Originally posted by Michelle at The Fat Nutritionist | Published: AUGUST 14, 2015
Much of the feedback I receive on the blog, and in comments I read on social media share similar themes. Rather than perpetuate misinformation, I approached a trusted registered dietitian in my hometown for some facts. If you’re in the market for a dietitian who can “take you from anxious and messed-up around food to chill and pretty happy,” contact Michelle here.
It didn’t really hit me until I wrote the second post in this series a few days ago, but there’s a huge part of my work that I never blog about: I work with a lot of adult picky eaters who just want to learn to eat more foods. These are people who never learned, as kids, how to eat more than a scant handful of things, and it makes their lives difficult enough that they seek me out.
I love working with picky eaters. I can’t tell you how beautiful it is to watch someone try a food they’ve never tried before, perhaps with some trepidation, but determined to stop feeling afraid. And whether they turn out to like it or not, forever after, that food no longer holds power over them. It just becomes food, not something suspicious and terrifying…even if they never eat it again.
When you’re learning to like new foods, it’s important to observe the Division of Responsibility within yourself. That sounds weird, doesn’t it? But when you consider that, for children, good-enough parenting leads to children who grow into adults with good-enough emotional regulation, interpersonal skills, and self-image, it also makes sense that good-enough feeding by parents will lead to an adult who is good enough at eating.
But because we live in a frankly eating disordered culture, most of our parents probably breached the Division of Responsibility in Feeding at some point. This is not unusual, and most of the time, it isn’t done with malicious intent. (Where there is malice, there is usually abuse happening in other domains as well.) Maybe it was just an occasional lapse, a mild lack of structure and permission, or maybe it was a full-blown assault of constant pressure, restriction, or total neglect. Either way, as an adult, if it affected you enough that you now struggle with food, you’re the one who has to pick up the pieces.
In a sense, you have to provide for yourself what you didn’t get as a child: structured, predictable mealtimes, in a pleasant setting, where a variety of foods — some familiar, some challenging — is at your disposal to pick and choose from. And where no one pressures you (or cajoles…or suggests…or makes innocent commentary…or holds you to a one-bite rule) about what you decide to eat.
If you can provide this to yourself consistently, over time your repertoire will grow.
Eat What You’re Already Eating
To establish a foundation, once you’ve removed external pressure from your eating, you also need to remove some internal pressure. You do this by giving yourself unconditional, unalloyed permission to eat the foods you already know and like. If that means you eat chicken nuggets every day for the next year, well, okay. The important thing is that you’re getting yourself fed, and you’re the one making the decisions. This will preserve your physical survival and your bodily autonomy, both critical tasks.
If you like vending machine snacks, it’s okay to eat them. If you like cereal and toast, it’s okay to eat them. Humans are remarkable omnivores, which means that, yes, while wide variety is preferable for health, people can also live on wildly different, limited diets, and do just fine for long periods of time. Eating only cereal or chicken nuggets or toast or snacks for a while is not the end of the world.
Give yourself permission to eat only the foods that you feel safe with, for now. If you have a truly and extremely limited palate and you’re concerned about nutrient deficiencies, consider taking a supplement (whether it’s a multivitamin or something like Ensure) to cover your bases. Let yourself relax. You’ve got the rest of your life to learn to eat new foods, and you deserve to start from a secure foundation where you feel comfortable.
All of us begin life eating only one thing: breastmilk or formula. From there, we gradually add in more foods, step by step. No one has to do it all at once OR ELSE. As long as you’re eating something, eating is not a dire, life-or-death proposition. You can eat what you’re already eating, and do it with full permission.
Offer Yourself New Foods
To me, offering is the core of learning to eat new foods. Offering means just that.It doesn’t meaning pressing, or pushing, or wheedling. It also doesn’t stop at merely asking yourself whether you theoretically, maybe, might possibly want to try something today (the answer will always be no.) Offering doesn’t stop at just taking a quick glance in the fridge. Offering means putting food on the table, in front of yourself, and then letting it sit there whether you eat it or not.
What’s the point of this, you ask? Exposure. Over time, neutral exposures to things that previously made you feel anxious will take the anxiety away and build new, more positive associations with those things. If you can eat a meal of foods you already know and like, while happily and calmly sitting in the presence of a food you’re not sure about — even if you never touch it or taste it — you will become more relaxed around that food. Eventually you might become curious about it, or exasperated with its presence, and in a fit of pique you might even touch a bit of it to your tongue.
Once you’ve done that, whether you like it or hate it, it is a known quantity. Now you begin to know how to navigate it.
To put offering into practice, you can focus on one new food at a time. Make a list of foods that might be useful to know how to eat, and rank them in order from least-intimidating to most-intimidating. Start on the least-intimidating part of the scale: buy the food, bring it home, and while you’re eating a meal of foods you already like, try putting it on the table in its simplest or least-intimidating form (ask someone else to prepare it for you if that helps, but I often find that doing the prep yourself, even if it’s something as simple as rinsing and cutting a raw vegetable, takes some of the fear and mystery out of it.)
Don’t put it on the plate you’re eating from unless you feel really confident about it. Put it in its own bowl or on a plate, and sit with it while you eat your other food, and notice how it makes you feel. If you get curious about it, approach it, but remember that approach does not necessarily mean “eat.”
You can approach a food without eating it in the following ways:
- Simply glance at it while it sits there.
- Pick up the plate and look at it more closely.
- Poke it with your finger, or move it around with your fork, or cut it in half to see what’s inside.
- Sniff the air over the plate.
- Put another food or a sauce or salt on it, and look at it or smell it again.
- Put a little of it on your eating plate and let it sit there.
- Touch your finger to it, and then taste your finger.
- Touch a tiny part of the food to your tongue.
- Put it in your mouth and take it out again.
- Put it in your mouth and chew it a little, then spit it out (napkins are handy for this.)
The only thing I would suggest is not to play with your food. None of the above things are playing, they are exploring or examining. When I say “play,” I mean use the food for some other intended purpose — making it into a tabletop football, or dancing it around like a puppet, or making it talk, etc. You’re trying to develop an association that this is food, meaning it is something to eat, not a toy or a supply for arts and crafts. Once you have a firmly established food association with it, play all you want, but for now, limit yourself to exposure and exploration. Eventually you’ll get bored and actually want to eat it, just to see what all the fuss is about.
You will have to waste some food in this process. I know, no one wants to hear this, but if you want to make an omelet you have to break some eggs. Children tend to be prodigious food-wasters, and for now, you will probably be one too. Take heart, though: the better you get at feeding yourself, the less food waste there will be. In the long run, you will get so good at feeding yourself that you’ll probably waste less food than if you never learned to eat more foods. So give yourself permission to waste food if you need to, for now. (And provide yourself with napkins, for polite spitting-out as needed.)
You Don’t Have to Like It
Offering also means learning to tolerate the presence of food, and maybe learning to manage to deal with that food, whether you ultimately like it or not. In fact, when it comes to expanding your food repertoire, “liking” is almost irrelevant. You cannot make yourself like a food. Liking is a nice side-effect that sometimes happens when you try a new thing, but it comes in its own time, usually with repeated exposures, and sometimes not at all. And that’s okay. It really doesn’t matter much whether you like certain foods, so don’t put that burden on yourself.
You don’t have to like anything. But what is useful is knowing how to navigate a food, how to deal with it if it shows up at a dinner party, or how to eat it if you’re lost in the woods and it’s the only thing around. It’s also useful to learn, through actual experience rather than vague anxiety, which foods are not worth having in your mouth at any cost.
Trying to convince yourself to like a food is coercive and it undermines your autonomy. Sometimes people have very good reasons for disliking a food. For example, I do not like the taste of raw tomatoes — they taste vaguely of poison to me — and, as it also happens, I once had an allergic reaction to a raw tomato. So I don’t have to like them, and I have a good reason not to. On the other hand, I can tolerate eating them if needed, and if I were stuck on a mountaintop with an inexplicable supply of raw tomatoes, I would not starve to death.
That’s what it means to learn how to navigate a food.
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