“Stay for Dinner, We’re Having Spaghetti!”

The picky eater’s frequently-dreaded invitation.

Spaghetti is actually just one example of this dilemma. You could substitute pizza, hamburgers, chicken and noodle soup, sandwiches, or many other common dishes for it. The point is, for a picky eater, this innocuous-sounding meal invitation is fraught with danger, because the picky eater often can’t trust that the dish in question will fall within acceptable parameters.

There is no Uniform Bureau of Standards for popular dishes that dictates precisely what ingredients should or should not be considered legitimate for inclusion in that dish, or how the end result should look, taste, smell, or be textured. The closest we come to predictability in foods is with their restaurant versions, particularly in fast food or chain restaurants, where corporate Research and Development departments and taste test panels come up with the ideas and means of making a given item, and compiling standardized instructions for the employees who will do the actual assembly and cooking.

One summer while in college, I had a temporary job at the Pizza Hut corporate headquarters; I worked in the test kitchen during the time when they were promoting a thick, pie-style pizza called the Priazzo, which some of you may remember. I mixed up big batches of dough in a giant mixer, which was a lot of fun. I checked in taste panel participants. At the end of the day, I got to take leftover Priazzos home for myself and my parents to enjoy. (I, of course, passed on the Supreme Priazzo with all the onions, peppers, and other scary components, but Mom and Dad loved it.)

In the restaurant business, the goal is to develop a menu item such as the Priazzo, determine which flavors and types will sell best, and which ingredients to use for those. Then you source your suppliers and train your store managers and cooks to obtain consistent results with the components they receive. In a region or country, a traveler can hope to visit one of your outlets and order the same beloved dish, sandwich, pizza, or whatever, and have it taste as expected from prior experiences with your restaurant back at home. Sometimes your overseas locations might be a bit more hybridized, differing in offerings and preparation methods from those in your native land. Yet there are still basic commonalities that make your brand predictable.

Picky eaters, like food chain corporations, value predictability and specificity. A version of a certain dish becomes the definitive one. Some picky eaters may manage to have a range of several variants; still, nothing outside that range will meet the criteria. So when a picky eater is used to a certain spaghetti, and the picky eater gets invited to dinner where she or he has never had their particular spaghetti, he or she has no way of knowing if it falls within his/her safe parameters for spaghetti.

These parameters are often set at home, with “how Mom used to make it,” but not always. I remember picking up some new ideas in junior high Home Economics, or from the way a storebought or restaurant version tasted, or someone else’s recipe. In some cases I would present my new ways to my mom and argue my case for change. Sometimes I marvel that my parents didn’t turn me out on the streets to fend for myself, because I was awfully pushy at times about this and other matters.

As a picky eater like myself ranges beyond the confines of home and encounters common dishes in the context of social settings – restaurant meals, business luncheons, meals at friends’ homes –  she or he discovers unfamiliar variations on these dishes. This happens while the picky child, teen, or young adult is also navigating other social aspects of life, and it can really complicate those. Practicing good table manners on one’s own is difficult enough without wondering how in the world you are going to tell some very nice friends, a date, your boss, etc. that you simply cannot eat the food they‘re offering you, or anything on the menu at the restaurant you go to – or at least not without having to request quirky alterations to it.

These are dilemmas that you may encounter as a picky eater when you’re at that friend’s house and they issue the spaghetti dinner invitation:

  • Perhaps you don’t care for sauce and/or meatballs at all. Do you dare request plain pasta? What if it’s too late anyway, and everything’s mixed together and being served?
  • If you do eat sauce, but can’t deal with any but one particular brand, is there any way to learn whether that’s the brand being prepared? Or perhaps it’s close and you might be able to chance it, but you’d still like to know a little bit of information such as how spicy it is, whether it contains “stealth onion” bits, and so on.
  • If you know these people tend to be foodies, you suspect their sauce will be extra challenging to your picky tastebuds and texture senses – it will likely contain more highly flavored components, and more chunks rather than smooth puréed Can you manage to fake it out and consume enough to make a decent showing? Will they notice that you are picking around, moving rejected vegetables to a pile at the far side of your plate, adding an inordinate amount of Parmesan cheese to disguise and mellow other flavors?
  • If you have clear evidence that their version of spaghetti is a deal-breaker (you see them chopping green peppers into the saucepot, for example), how can you decline the invitation or come down with a sudden reason to leave? Often you have planned to continue whatever activities you were doing after the meal, so an abrupt departure is sometimes hard to pull off.

So we see that the specifics about foods discussed in the previous post about “Rituals, Quantities, and Other Particulars” presents enough of an issue when the picky eater is in a familiar environment. It becomes a whole new and tricky business when he or she is in a public or semi-public setting. The dilemma is difficult to explain. Socially, to attempt to do so calls attention to one’s pickiness. Conceptually, the idea itself is difficult to get across. To most people, spaghetti is spaghetti. Sure, recipes vary, and maybe a time or two the average person has encountered spaghetti that’s either amazing or really lousy, but rarely would that person say they would put the stuff in an entirely different category from regular spaghetti.

For the picky eater, however, there is “spaghetti I can eat” and “spaghetti I can’t eat.” And that’s assuming they can eat any spaghetti. There’s perhaps a grey area for some of “spaghetti I can sort of eat but would rather avoid.” Anything that falls outside of the “can eat” parameter is a source of stress for the picky eater, and the reason they sometimes look like a deer caught in headlights when the spaghetti dinner invitation is casually issued by an unsuspecting friend or associate.

And as mentioned at the beginning, spaghetti is just one example. Substitute “pizza”, or “chicken noodle soup” – just about anything with more than one or two ingredients, or with condiments –and your picky eater likely will go into Yellow, perhaps even Red, Alert mode.

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Book Review – Helping Your Child with Extreme Picky Eating

Helping Your Child with Extreme Picky Eating: A Step-by-Step Guide for Overcoming Selective Eating, Food Aversion, and Feeding Disorders

by Katja Rowell, M.D. and Jenny McGlothlin M.S. CCC-SLP, with Foreword by Suzanne Evans Morris, PhD
Oakland, CA:  New Harbinger Publications – May 1, 2015 – 213 pages, paperback

In Facebook groups and in other blogs’ comments, I’ve read the postings of other adult picky eaters and parents of picky eating children. Frequently, the former is also the latter. Though I never had the opportunity to be a parent myself, I’m still interested in the experiences of current-day parents of picky eating children, as well as new resources geared toward helping them. I approach picky eating as I do any subject that interests me – from a variety of angles. And of course I can’t but be curious about “what might have been” had my own parents had access to some of this newer knowledge and help regarding picky eating.

I’d seen Helping Your Child With Extreme Picky Eating mentioned on Facebook and after several people said positive things about it, I felt I’d better check it out. The term “Extreme Picky Eating” from the title is one that I’d run into back on that old message board I loved so much – often abbreviated as EPE. I’d actually forgotten “EPE” in light of more recent terms such as SED and ARFID. On the message board, EPE was used more by parents of picky eating children than between picky eating adults communicating with one another. It’s still a useful descriptive term.

The book is one I wish my parents, especially my mom, could’ve had when I was small. It would have, I believe, helped her with her anxiety over my picky eating, and shown her that pushing and nagging weren’t helpful strategies. While reading it, I also noted things that my parents “got right” when I was a little older, such as explaining what was in a new dish without being pushy; sometimes these mellower moments did allow me to branch out and explore.

Rowell and McGlothlin’s book is quite simply an accessible, user-friendly resource that introduces a new and refreshing approach to the picky eating problem for parents. The writing is clear, to the point, and avoids excessive technical language or jargon. Even the acronym, STEPS+, which stands for “Supportive Treatment of Eating in PartnershipS,” is not made into a rigid structure into which the reader must try to shoehorn her family or her picky eating child. There isn’t a chapter starting with “S” and a next one following that starts with “T,” and so on.

Rather, the Introduction and first three chapters lead the reader through a process of understanding first what typical eating for most children generally looks like, common patterns it follows, and so on. From there the authors segue into what types of things can disrupt those usual processes, cause problems for a child, and make him picky. Then they take a look at the pressures and worries that a parent responds with, thus helping the parent become more self-aware of what they may be doing that helps or impedes. They do this compassionately, without putting guilt trips on the parent.

Successive chapters through the remainder of the book lead the parent through the tasks of implementing new ways of approaching food and meals, and concerns for special needs children. These new approaches to feeding kids include anxiety reducing tactics, new meal and snack routines and structure (with flexibility), and tips on how to foster family meals that are enjoyable again. Toward the end of the book are specialized topics such as how to discern if professional help is needed and how to find it (plus which types are more likely to be helpful versus types that can be stressful and counterproductive), and adaptive devices for the developmentally challenged child.

I especially liked the ideas that force feeding and pressuring tactics are not helpful, given that I have my own bad memories of being pressured. When I read others’ accounts of how they were forced by their parents (or even therapists) to eat food – in some cases even re-ingest it after vomiting it up – it breaks my heart that they were abused in such a way. The authors of this book believe that if your child is malnourished, it is better to have a feeding tube for him or her while you continue gentle therapies, rather than use extreme coercion. My instincts tell me this is correct.

The book is written by professionals who are also parents, and who come across as understanding and wishing to share the things they have learned to help other families create a positive atmosphere in which their children can thrive – in eating and in life. It is also definitely worth a read for the adult picky eater wishing to understand more about her own childhood and current-day experiences with food, and lessen anxiety about trying new items. We adult picky eaters can adapt several of their methods to a more adult context, and give ourselves the kind of gentle encouragement Rowell and McGlothlin outline in their book.

Link to the book on Amazon:  Helping Your Child With Extreme Picky Eating

To learn more about the authors’ work, check out their websites:

Katja Rowell M.D. and Jenny McGlothlin M.S. CCC-SLP – Extreme Picky Eating Help

Suzanne Evans Morris – speech-language pathologist with New Visions near Charlottesville, VA – New Visions

Quirks, Rituals, Quantities, and Other Particulars

In following these preliminary posts, you’ve been learning how complicated the relationship is between picky eaters and foods. And we’ve barely scratched the surface. Since one of my main reasons for writing this blog is to present an insider’s view of picky eating, this post takes us deeper into some specifics about foods that picky eaters are quite familiar with.

I must confess that I get a kick out of analyzing such quirks when I observe them in myself and other picky eaters from an adult’s perspective. Unlike the young child I once was, who could only fuss and protest about hated foods in general and emotional terms, I now have the verbal skills to articulate the struggle. It’s my hope that by parsing it in minutely detailed description, I can help other picky eaters and people who are trying to understand them.

We have gone over the terminology of “like” and “dislike” and seen how picky eaters’ feelings towards foods are not as simple as those couple of words, and tried to come up with some more precise vocabulary.

Now we’ll move from the words back to the food and its qualities, and delve in even deeper. Pickiness is about more than just “liking” or “disliking” one food in the abstract. The picky eater also has to face the concrete realities of a potential meal knowing that the same food isn’t always the same. This is where it gets even more tricky for the picky eater, and more potentially frustrating for those around him or her. Even with foods we “like,” there are frequently additional conditions that have to be met, and sometimes if they aren’t, it’s a deal breaker.

This is often where it’s very difficult for non-picky people to follow our internal logic, and I’m sure some who read this page will be rolling their eyes and muttering. But for those willing to walk around in a picky eater’s virtual shoes, it will help with understanding this quirky phenomenon and developing patience with those whom it afflicts.

These sorts of specific food quirks demonstrate the areas in which picky eating is most likely driven by OCD tendencies, sensory processing differences, ADHD or autism spectrum tendencies, and so on.

Among these are:

  • Brand of the food, or whether it’s storebought or home-cooked
  • Cooking method used – baked, boiled, charcoaled, toasted, microwaved, etc. Also some things are preferred raw. I enjoy nibbling on raw carrots, but the only cooked carrots I’ll go for are those in Chinese food, where they aren’t overcooked, plus they’re mixed with the ingredients and tastes of the rest of the dish that I already know I like.
  • How cooked is undercooked, just right, or overcooked for that particular food item? Picky eaters are like Goldilocks, with narrow tolerances. I tend, for instance, to prefer my steaks medium-rare (which is a quirk among people with quirks, as more picky eaters I’ve heard can’t stand any pink in their meat; I can’t stand dry meat. I also would err on the side of underbaked and doughy rather than overbrowned and dried out cakes, pancakes, breads, etc.)
  • Texture – this is a huge area, of course, and worthy of its own posts, which will come in due time. Some people can’t stand textures they consider slimy, gritty, rubbery, overly crunchy, or any number of other textures that strike their sensory receptors as wrong.
  • Chunks – tomato and onion are among the frequently despised among picky eaters. The whole trend of “chunky” sauces is anathema to many of us.
  • Crusts, rinds, skins, casings, and the like – I love peaches and though it took me some years to get used to the skins, I’ll even eat them. Many picky eaters don’t like peaches at all, and if they do like the flesh, the skin still creeps them out.
  • Inclusions – nuts, raisins, flecks of vegetable in a soup or sauce – the list is endless. Some may be tolerated, others will “ruin” a food the picky eater would otherwise enjoy. Poppy seeds will do that for me; I feel I might as well put sand in, say, a lemon muffin.
  • Accidental foreign matter, gristle, bone, etc. Probably few humans enjoy these either, but for us picky eaters who are highly sensitized already, encountering something like this can put us off the food we find them in for years, if not for life.
  • Accompaniments:
    • The first question is whether to have them at all. I’m a plain hamburger person. I’ve branched out to be a plain bacon cheeseburger person. And I will do lettuce and barbecue sauce if they come with the burger. But the rest of those traditional condiments everyone else feels are essential? Ketchup and mustard, pickles, onions, mayonnaise? Uh-uh.
    • Second question – How much or how little of an accompaniment? For instance, I like a LOT of butter and syrup on my pancakes or waffles, and could never understand those folks who could just dribble a little on and be content. On the other hand, there are foods, sauces, or seasonings where a little goes a long way for me. Spices, garlic, onion for instance (also, no bits or chunks of the latter two, by the way).

Some of us have rituals in our eating process. As a kid, I learned the phrase “save the best for last.” Whenever I first heard that as a child, from that point on I took it very seriously in all areas of life. Eating was no exception. I inspect each bite and eat in a progression from the part that looks the least appetizing to the most.

This whole process itself is relative – I do it more scrupulously with less appealing dishes because there’s also a caution factor involved. Yet even when the entire dish is something I love, I still have that compulsion to go from the least pleasurable to the most, so that the final bite is savored to the max. When around others, I am discreet about it as much as I can be, but I know I’m doing it.

So here we have a list of some additional considerations that are never far from the mind of a picky eater. You may know of more, if you’re a picky eater or share meals with one.

“He Shows No Aversion To It! Hey Mikey!”

 

(The Search for Better Words Than “Like” or “Dislike”)

If you’re of a certain age, you no doubt remember the commercials for Life Cereal that featured “Mikey” and his brothers. The two older brothers, faced with a bowl of Life, debate over who will try the strange new cereal. They decide to make baby brother Mikey the guinea pig, but one of the boys notes skeptically that Mikey “hates everything.” Then, in the final scene as Mikey is calmly munching on Life cereal spoonful after spoonful, the astonished older boy exclaims “He LIKES it! Hey, Mikey!”
Take a look, for nostalgia’s sake, or for the first time:

Mikey Likes It

When I was still posting on the PEAS YaBB message board, it occurred to me one day that the word “like” (or “dislike”) is so inadequate to describe a picky eater’s attitude toward a given food.

The most obvious thing wrong is that it’s too either/or. Especially for adult picky eaters, there are many, many shades of desire or aversion attached to a given food, ranging from “I practically live on the stuff” to “I wouldn’t touch it at gunpoint.”

Another problem with the words “like” or “dislike” is that they’re lackluster and rather pedestrian. They don’t describe nuances and they don’t convey passion. A picky eater may have neutral feelings about some foods, but even for those, s/he craves accurate ways of describing the feelings about the foods, whether to self or others.

The like/dislike terms are too moderate to allow for a wide spectrum of responses. So let’s take a look at that spectrum in all its color (or, sometimes, colorlessness). Let’s, if you’ll pardon the bad pun, pick at it a little.

First of all, on what we might term the upper tiers, there are those foods that are genuinely liked or loved. They are well within the “safe” parameters of the picky eater’s preferences. The picky eater usually doesn’t get tired of them, and they are perceived as comforting and delicious. Sometimes they are the only thing that sounds even halfway appealing when the picky eater is sick, or at least the first things that sound good when s/he is feeling better.

On the next tier down, there are some also-rans, some foods that the picky eater doesn’t habitually eat, or at least not often, but can eat if they’re all that is available. Sometimes they are the things of a sudden, out of the blue craving –  “I could really go for that can of hominy tonight.” There may actually be several “sub-tiers” in this area, but the main idea is that the picky eater can eat these foods, but doesn’t eat them nearly as often or with as much delight as the first-tier foods. There may exist in these tiers some foods the picky eater is attempting to learn to “like” but is not there yet with.

Next comes, for some picky eaters, an area of drudgery, ambivalence, even heroic sacrifice. Not all picky eaters have these levels – their aversions are so widespread that they simply can’t go there. This territory too may belong mainly to those picky eaters who’ve been trying to expand their food repertoire. They have tried certain foods and not done well with them, but at least were able to put them into their mouths under some circumstance. With these foods, these picky eaters end up in the position of being not quite able to completely refuse them, yet fervently wishing they had never been offered.

Social meals prepared by dear friends or loved ones are the most likely setting for this scenario. The foods in question are at the very edge of possibility – the picky eater finds him/herself under extreme duress with them, employing any strategy that will work and longing for the meal to end. Like the picky child, this adult picky eater can be found doing things such as discreetly removing onion bits, smashing chunky tomatoes into a more paste-like consistency, and so on. If the food is offered on a self-serve basis, the picky eater will take the most minimal serving possible, spreading it around on the plate to make it look bigger. Eating is a slow process, and it helps greatly to have a beverage available for frequent washing down. Sometimes a “swallow the food bits like pills” technique comes in handy.

You thought that was the worst of it? Wrong. Now we come to the levels that go downward even further, like circles of Hell in Dante’s Inferno. Here reside the “impossible” foods. The substances that have the power to put the picky eater in tears. The picky eater at this point begins planning to feign some reason for escape from the situation. No other option is thinkable.

These foods even provoke outright hatred, and especially the more it seems that everyone in society is touting their supposed deliciousness. Picky eaters who connect with one another online sometimes engage in bash fests against them. One of mine is green peppers – any bell pepper for that matter. The red, orange, yellow, and green shiny things are, I’ll admit, pretty looking on the outside, but that’s where it ends. I confess to a desire to run over them with my van and back up and run over them again. Far away from home, mind, so that by the time I got home their pungent, biting stench would be long gone from my tires. On second thought, best not to chance it.

Last but not least on the list of reasons for their inadequacy, the “like/dislike” terms don’t allow for circumstantial qualifying factors. A picky eater’s preferences sometimes do run in “jags.” This may be either part of an overall physical or psychological pattern of which picky eating is a part. It may also be an unfortunate consequence of a less varied diet; if you only have a rotation of a dozen foods you’re comfortable with, you’re going to encounter any given one more frequently, and get tired of it more quickly – maybe.

Circumstances under which the food is served can completely bump it from one tier to another. Whether the food is served with or without syrup or dressing or sauce; when the picky eater is feeling relaxed or upset or whatever in-between state; when the safe food is touching a non-safe food; the wrong brand of an otherwise acceptable food; the food being served at the wrong temperature, and many other factors will be taken into meticulous account by the hardcore picky eater. Yes, the picky eater may “like” cookies. But not with raisins. Or poppy seeds. Or overbaked brown edges. You get the idea. This matter of preparation and serving is another thing that makes social situations fraught.

Soon, I’ll do a post on the perils of being invited to “stay for dinner; we’re having spaghetti” and why that can be an exhausting trial for a picky eater to face.

Still Yucky After All These Years

 

 

The previous post explored some generalities of picky eating in childhood. But why, for some of us, does it persist into adulthood? There are no doubt several contributing factors, interacting together, in unique combinations for each person who goes from being a childhood picky eater to a teen or adult one.

Some of us do start out with physical or other developmental conditions that will play an ongoing part. Even if we had therapy for them the results might not have been enough to eliminate the picky eating tendencies.

Some of us were the first or only children of nervous parents who panicked when we didn’t eat much, and either tried to force us, which usually backfired, or gave up in despair and gave us the bland safe foods we would willingly eat. There are some children who will be more open to trying a new food if it’s presented nonchalantly, and maybe when they’re hungry. Others would starve themselves rather than eat a non-safe food.

My own parents were first timers, and my mother in particular the anxious sort. She tried the power struggle; I could not bring myself to yield, I was so repelled by the foods. She gave up and let me eat carbs, though occasionally the power struggle mode resurfaced. Especially difficult for her were social occasions, such as meals with the extended family. She was one of those moms who felt it reflected badly on her that her daughter was picky.

Sometimes she would anticipate my not liking a food, or a way of preparation, condiments, and so forth. For instance, whenever I was first introduced to hamburgers, I was given a plain version. This was probably not the best method, as I got used to that as the norm for a hamburger. I’ve never gotten beyond that to routinely eat them with the standard condiments. A humorous account of my failed attempts is in the works – stay tuned.

By the time I reached my teens, though, Mom seemed to intuitively grasp a few ways to be helpful. In 7th grade, a friend was having a pizza party. I expressed a desire to learn to like pizza, which I’d thought was beyond me –too spicy. Mom encouraged me, showed me the kinds available and I was able to meet the deadline and have pepperoni pizza at the party.

Another opportunity to broaden my food horizons came when I went with her and Dad for Chinese food. We’d go to places that had American choices for me, but Mom also took the chance to explain what the blander Chinese dishes contained, and offer me the opportunity to try a little. Somehow she must have struck just the right non-coercive note, because I did get brave and start trying the Chinese items. This marked my first foray into eating dishes that combined meat and vegetables. I liked the soy sauce, too, as I’ve always been a salt fiend, something that is not uncommon among picky eaters.

Family meals were eventually accompanied by an understanding that I would not eat anything really weird, and that I defined what was weird to me. Sometimes it was a matter of having buttered spaghetti while the parents ate theirs with meat sauce. It wasn’t long after learning to like pizza, though, that I embraced spaghetti with sauce. Such a progression is called “food chaining” by the professionals. Of course, to this day I have definite criteria as to how spaghetti sauce should be prepared, and what is or isn’t acceptable in it.

From time to time my folks still made salesmanlike attempts to persuade me to try something, and voiced a general concern about my nutritional status. Since a few years prior to puberty I went from being skinny to being slightly pudgy, I had it pointed out to me that I might have a better shot at losing weight if I would be willing to eat balanced meals with vegetables. I couldn’t argue with the logic, but neither could I bring myself to implement it. I did, at some point, add plain salad to the list of things I would eat, and a few years later found a dressing I liked, bleu cheese. My parents liked Thousand Island, and I still wouldn’t touch that stuff.

Besides family dynamics, there are a few other factors affecting the course a child picky eater takes to become an adult picky eater. It can go either way in many cases. The foods we refused originally might come to be more acceptable if we can bring ourselves to try them again, but often we can’t even imagine doing so. Sometimes we encounter a food prepared at home somewhere else, prepared just differently enough that it seems less repugnant. That can lead either to our coming to like it, but only from that source or prepared precisely the same way. Or the reverse – we might reject a food from a restaurant or someone else’s kitchen, but the way it’s prepared at home makes it acceptable.

Some foods, let’s face it, are just more challenging than others. Strangeness in appearance, knowing the dish contains an ingredient one already dislikes, complex flavors, sour or bitter flavors, spices – things that are regarded as sophisticated delights for the palate by the foodie – will be seen as scary by the picky eater. Picky eaters seem to have a very ingrained knowledge of what they will or will not react to with extreme repugnance. When others notice this, the pickies get asked or told things such as “How can you know you don’t like it if you’ve never tried it?” or “Yes, it has onion in it but you can’t even taste it!” These types of statements, and our opinions about them, are a topic unto themselves and will be dealt with in future posts.

The picky eater just knows. If something hasn’t changed to make it UN-yucky, it is indeed still yucky, even after many years.

 

 

 

The Roots of Rutabaga Rejection

With rare exceptions, there would be no adult picky eaters if there were no child picky eaters. For most of us it starts there. The transition from baby food to table food is a critical time; you’ve got a toddler with rapid brain growth going on whose world is rapidly expanding, whose experiences and emotions are intense and unfiltered. This little guy or gal is emerging from the relative safety of babyhood, where most of the time life is pretty chill, and his or her needs are, we hope, met with promptness and love like those of a baby bird in a cozy warm nest.

But like the baby bird, with growth comes mobility, and the trying out of one’s wings, so to speak. The parents respond to the little mobile human with amazement as s/he sprouts teeth, and learns to crawl and walk and talk. Feeding this creature has been a gradual transition from breast milk or formula to soft pureed foods, and the gradual introduction of bits of true solid foods that are close to or the same as what the bigger humans eat.

Sometimes this process goes off without a hitch – the little one takes the item offered, chews and swallows happily, and makes it known that s/he wants more. Other times the little face scrunches up, and the lips press together, the head shakes, little hands swat the spoon or fork away. The older baby or toddler will perhaps emphasize the refusal with words or shrieks, even a tantrum.

Much has been written, discussed, and posted online about feeding young children, and I’ve seen some of it and will share some of my finds with you readers. Parents draw upon their own early experiences, form their opinions, and may or may not seek out advice from other sources. They interact with their child and the child responds, they respond back, and in the best case scenario the child learns to try new tastes and textures in foods, and to acquire a willingness to eat at least most of them, to have favorites and less-favorites, but overall to have what most would consider a normal repertoire of foods they will eat compared to what the majority of children their age in their culture tend to eat.

And then there are the picky eaters. Here is where some distinctions need to be made. There’s probably not a child who ever lived who hasn’t rejected a food at least once. Evolution of an aversion to bitterness is protective for a child who might otherwise eat something toxic. In our present time, his/her tastebuds aren’t able to make the distinction between poison berries in the wilderness and a dish Mommy lovingly prepared and intended as nourishment. This level of picky eating as a stage is a common thing and, if dealt with wisely and patiently, may pass of its own accord once the child becomes accustomed to more foods. There are those a bit more picky, some of whom go on “food jags,” wanting to eat the same thing or few things for days or longer, yet eventually pass out of this behavior without intervention.

Then there are the hardcore cases – the kids who eat very few things, and tend toward what’s been called “beige foods.” Even among these there is a continuum of selective eating patterns, and some possible complicating factors to consider. Some children have developmental problems with eating, for example with control of the muscles of the tongue and mouth, or nerve endings that are more or less sensitive than optimal. Autism and other disorders can bring eating difficulties as part of the package of challenges the child and parents must deal with. Some kids’ developmental issues are noticeable enough that an evaluation is indicated, which can lead to the child receiving therapy to help work around the problem or retrain the body and brain so it becomes less troublesome.

Other children are extremely picky, yet the cause for their food aversions is not obvious. It may have been that something such as acid reflux or an episode of choking caused the little one trauma early on. When things returned to normal, the parent forgot about the episode, yet in the child’s developing brain, a connection got made between such unpleasant events and the foods involved, and may expand out to encompass others similar in taste and/or texture.

Some children are supertasters, having a more marked sensitivity to bitter tastes in foods. Again, this would have been an evolutionary advantage, and the genes for it likely to get passed down alongside the less-sensitive genes of the “normal” eating population. Some kids are also sensitive to textures, smells, and appearances. It may be hard to pin down exactly why the kid has strong reactions against certain foods, especially if his/her vocabulary isn’t up to detailed descriptions. If the child is upset in the presence of an aversive food, s/he may be even less able to articulate what’s wrong, even if s/he is usually quite verbal. Most of the time, though, it soon becomes obvious that this child does not want even a molecule of the offending food to pass his or her lips.

A word about power struggle theory of picky eating. It is my belief, albeit untested, that in most cases the idea that the child is disliking or refusing foods merely as a means of establishing power and autonomy, is not that strong an argument when it comes to the more extreme types of picky eating children. I think there’s a lot more going on with their senses and in the brain’s connection with the senses that is directly about the food. There is an anxiety, a fear of the food, that goes beyond the desire to make a statement to mean old Mom or Dad.

A toddler is frequently oppositional, yes, as with other demands of this phase of life such as potty training or staying in a car seat. Still, I think it’s unwise to attribute too much to a motive of stubbornness in the food area. Perhaps as a picky eater I’m not the best person to give an objective opinion on this question, but I’ve never let that stop me!

At the very least, don’t let mealtime struggles become a source of antagonism and resentment that taints the parent-child relationship. Those of us who are adult picky eaters who experienced dinner table drama to varying degrees can generally agree that it was counterproductive for us, and when we have friends, relatives, spouses, etc. who lay it on us now, it’s still counterproductive.

More Background, and Some Terminology

Hopefully this won’t be as boring as the title sounds. But I want to build this as a place where readers can gain an understanding of the subject, whatever their level of familiarity or experiences with it.

First, a general overview of adult picky eating. One thing to bear in mind is that it’s a relatively new field of knowledge. New information about it is coming in rapidly, and will take time to process and distill into understandable terms. This will hold true whether you’re a professional helper of adult picky eaters, or a picky eater or loved one of a picky eater. There has been information available for parents of young children who are picky eaters for longer than there has been for older picky eaters.

When a child who’s a picky eater reaches a certain age, s/he will become self-aware of being picky as a problem that s/he wonders how to solve. Before that, there might be drama around the dinner table – in some cases, plenty of it. But the response of the very young is more emotional, more diffuse. Older picky eaters, whether still minors or of age, are old enough to begin to seek information and support, and perhaps problem-solving help, for themselves  if they’re motivated by social or other pressures. That information is becoming ever more readily available.

Every picky eater is an individual. Adults who have the condition often share commonalities (a fondness for French fries seems nearly universal), but they also vary widely. And of course the older they are, the more factors will come into play. These folks will have their memories, physical and/or psychological conditions, social lives, current and past relationships, and more. Taken together, these life experiences can be either causes of, or affected by, their adult picky eating.

My own background is a mélange of some common patterns that lead to picky eating, experiences both good and bad, and my brain’s sometimes quirky wiring. I was told by my mother that I had been an enthusiastic consumer of baby food vegetables, even begging for seconds on green beans. But when it came time to transition to the table food versions, trouble set in. I was still toddler age then, and have to rely on my mother’s memories. I do have one early one of my own, one lunchtime when Mom was frustrated and attempted to browbeat me into eating sweet potatoes. I barfed them up right there at the table, initiating a hatred that lasted several decades. More about sweet potatoes later.

Unbeknownst at the time was the fact that I had ADHD (inattentive type). My mom did know I had several types of sensory issues, though back when I was a pre-parenting classes, pre-Internet child, there were no diagnoses, no books or mommy boards. I was a bright child, and stubborn, “high strung” was the term back then for someone like me. What I know now is that ADHD seems to run in my mom’s side of the family, as does autism. I can relate to some autism spectrum traits though apparently I don’t have enough of them to be diagnosed with the condition. I just know that a lot of things bug me, and among those is a large category one could call “sensory aspects of various foods that I find off-putting or downright repulsive.”

Some terms others use regarding adult picky eating, and some miscellaneous terms I’ll be using:

EDNOS – Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified – the previous catchall category the American Psychiatric Association gave to eating difficulties that weren’t the more well-known anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, and so forth.

SED – Selective Eating Disorder – This term was an early candidate to specifically describe picky eating as an eating disorder with distinguishing features. It is still used by many of us informally.

SPD – Sensory Processing Disorder – has also been known by similar names such as Sensory Integration Disorder, Sensory Integration Dysfunction. It is not universally recognized in the DSM-V (see below), but grassroots efforts are underway to get it recognized. The term has to do with how some of us have noticeable differences from the general population in how we experience sensory phenomena or how we process them in the communication between our bodies and our brains and nervous systems, and how that affects our ability to navigate the world.

ARFID – Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder – the term that made the cut in the APA’s *Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V – another term you may see in this blog on occasion).

BARFID – Okay, we can’t be serious all the time. This is my little gem and it stands for “Bothersome Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder.” ‘Nuff said.

Picky/Pickies – My shorthand term for picky eaters, especially those of us like I described above who are old enough to have some intellectual self-awareness of our condition.

From time to time, I may add to this list.