number of food items I’ll eat/cook/mix together now! I haven’t liked all of them (still not a fan of guacamole), but my palate has expanded tremendously, and made it /much/ easier to eat at friends’ houses! Serving soup? I’ll try it! Cooked a random vegetable? I’ll try it. Dips….well, we’ll see. If there’s no beans it it.

    Anyway, I guess the point of this rambling story is I wanted to share my own experiences, and thank you @Michelle for creating this food-positive blog!

  5. Posted August 18, 2015 at 12:05 am | Permalink

    I love this. So exquisitely gentle. Soft. I have always had a narrow-ish range of foods that I was comfortable eating, and have been made to feel – from time to time – ostracized or as if I were childish for my avoiding of certain foods. But to me, maturity is more about letting people make their own food choices, and investing in understanding, than pretending to have a certain palate so that others may be more comfortable with your conformity.

    I especially love the acknowledgement: “you cannot make yourself like a food”. History has taught me too, that other people sure as hell can’t make me like a food, but I have also in the past been able to become friends with things I don’t necessarily “like”.

    I didn’t realize, as you mentioned in the first paragraph, that so much of your work was done in this way. But of course it is! Thank you.

    • Posted August 18, 2015 at 6:33 am | Permalink

      Yes, you can definitely over time become friends with food you didn’t previously like. That’s the wonderful thing about palates – they change.

      I was a really picky eater for a good portion of my life, until my mid-20s or thereabouts. Immigrating to a new country, and then moving to the biggest city in it, which happens to be one of the most multicultural cities in the world and very restaurant-dense, exposed me to entirely new foods. Over time I started liking just about anything. But I definitely didn’t pressure myself, and no one around me pressured me, which was key.

      • Posted August 18, 2015 at 8:08 am | Permalink

        Melbourne is both large and multicultural, so you can get your hands on food stuffs and cuisines of… multi cultures. I remember certain times, being introduced to new foods that I had not previously enjoyed, and being pleasantly surprised. The experiences that ended well were certainly manipulation- and pressure-free.

  6. Posted August 27, 2015 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    I taught myself to eat cooked vegetables when I was about 30 because I wanted to set the example of eating veggies to my kids.

    My kids aren’t really picky eaters, but holy moley, I was as a child. I would only eat raw veggies (Mom didn’t flip out too much, but we did eat a lot of salads).

    When I was about 17, though, I had this revelation about foods I didn’t like or was edgy about trying. I’d tried a dish I had hitherto been dubious of (fried rice, don’t laugh at me!) and it turned out I loved it.

    So I made it a habit just to try foods every now and then, and even re-try foods I dislike every decade or so (except bananas, ’cause they’re flipping evil!).

    I pretty much eat anything now. (Umm, sushi!)

    So I guess the takeaway here is that I think your methods are good. Offer yourself, but no pressure.

  7. Emily
    Posted September 14, 2015 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    I have been offering myself ‘new foods’ this year as part of recuperating from medication that made eating hurt.

    Your insights have been helpful in transitioning from macaroni & cheese to a more diverse diet.

    Little steps, like adding olives to the Mac & Cheese, have added up. These ‘new foods’ are foods I used to like but became wary of because eating/digestion hurt so much for so long.

    Another approach you suggested — working up to including three or more food groups in each meal — has also been helpful to me.

    It’s been a slow process. Variations on a theme of bread and cheese are still a fallback.

    Today I think about which vegetables to include when cooking legumes, and which grain I’d like to pair with that dish. Variety on those three dimensions makes food more appealing and more nutritious.

    You encourage people to pay attention to the effect of different foods on how one feels.

    Cautious breakfast experiments have helped me identify the kinds of foods that help me feel good as the day begins.

    My guts still hurt but they hurt less as time goes by.

    Constructive, actionable insights into food and eating are helping me move beyond this medication induced fear of food.

    Thank you.

    • Posted September 15, 2015 at 7:54 am | Permalink

      That makes me so happy, Emily. I hope things just keep getting better as your gut heals and gets used to more variety.

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