Partner is a foodie, I’m a picky eater. Fights ensue.

Here’s another question from readers of Mealtime Hostage.

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My significant other is a foodie, and I’m a picky eater. I’m tired of hearing how terrible my diet is and being asked to try new foods. We just had a big fight about my eating, and I feel so disconnected and hurt.

Listen up, foodies.

I know you want to share your love of food with your loved ones — hell, with the whole world. That is a nice impulse, truly. But this is not an issue of food so much as it is one of relationships.

This is about bodily agency and consent.

In many relationships, one partner sees themselves as the Great Offerer of Experiences, Ideas, and Tastes, and sees the other as an empty vessel into which they pour their Experiences, Ideas, and Tastes. It can happen with music, film, travel, sex, and of course, food. This is a teacher-student dynamic, or a parent-child dynamic, or a mentor-mentee dynamic.

This dynamic has its place, but it is not a shared-love-between-equals dynamic.

So, what kind of relationship are you in, and what kind do you want to be in? Do you want your partner to be your student or your equal?

Have you received informed consent from your partner to assess their diet? Doesn’t sound like it. They’re doing their best to fulfill a bodily function that is physiologically controlled. Judging their eating is tantamount to following them into the toilet and holding up a scorecard. It’s creepy and gross.

People have to come around to food in their own time. If they aren’t allowed to, if they are pressured or forced or coerced into trying something that they find intimidating, there is a very good chance they will not suddenly love that food, will not have the Foodie Switch in their brain flipped to the On position.

More likely, they will associate more anxiety with that food, not less, and it will probably taint the memory of the delicious thing you were hoping they’d enjoy.

So what do you do instead? I’m going to sound like a broken record, but: follow a Division of Responsibility.

Not the one for parents and children. The one that exists between adults.

As an adult, you are responsible for your own eating. The other adult is responsible for what, when, where, how much, and whether they eat. You can negotiate certain things — where and when are sometimes necessary to coordinate, and if you’re deciding on a restaurant or a recipe, some negotiation around what will also be useful. But you need to remember that any negotiations around what end at offering. Not ingestion.

What this means is, you can both decide on a place to eat, or a recipe to try, and you can put the food on the table and both sit down.

After that? You must chill.

No one has to put anything in their mouth or their stomach that they don’t want. To insist that they do is a serious boundary violation, and a breach of their bodily agency. There is a spectrum of not-okayness that starts with coaxing, wheedling, and pressuring someone to try something they don’t want, and ends with force-feeding. Don’t be that guy.

People are funny about putting things in their bodies, because it’s inherently risky. It’s moving an outside object across the boundary between not-me and me, and there is a certain vulnerability attached to that. People are afraid of contamination, of squicky textures, of unknown ingredients, of possible downstream side-effects, and for good reason: we evolved to have this hesitancy around food because certain things are not good for us to eat. This is an inborn trait attached to survival, and you’re not going to get around it with pressure and prodding. If anything, you’re going to make it worse.

So shut up. Put the food on the table, throw on some bread and butter or rice as a back-up dish, sit down and eat. Talk with your partner about your day, about that funny movie you want to watch, about dogs you saw on the way home, and leave food entirely out of it. In fact, let’s set a rule right now: don’t talk about food at all unless your partner brings it up. Enjoy yourself and keep your eyes on your own plate.

If you make eating with you a pleasant experience, your partner will want to continue to do it. Over time, with lots of experience sitting at the table with intimidating foods, those foods will become less intimidating — as long as you don’t say anything — and your partner may actually branch out to try some on their own. They might not like it, which is okay, because it can take several exposures or tries before something is liked enough to be incorporated into the eating repertoire.

Just…shut up. Eat your food. Count your lucky stars that you enjoy it, and lay off everyone else.

Since you’ve already managed to hurt your partner, I’m going to tell you the formula for when you mess up: first apologize sincerely, and then do something to make amends. Go say you’re sorry, and bring home a nice little notebook or a plant or a favourite chocolate bar for them, or cook them a meal they really enjoy (and shut up.)

Here’s where I will address the picky eater: you don’t have to eat anything you don’t want. All you need to do is show up at the agreed-upon time and place, and don’t make faces or say anything about how gross the food looks or smells. That’s it. Sit at the table, pick at the bread and butter if you want, and if you don’t end up eating anything during the meal, go get yourself a bowl of cereal afterward and eat it in blessed peace.

P.S. There is nothing wrong with you.

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All of the bodily agency in comments.

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