Interview With a Picky Eater

 

how about no

It can be difficult for a foodie to comprehend how a picky eater experiences food. To shed some much needed light on this very misunderstood subject,  Rhiannon shares her perspective on her eating experience as an adult picky eater.

Everyone is picky to some degree, and everyone has food they don’t like. What creates this sense of dread about not liking the taste of a new food?

For me, not liking the taste of something goes beyond the simple “slight sourness” that I think other people experience. The difference between a food I like and a food I don’t like isn’t just that it tastes bad, but that it tastes disgusting.  It’s like biting into a fresh vegetable only to find a mouthful of rotten fungus; I want to spit it out immediately.

Since I don’t live in anyone else’s body, my assumptions about how others taste food may not always be accurate.  Still, I’ve observed that most people who dislike a food are at least able to swallow the bite they had without instantly feeling nauseated, nor immediately wanting to wash their mouths out with water.  That’s why I think that my dislike of food goes beyond the normal sensation that others experience, and it’s one of the mental blocks I have to get past when trying a new food.

Is it only taste that you find offensive? What other sensory characteristics impact your eating experience? 

When it comes to new food, sometimes it’s not the taste that I can’t handle as much as the temperature.  I usually find, with few exceptions, that there’s only one temperature that I can eat a particular food at.  While that temperature setting can vary a little (foods I prefer hot can still be okay if they’re warm, foods I prefer frozen can still be okay if they’re cold), I can’t stand the food if it’s not in the right temperature zone.

Similarly, sometimes what’s blocking me from being able to eat a food isn’t the taste or temperature, but the texture.  When eating a particular food, it’s hard for me to separate the taste from the texture, which is why I tend to use three mental categories for food – “I like it made that way,” “I don’t love it, but will eat it,” and “I can’t eat it.”

As an example, I like apples in their raw form.  I’ll deal with it if they’re softened together in dish (like apple crisp.)  I may even be able to eat the apple crisp, though I won’t like the apples as much.  However, if you give me a caramel apple, I can’t eat it.  The combined texture of the apple and the caramel is just too much for me.

The good news about having rigid temperature and texture preferences is that I can often change these qualities to suit my needs.  I used to think I didn’t like eggs; now I’ve discovered that I just don’t like soft eggs.  When cooking an egg, I leave it in the pan much longer than most people, to harden the yolk and lighten its colour.  Then I’ll happily enjoy it.

I could give you a whole list of foods that I’ve changed the temperature and/or texture of and found that I can now eat them.  It’s nice to be able to add more variety to my diet, even if that “variety” is just three standalone foods that I couldn’t eat before.  I’m still experimenting though, because if either the temperature or texture is wrong, it can still induce nausea, and at worst, it’ll sour my stomach for a little while.  That possibility is one of the things that contribute to my anxiety about food.

Mixed foods are problematic for many picky eaters. Do you like any foods mixed together?

My version of a sandwich is the meat and bun. The bread isn’t buttered, and I have no lettuce or other toppings. With certain meats, I can sometimes include mild cheeses, but that’s a relatively new thing.

Can you explain how you experience mixed foods and why these are difficult to like?

One of the main problems I face is the new “food era” we seem to be entering. Thanks to shows like Masterchef, people now think that adding as many ingredients to a dish as possible is going to make it taste better.  While that may be true for most people, it definitely isn’t true for me.  Often, I’ve found that I like the taste of a particular food by itself, but can’t stand the taste of two or more foods together.

From what I gather, most people who eat a hamburger with lettuce, pickles, ketchup, mayonnaise or mustard, onions, special sauce, and anything else you can think of on it can taste only one thing:  a mishmash of all the different flavours put together.  Most people can’t necessarily pick out ingredients one by one, unless they’re trained chefs.  Their brain decides that “the flavour of everything combined” is more important than the other ones, and so it decides to up the intensity of that one flavour by toning down the others.

I wish my brain did that.  When it comes to taste, it seems like my brain can’t decide what’s more important, and so it decides to pile every individual flavour on top of the others with equal intensity.  Instead of a symphony of flavour, I get a classroom of fourth graders who were all given cymbals to try out at the same time.  If the tastes are intense enough, it can even feel like it’s hurting me physically (think of the sensation you get when there’s a loud noise right behind you and you cover your ears.)

Adult picky eaters often prefer food plain. Can you explain what makes, say, a plain burger more appealing than a burger with multiple toppings?

For me, the intensity goes up with each new ingredient added.  If you give me a hamburger with the meat and the bun, I can taste:

  • The taste of the meat
  • The taste of the bun
  • The taste of the meat and the bun.

Add one ingredient (say, lettuce) to that mix, and suddenly the flavours become:

  • The taste of the meat
  • The taste of the bun
  • The taste of the meat and the bun
  • The taste of the lettuce
  • The taste of the meat and the lettuce
  • The taste of the lettuce and the bun
  • The taste of the meat and the lettuce and the bun.

But dealing with the addition of ‘regular’ toppings sometimes isn’t enough.  Some restaurants serve their burgers on a sesame-seed bun (something that is not said upfront in the menu description), which, in addition to the lettuce, means that I now have:

  • The taste of the meat
  • The taste of the bun
  • The taste of the meat and the bun
  • The taste of the lettuce
  • The taste of the meat and the lettuce
  • The taste of the lettuce and the bun
  • The taste of the meat and the lettuce and the bun
  • The taste of the sesame seeds
  • The taste of the sesame seeds and the lettuce
  • The taste of the meat and the sesame seeds
  • The taste of the sesame seeds and the bun
  • The taste of the meat and the sesame seeds and the lettuce and the bun.

With just two additions (one of which is often not optional), we’ve just gone from three flavours of equal intensity in my mouth to twelve.  Even one addition is sometimes too much; that’s why I usually have my sandwiches, hamburgers and hot dogs plain.

Now, if my hamburger accidentally comes with bacon that I didn’t order on it and nothing else, I can at least take the bacon off.  But in the case of a sauce getting on a food, it’s impossible to get rid of no matter what.

When trying new foods, the overwhelming intensity of not just one flavour, but many flavours piled on top of one another is definitely a mental block for me.  I’m still not very good at dealing with this one. The best I can do is to occasionally screw up my courage and prepare to possibly feel a little sick if it doesn’t work out.  Sometimes it does work out, and I’ve found new foods that I like, but when it doesn’t work, it takes me a long time to be able to screw up my courage and try again.

mystery-food

What helps you to decide whether or not to try a particular food? 

I have been experimenting with adding foods to my diet. It took me a long time though, and I had to get through a lot of mental blocks before I could do it. What helped me was to start small – start with the plainest version of a food. My taste buds are super sensitive, which means that I can taste complexity and layers throughout even simple tastes, like a raw pear.  Having many flavours put together will only increase that intensity, so I’ve learned to limit the amount of ingredients in my meals.

To this day, I have two food rules that, unfortunately, rule out 98% of the foods out there:

  1. I don’t eat anything with a sauce, dressing or topping on it; and
  2. I don’t eat things that are inextricably mixed together. (Lasagna is a food that is inextricably mixed together.)

For me, trying a new food is scary because nine times out of ten, the taste will be too intense and I won’t like it. I try to alleviate this fear by always having two versions of a meal – one with the new food and another with only foods that I know I like, so that I feel secure in the knowledge that I’ll get enough to eat even if I don’t like the new food.

How do you prepare yourself for a new food experience?

I’ve learned what foods I can tolerate by having them in their plainest forms.  For years, I had a small list of foods I could eat, and was too afraid to try anything different.  However, since I’ve now been trying to add more variety to my diet, I’ll try changing the texture of foods that I previously didn’t like and see if I like them better. To me, texture is equally as important as taste.

Unfortunately, it can also be a mental block to try foods that are prepared in new ways. The first time I taste a food, my brain tends to marry the taste with the texture, so imagining the same food tasting differently is hard. Once I find a texture I like, I will always prepare that particular food in the same way every time. Case in point: I like mashed potatoes, but not baked, fried or scalloped potatoes. Texture is everything.

What environment do you prefer when you do try a new food? 

If I’m trying something new, I usually like to do so when I’m alone, with a napkin and a “backup” food that I like waiting to the side, in case I have to spit out what I’m eating and get the taste out of my mouth.  I also make it a point to try foods – even foods that previously provoked an instantly-wanting-to-vomit reaction – more than once, but the in-between period can take years.  I only recently tried mayonnaise for the second time in my life, and I still didn’t like it.

Do you find others struggle to appreciate how intense your relationship with food actually is?

To this day, a member of my family will routinely say, “So a little sauce got on it.  What’s the big deal?  Just wipe it off.”  He doesn’t seem to understand that there is no way to “wipe off” a sauce that will get rid of its flavour.  Sauces (or dressings, dips, gravy, whatever you call them) were created to permeate the food they’re on, either as a preservative or to enhance the overall taste.  “Wiping it off” will get rid of 80% of the outer layer at best, but there will still be places where the sauce has been absorbed into the food, changing its flavour unexpectedly mid-bite, and often causing instant nausea on my part.  Which is why being told to wipe off a sauce always makes me feel a little disgusted.  (If you want to know what it feels like, think of how you’d feel if your food was dropped in a puddle of urine and you were told to “wipe it off.”  I’m guessing you wouldn’t want to eat that food anymore.)

Do you have a good relationship with food?

I sometimes wish that I could enjoy all foods the way other people seem to.  I wish that I could look at a buffet table and be able to eat 100% of the food on it, and that the prospect of eating new foods induced excitement rather than anxiety.  That being said, I do genuinely enjoy the foods I can eat, because I can taste each flavour in all its complexity.

It’s helpful as a parent to understand my son’s experience with food, and that his experience is different than mine. Do you have any advice for parents of picky eaters?

When I was growing up, many people thought that teasing me about my food choices was “all in fun,” and didn’t realize how much they were hurting me.  I felt like an outsider, who didn’t have a good reason for not liking so many foods, but somehow couldn’t force myself to eat them.  I also felt as though the foods I did like were somehow “wrong,” due to the fact that most people found them too plain to eat by themselves.

One of the big things I advise is to always respect other people’s food choices, and not judge people based on what you think they “should” be eating.  Don’t turn food into a power struggle, and don’t use it as a punishment (“go to bed without dinner”) or a reward (“if you’re good, you can have your dessert.”) Instead, keep food in its proper place – a source of pleasure, enjoyment, and relaxing social bonding. Your child will thank you for it.

Thank you, Rhiannon. 

I hope adults who read this will learn that many other adults share their intense experience with food, and to accept this experience as normal for them without judgment.

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5 responses to “Interview With a Picky Eater

  1. Thank you for this insight! my 3yr has had food issues for a while now… Things I just didn’t understand, like why did that make him gag or vomit. But My eyes are being opend to this eating disorder and Im hoping with this info I can help my son. I have to admit meal time has been frustrating to the point of tears for the both of us.

  2. This totally describes my young son.. He is EXTREMELY sensitive to flavours and even more so to textures. And I’m not just talking about typical kid “I don’t like vegetables” … but for instance loving vanilla yogurt but … gagging and crying on vanilla ice-cream… Absolutely NO mixing of textures .. not even chocolate and cookie … VOMIT. As a foodie who loves mixing temperatures and textures and flavours I just could not comprehend and often felt it was just power struggle. Thank you for helping me understand.

  3. I find it so interesting to see what other adult picky eaters have to say about their experiences… How they can be so similar, yet so different at the same time.

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