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

Here’s another question from readers of Mealtime Hostage.


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.


All of the bodily agency in comments.







29 responses to “Partner is a foodie, I’m a picky eater. Fights ensue.”

  1. naath Avatar

    Additionally I’d advise that all-round happiness may be increased if foodie-partner sometimes goes with foodie-friends to experience the Great New Foodie Experience provided by the Great New Place that just opened up and *not* with their non-foodie partner. Arguments about “why won’t you just eat the … ” might be based in the partner just being a douche about their eating habits; or they might be based in frustration that partner never gets to eat the … (and being a douche about it, clearly, that kind of food-scrutiny is never OK)

    1. Barbara Avatar

      Warning: completely unsolicited opinion ahead.

      I agree. I think that people who are very enthusiastic about something can sometimes not realize that their desire to share this thing can be intrusive to the people around them who don’t like X as much as they do. I know that I’m guilty of it with a couple of things, and I’ve had to make a concerted effort to back off when people tell me they don’t like something that I’m really into.

      I would hope that if the foodie partner were to make an effort to regularly have an outlet for either going out to eat, or cooking new and unusual things with other foodie friends, it might take some of the pressure off. I think it’s also important that the picky partner not get judgmental about what the foodie partner is eating. I personally have some very picky aspects (I’m really weird about what kinds of meat I’ll eat), and some more adventurous aspects (I’ve rarely met a vegetable I didn’t like). I have to restrain myself from not making some kind of disgusted comment if someone I’m eating with wants to eat offal, but I also get annoyed if a dining partner makes a derisive comment about me eating broccoli or something.

      TL;DR Live and let live in both directions is critical.

  2. Pixel Avatar

    I respectfully disagree. Sometimes there is no hidden agenda of control, condescending or making light of your partner’s food choices but simply wishing they enjoyed something you find enjoyable. Partner is a whiskey aficionado. I can’t drink the stuff. He offered/urged me to try it, I figured I find the stuff intolerable, and that’s that. He enjoys his whiskey and fancy brandy adventures with other people. All is good, but we are still missing out on a shared experience. Luckily we have enough other shared experiences and lots of common ground outside of whiskey. Of course, the first rule of any relationship should be “you should not be a jerk”.

    1. notemily Avatar

      There doesn’t have to be a hidden agenda for it to be harmful and a violation of bodily autonomy.

  3. Janet Avatar

    I really like this answer – both from the perspective of a “picky” eater (so called because I had different dislikes from my father)….and from the perspective of a mom with 2 kids who’ve been to feeding therapy over their eating challenges. In many ways, therapy made things worse for them, not better, because it made eating into not just a disliked activity, but an activity they associated with anxiety, stress, and being forced to try things.

    These days they do ok – there’s always at least one thing served that they will eat, even if it is just dry cereal. The rest, we don’t bother with too much; they eat it or they don’t, but everyone else eats, and we try to make it a pleasant family experience rather than being about them eating every last thing we offer. Over time, their tastes have expanded, and that’s something they never got out of therapy.

  4. Rabbi Ruth Adar Avatar

    Love your answer. I am a reformed food cop / foodie, I confess. I nearly destroyed my marriage with that behavior.

    We have many shared enthusiasms, but brussels sprouts seared in butter and sprinkled with parmesan isn’t one of them. I finally grokked that fact. We both love food, just not all the same foods.

    My behavior was driven by my own internalized anxieties about food. I suggest to the foodies that they might benefit from my experience. It was really helpful to dig down into those so-called altruistic motives I had for wanting to control what my partner ate. What was down there was hurting both of us, but since it was my baggage, I had the responsibility of dealing with it.

    Our lives have been better ever since. We’re now together almost 30 years.

  5. glg Avatar

    I know you mention this at the end, but I think it does bear repeating: how the picky eater talks about food is really important as well. If every food that they won’t eat, particularly foods from cultures and ethnicities not their own, is “gross” and “smells bad” and “looks disgusting” then that’s not just an issue of bodily agency for the picky eater, that’s an issue of bodily agency for the adventuresome eater and an issue of respect — for other people and for other food traditions. Food policing can go both ways. If the adventuresome eater feels like they are being judged each meal for wanting to eat certain foods then it’s not an issue that’s only on how they treat the picky eater; it’s an issue on how they treat each other.

    I say this partially as someone who is an adventuresome eater, but who is very self-conscious when people comment on what I’m eating. It happens all. the. time. that someone will take it upon themselves to tell me whether or not they think what I’m eating looks fit for human consumption. (As in: every single day at work.) If you think what I’m eating is gross, I don’t need you to tell me at length why you think that and why you would never eat what I’m eating. Even if what you think I’m eating looks good, I still don’t need your approval to eat it. (And I take care not to bring in foods that are too “smelly” to the office.)

    I also say this because I’ve run across numerous people writing about food from racial, ethnic, and culture perspectives. Posts like this: and this: talk about how foods from various cultures are often dismissed and derided in racially charged and very damaging ways. If a person likes to talk about how “Chinese food is gross” or “Indian food smells bad” then that’s not just them being a picky eater; that’s them repeating some pretty ugly stereotypes. Not liking a food is fine, but expressing that dislike in offensive ways is not cool.

    I have no idea if the person who wrote in does this and certainly foodies do this as well (ex. “I would NEVER eat at McDonalds, that’s disgusting!” “How could you possibly eat Cool-Whip, I only make my own whipping cream”, etc). And I’m not guilt-free — I’ve caught myself biting back knee-jerk reactions to foods that I dislike. But we’re only hearing from one side here and I’ve had enough picky eaters tell me why what I’m eating is disgusting that I have to mention it. Don’t yuck someone’s yum! Just because one person is picky and the other is not doesn’t mean that judgement and controlling behavior can’t go both ways.

    1. Ani Avatar

      Hear hear! I want to send this article to my brother and his girlfriend, but I haven’t been asked to do so and it would just be inflammatory to do so. But they seriously feed (har) each other’s nastiness. He wouldn’t be so pushy if she wasn’t so vocally disgusted by everything he cooks. She wouldn’t be so vocally disgusted if she wasn’t pre-empting an “You should eat this” from him.

  6. trippmadam Avatar

    Thank you. This is food for thought. I hope I never was such a jerk, but still…

    I can and will eat anything offered to me. I love to try new things. I can get very enthusiastic about a new restaurant or new food and try to convince everybody else to at least try it once. In those moments I tend to forget that not everybody has my tolerance for all kinds of food.

  7. Sonata Avatar

    Protip: If you pressure someone about eating foods they don’t like and trying new things? If you make it a big deal? You make it way too big of a deal for them to risk trying something (for the first time, or again) and (still) not liking it.

    There’s a reason that the circle of things I ate only ever got smaller when I lived with my father, who made a huge Thing of how picky I was. And why I’m trying new things and am eating more different things than I ever have before now that I don’t live with my parents and instead live with my best friend, who lets my food choices just exist and doesn’t treat me like a lesser person if I make different ones than he does.

    Picky eater, there’s nothing wrong with you. You have the right to only eat things you like. Your partner isn’t doing anything loving by trying to force you to be a foodie like they are. They may think they’re just trying to share something with you and somehow make it so you’re happier – they probably rationalize that you’ll be so much happier if you can just eat everything! And it doesn’t matter if that’s true or not, or what their intentions are. Because the message that they’re sending to you, intentional or not, is that you aren’t good enough for them like you are, and that they’ll only respect the choices of someone who makes choices they approve of. Which isn’t really respect at all. And that really isn’t okay.

    My ex-fiance disapproved of what I ate and didn’t eat, too. It was tied to a lot of other controlling behavior.

    I’m very sorry, but if your partner is not willing to drop this now and forever, 100% – no constant ‘oh it’s just so hard for me to remember to respect your bodily autonomy, it’s your responsibility to remind me to be a decent person or else it’s not my fault when I forget’ – your relationship is toxic. And that sucks.

    Your feelings of hurt are valid and make complete sense. Your partner is choosing to hurt you. :(

    1. Sonata Avatar

      To clarify and reiterate my last statement: If something hurts you, and someone knows that it hurts you, but they choose to keep doing it, they are choosing to hurt you.

      1. Donna Avatar

        Keen observations Sonata…nodding in recognition throughout your two comments…especially when you address food judgements by a significant other as enmeshed with or “tied to a lot of other controlling behavior.

        I am currently experiencing an increasingly loud, insistent “wake-up” call to belittled personal choices and toxicity in the midst.

        Thank you Michelle for this fine, important article and thank you Sonata for your wise words.

  8. notemily Avatar

    Thank you for writing this.

  9. Mich Avatar

    My dad is a reverse foodie. He will only endorse foods that are traditional hamburger fare, or that he heard from a friend. If I talk about it, it’s junk food. Ergo, gluten free is out since “it’s just poison”, but loads of onions are in since someone in a magazine recently said they had super healing properties. Or something.

    So he’s trying to get everyone else to eat 10 onions a day.

  10. Nat Avatar

    Agreed. Don’t try to coerce people to do stuff.

    When I first met my partner he was a very particular eater, and his parents and at least one previous partner had done everything verbally possible to get him to try various things. Funnily enough, he wasn’t too interested in expanding his palette and was really defensive about his food choices because it had been made into such a Big Deal.

    A few years of not being hassled/judged/talked-down-to seem to have done him a world of good and he is actually pretty open to/enthusiastic about trying most new things now, but he deserved/deserves to have his choices respected regardless, and so does everyone else.

  11. Naomi Jones Avatar
    Naomi Jones

    I have Crohn’s disease and have had it for 15 years but was just diagnosed this year. Do you have any advice for how I can tactfully respond to those who advise me to adopt [whatever new fad diet is going around] so that I can “heal my gut”?

    I have learned that I cannot eat too many tomatoes, onions or garlic. And I absolutely cannot have even one bite of spicy peppers. But that is just me. Not my family. Nor someone else who has Crohn’s.

    I have found that those advising me to drastically change my diet so that I can get off my life saving meds are very skeptical about doctor’s knowledge and medicine in general. They encourage me to take my health into my own hands, which is great, but that means I have to assume to my doctor is out to get me and/or make lots of money off of me by pushing pharmaceuticals. Thoughts? Advice?

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Hi! Sorry to hear you’re feeling some pressure from people around you. I believe you and your doctor know best about your condition, and it’s pretty inappropriate for people to be offering what are basically patent medicines and folk remedies unsolicited, even if well-intended.

      I think this can be a case for setting boundaries – you can see my previous article on this (in regard to picky eating, but it could work for anytime someone butts into your eating or health) here, which includes a description of a technique called DEAR MAN:

      Good luck!

  12. Kate Lipkin Avatar
    Kate Lipkin

    I believe you accidentally left out the source for the division of responsibility eating perspective: Nationally known expert Elyn Satter. Satter, one of the most respected nutrition experts and authors around, is the originator of this idea.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Pretty sure I linked to her the first time I mentioned it in the post. And in all the previous posts where I mention it. And in my What is Normal Eating? page. And in my About page. But I certainly don’t mind giving credit where it’s due, so feel free to mention and link to her as much as you like in comments.

  13. Whitney Avatar

    Thank you as always, Michelle, for your great writing; I have learned so much from you! A few people in comments have addressed not commenting on others’ food/food culture, like “that’s so gross”, and I agree, and also I wonder how ethical concerns come into play. I am thinking of foods like shark-fin soup, or foie gras. Is it wrong to say that you really find someone’s food problematic beyond a personal dislike?

    1. Michelle Avatar

      I think this is a good question, and probably very tough to answer. My personal feeling is that, if someone seems open to discussing this stuff, sure, it might be a productive conversation to have. But it’s also true that it can be hard to know why someone is eating a certain food, what led them to make that choice, and what they know or don’t know about the ethical implications of that food. A lot of people might honestly just eat something because it’s a novelty to them, and if they were aware of how it was produced, they might choose not to eat that food and would appreciate knowing that information. But a lot of people might eat this food because, even though they’re aware of how it’s made and the ethical problems, some other reason (culture, survival, who knows, life is weird) might seem more pressing to them.

      I’m always reluctant to place the burden of ethical problems with food production onto the individual eater. But I do think that some people might be really glad to know this information and to make other choices, because they want their eating choices to be consistent with their values. However, I really think the biggest possible changes that can be made in food production with regard to ethics will happen at the production and distribution levels. I feel like people really really invested in changing those systems need to target them as systems — by voting in ways to enact regulations that require producers to act decently or face consequences, by writing their representatives to make these issues part of their platform, and maybe to organize *collective* actions (like boycotts, for example) that will force change.

      Having a conversation with each individual person about the ethics of their food choices, particularly at the moment of eating, is, in my mind, barely a drop in the bucket compared to political action.

  14. Felicity Avatar

    Hey, you’re back! Love your work so much! I just read your #notyourgoodfatty tweets (… brilliant!

  15. Carrie Avatar

    I am a former “picky eater” as an adult I found that I wasn’t really very picky at all, I just didn’t like the specific things I was being served. Taking control of my food and cooking for myself made me willing to try new things and be more adventurous in a way that being urged to “just take a bite” never did. My mom is a great cook, but she liked to “sneak” goods to us that we said we didn’t like, ie squash and then be like HAHA YOU ATE IT. that did not make me want to try new things, or anything I found suspicious at all. Knowing no one was slipping me stuff to trick me because Iw as the one cooking definitely made me more confident with food.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Yes! Parents please take note: sneaking violates the division of responsibility and just basic consent. Please don’t do it, even with the best of intentions!

      1. Carrie Avatar

        She really did have the best intentions, but it didn’t make me want to try new things, it made me want to try less things, because who knows what the heck could be hiding in there?!

  16. […] love this post from the Fat Nutritionist about a couple where one is a picky eater and the other is a foodie and […]

  17. yami Avatar

    i have to follow gluten free for medical reasons and i’m struggling a bit. i’ve always been a somewhat picky eater with some i think you’d call it disordered eating? and having to switch to eating gluten free about 3 years ago hadn’t helped it terribly. i had been following your blog a long time and just happened to click in since last i had checked you had gone on a long hiatus of posting. i’m trying to get myself to expand on what i eat a little more so it’s easier to find and make food that i’ll enjoy. having some pretty serious GI issues means what i can eat day to day can change quite quickly so i’ve definitely had to go and try stuff multiple times over the years. i’m better these days about eating a wider variety of foods even if it’s still somewhat limited compared to others i know. something i’ve seen mentioned is bridging from a somewhat familiar food to an unfamiliar one is definitely something i find useful. though occasionally there are foods i just can’t stomach due to the smell making me gag before i even try a bite. i’m trying to get to having a little more fermented foods since those are supposed to help with pre and probiotics some. i think last time i’d commented i was really depressed due to the huge amount of weight i’d put on due to prednisone. it’s taken a long time but some of it has been lost. i still have a little more to lose but at this point i’m half resigned to it being mid 20s gain due to the last little 1/2in of height i went up at the time to finally hit 5′. i figure a tad extra doesn’t kill me and gives a slight cushion if i end up flaring again.

    it’s nice to see your back to posting again and being able to read your writing helps remind me that i need to eat properly to take care of myself and that what works for me doesn’t have to work for anyone else.

  18. Kathy Avatar

    I am starting to hate food ): Between GERD, IBS, and Migraines I never know WTF to eat. What works for one (i.e. not a trigger) sets off the other. I’m not a picky eater by choice but for medical reasons. I wish I knew what to do to be honest about my ever-growing food
    “issues”. My doctor wants me on a low tyramine diet for the Migraines, and I can’t tolerate anything acidic because of the GERD (I had to give up chocolate *sniff*) and then there’s IBS…

  19. The AntiChick Avatar
    The AntiChick

    Thank you thank you thank you. I caught back up on your postings the other day. I am a horribly picky eater. It comes from a couple of things, but the biggest is my father would force-feed me vegetables as a child. I physically get ill when I try to force myself to eat the “good for me” vegetables. The people in my life mean well when they try to get me to eat them, but the schtick about my crappy diet gets old.

    Because of this article, and the others where you talk about ways to expose yourself to new foods, I’m thinking differently about my food. And I asked my husband to stop even discussing my food choices with me. I don’t ask for the meals to be planned around my idiosyncrasies, and I’ll make changes in my own way.

    I can’t express how much what you’ve written means to me.

    Thank you so much.