Can I help my picky eating partner? 

My boyfriend tells me he sees eating as an unpleasant chore, and since most social occasions are based on food, he avoids those situations as well. He eats only a very few foods, and he has tried a few new fast food items, but nothing beyond that. He was invited over to my parents’ home recently, and I noticed how uncomfortable it made him to ask me if my parents know “he doesn’t eat anything.” He says he has no idea why he’s always been like this, and when asked, he says, “I just don’t eat, I guess.”  I don’t want to overwhelm him or overstep my bounds, but how can I help him? 

Your fella likely has a long history with food that could very probably be described as traumatic. It helps to see his relationship with food on those terms, regardless of his history. If I may be so bold, you are a kind and generous soul for seeking support on his behalf; differences with food has broken many a home and ruined what would otherwise have been good chemistry in a relationship. Food is how we connect with one another socially; isolating an individual because of the food they eat is a cruel form of exclusion.

How to help him depends on what help he wants for himself, and trusting him to know where he is with food and what he can do with eating. Like every human who eats food, we can only do our best with the tools we have. He may not want to pursue a varied diet and that is both his choice and his right. Just because his list of edible items is shorter than most, and he finds eating to be an inconvenient chore does not mean he doesn’t ever want to enjoy food to the best of his ability. It does mean he is likely exhausted with trying to live up to the standard of “never good enough.” The most meaningful act you can do for your guy is accept his ability with eating as normal – because under the circumstances, it is… for him.

 

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If he is willing to try different foods (in any form), he is making progress on his own terms. Fast food is ridiculously predictable, which makes it very safe territory. Any item on the menu will be the same taste, texture, temperature, colour, size, smell… every time, everywhere. Trying food that can be expected to vary slightly (as in something homemade) is a leap of faith he may not be ready for right now. Your boyfriend sets the pace here.

Social occasions are especially hard – not because of the food that’s available as much as what your beau thinks other people are thinking about his eating, and by extension, him as a person. His discomfort with asking if your parents know he doesn’t eat anything communicates a great deal of shame. I hope your parents can understand that your fella’s eating is off limits for conversation. It would really help, should the topic come up, if you can collectively reassure him that none of you care much about what he eats or doesn’t eat, there will always be something on the table that he can manage, and the only expectation for his company around food is to be a polite and enjoyable guest, and of course, to meet the very high standards your parents expect from a young lad dating their daughter. As his partner, the responsibility falls on you to defend him from jokes and prompts to try something he doesn’t want to eat, and to change the subject when others attempt to humiliate him with good intentions.

Everyone has food they don’t like, and it’s okay to not like it. It’s not okay to make someone feel “wrong” or “different” because of the food they prefer. If your boyfriend has never experienced a sense of safety and acceptance around food, you can support him by giving him permission to feel normal about what he CAN eat. What he chooses to do with your kind acceptance of his eating is up to him. Trust that he will do his best.

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