I’ve been learning in my current class about pediatric nutrition and how to feed ‘picky eaters.’ It got me thinking—toddlers and preschoolers aren’t the only picky eaters out there! I’ve come across many adolescents, adults, and even seniors that are pretty picky about what foods and food combinations they eat. You could even be reading this right now because you know you’re a picky eater and want to break the habit.
Photo Credit: Applied Behavioral Strategies
Below are some guidelines and tips I’ve developed over the years for picky eaters of all ages and cultures. It’s important to remember that sometimes being a picky eater is actually pretty normal. We also need to take into consideration cultural and personal experiences that might explain certain food preferences.
1. Determine the Origins of the Picky Eating
It’s important to figure out who exactly you’re working with. Are you trying to get your toddler to eat broccoli? Are you working with your grandmother, who grew up during the Great Depression and will only touch canned vegetables because that’s what she grew up eating?
The person, their background, and the origin of their food preferences play an enormous role in what kind of picky eater they are. For instance, a toddler who exhibits picky eating habits is right on track with his/her growth and development. In other words, it’s completely normal for toddlers to have peculiar food preferences at this point in their life.
Personal, cultural, and other emotional/psychological experiences can also explain certain eating behaviors and preferences. Take the grandmother example I just gave you. We often repeatedly eat foods we are comfortable with and have good experiences with. A grandmother who grew up during the Great Depression when fresh food sources were scarce might have grown up eating lots of canned fruits and vegetables. Her dislike of salads and other fresh fruit/veggie dishes might be based out on unfamiliarity or potential fear of a new food.
Determining why a person, especially a picky person, eats the way they do can help tremendously with overcoming behavioral obstacles. In the case of the grandmother, introducing her to frozen produce (e.g. frozen peas, frozen broccoli) could make the transition from more processed fruits and veggies to fresh fruits and veggies easier.
2. Are These Picky Eating Habits Leading to Nutritional Deficiencies?
I speak about this point from personal experience. Of all people, my mother is notorious for eating what I call a nutrient-poor diet. She’s really not a fan of many fruits, vegetables, or whole grains, and tends to be what I call a ‘repeat-eater’ (repeatedly eats the same foods over and over again).
At some point, you have to ask if the eating habits are leading to nutritional deficiencies and other health problems. In children, for example, a failure to grow will often indicate there is some sort of nutritional inadequacy in the diet, often caused by a lacked of variety in the diet (e.g. drinking a tonnnn of apple juice all day every day). In adults, lab results and other biomarkers will often indicate nutritional deficiencies, such as a lack of calcium from poor dairy and leafy green consumption.
Some picky eating habits are phases. This usually happens in childhood and through repeated exposures, you can often ameliorate these tendencies. However, lifelong aversions to certain foods or even entire food groups can lead to long-term health problems like osteoporosis or systemic inflammation.
3. Make Picky Eaters Part of the Cooking and Eating Process
One of the best ways to get picky eaters to be less picky is to include them in the cooking process! Have your picky eater help with shopping, menu planning, etc. Ask them what they’d like for dinner that night instead of sneaking around and not telling them in fear of a meltdown.
Often we separate picky eaters so much from the process of cooking and preparing food that we’re almost setting them up for being picky. Of course a picky eater is going to be annoyed that you didn’t include them in the process of planning a menu! In other words, treat them ‘special’ and they’ll act special. I find that this process is the same for both younger and older picky eaters. Food isn’t just about nutrition, and that’s actually a very myopic understanding. Rather, food is about celebration, culture, participation, and coming together. Everyone, even picky eaters, want to be included in this process.
This also means no short-order cooking! I know you’ve probably heard this one before, and it makes sense for a couple of different reasons. Unless the modifications they want are fairly simple (e.g. no garnish parmesan cheese grated on their spaghetti and meatballs), there’s no reason to make all sorts of special meals for the picky eater. This again reinforces their picky eating, not to mention totally exhausts you as the meal provider.
4. Start Gradually
A picky eater isn’t going to become a more adventurous eater overnight. Statistically, people that grew up with more than one culture in their home are actually the most likely to be adventurous. So remember that introducing someone, whether it’s a child, adult, or older adult, is going to take time.
Start by just placing a few pieces of an undesired food on the plate. Don’t worry about whether or not they eat it. Don’t worry about throwing ‘perfectly good food’ down the drain. Don’t worry about starving children in Africa. Eventually, the person will learn to try the food and even like it.
If you’re an adult struggling with picky eating and food preferences, again remember that this takes time. I eat pretty healthy these days. But I won’t lie. It took years for my taste buds to adapt to the taste of whole, unprocessed foods. Realize it will also take time to adjust from a processed/unhealthy diet to a healthy diet predicated in natural foods.
5. Work Picky Foods Into Un-Picky Foods
This technique is actually loved by some, but criticized by others. Many healthcare professionals actually advocate against ‘sneaking’ spinach into meatloaf and veggies into lasagna because it promotes deception. Also, it eliminates the picky eater’s agency in choosing what foods they’d like to eat. For instance, if you sneak spinach into meatballs for a person who hates spinach, does that really prove anything? Sure, you got them to eat spinach. But you missed out on the component of them choosing to eat such a food (i.e the behavioral component to eating).
My recommendation? Tell your picky eater after they’ve eaten said food how you snuck a ‘forbidden food’ into. Yes, they might get a little annoyed or irritated. But they’re also realize that they ate a food they normally hate and the world didn’t end. They’ll also be more likely to try that food again in the future without any sneaking or deception.
Picky eating doesn’t need to be the reason for arguments at the table every night, or not being able to shed your junk food habits and lose weight in fear of how ‘bad’ healthy food tastes. Start small, don’t judge yourself (or your fellow picky eater), and ultimately do what works for you!