Attn: Picky Eaters of Metafilter
September 24, 2018 12:37 PM   Subscribe

I want to try to understand why picky eaters are picky. A weekend spent with my 11-year-old niece is prompting the question, but this kid's issues are clearly shared to an extent by one of her parents (and some, but not all, of her siblings) and it seems to be an innate thing, not a kid being stubborn. She has been this way virtually since birth.

If you're someone who enjoys only a limited number of foods, and/or is reluctant to try new things - can you explain it to me? Is it that only a few things taste good? Or is it fear of stepping out of your comfort zone? Neither/both?
posted by something something to Food & Drink (55 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
First Bite: How We Learn to Eat by Bee Wilson is a good exploration of the topic.
posted by carrioncomfort at 12:47 PM on September 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

Two things come to mind:

She may be a supertaster. You mention one of her parents has a similar issue -- being a supertaster is genetic. Older people who are supertasters may have expanded their taste range over time, so it's not likely that adult supertasters would be seen as nearly as "picky" as a kid with that ability.

She may have issues with certain textures. This COULD be indicative of sensory processing issues, or it could just be personal preference. I have no diagnosed sensory processing issues but there are certain foods that make me shudder to even think of putting them in my mouth, for no good reason -- raw peaches or oranges, for example.
posted by erst at 12:48 PM on September 24, 2018 [18 favorites]

A lot of it has to do with texture and/or temperature.
posted by 41swans at 12:48 PM on September 24, 2018 [3 favorites]

Hi, I was a super picky eater as a kid and a sort of picky eater as an adult. I find it's a combination of different things. I find bitter flavours very unpleasant, and also I seem to have very sensitive taste buds so lots of things are bitter (I am probably a supertaster). I also find a lot of textures unpleasant - for example, fish, or onions in pasta. I never liked meat much, especially red meat because it tastes like iron which to me tastes like blood, so when I became vegetarian I only gave up chicken and sausage rolls. Oh, and I have a really low tolerance for spicy foods - it's painful! And all wine just tastes like burning, even fizzy drinks feel unpleasant.

So, yeah, there are a limited number of foods that taste good to me. I am actually, as an adult, now really open to trying new things because I know I can choose not to finish it if I don't like it, but as a child I was always super super wary of new food because I didn't want to be forced to finish it if I really didn't like it (Hi mum, I'm onto you, I know that if I eat ONE carrot now it will be two carrots tomorrow, and then five after that, and then I still don't like carrots but now I have to eat them for some reason. This doesn't work and makes me refuse to try things in the first place.)
posted by stillnocturnal at 12:52 PM on September 24, 2018 [5 favorites]

My theory is that I'm probably a supertaster (based on the counting your tastebuds using blue dye method - there is also a chemical that supertasters react strongly to, but I've never tried it). Supertasters often dislike strong flavors — coffee, cheese, alcohol, kale, green tea. I have always hated all of these. I also have almost no tolerance for spicy food - it is physically painful for me to eat it. My reluctance to try new things is because I so rarely like anything new. I've gotten better about that - but I'm almost sixty and I've really worked at it.

As an adult, I've made an effort to like certain foods for health reasons. I finally found a brand of green tea I can tolerate. I have learned to like kale in soups.

But no, it's probably not stubbornness or being obnoxious in some way. It's no fun to have a bunch of foods you can't eat and don't like.

There is probably some food that you dislike. Imagine being told you have to eat it and multiply that by about a thousand. That's life for the child who is a supertaster.
posted by FencingGal at 12:53 PM on September 24, 2018 [7 favorites]

I have a quite limited scope of foods considering I only eat cooked foods generally... raw veggies and ruffage give me a serious stomach ache and always have. They also almost never appeal to me. I would have been seen as picky when I was younger and people are often surprised now.
posted by catspajammies at 12:53 PM on September 24, 2018

Many MeFites shared experiences in this thread and this thread.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:58 PM on September 24, 2018 [3 favorites]

I was raised on US food. I didn't know spinach was a leaf until I was like 18, I thought it was that slimy stuff that came in a can, and that all apples were mealy Red Deliciouses.

I liked simple foods that weren't touching each other. People would put unidentified ingredients in a dish and then dismiss my preferences by not telling me they were there, or try to deny what they really were, or tell me that the quantities were trivial. So it might partly have been a control thing. (But I can *still* taste when someone puts bell peppers in things, peh, peh!)

In some cases, it's zinc deficiency.

Or not exercising enough. But probably not that. I remember that as a kid I'd rather go hungry than eat food I didn't like. I do get a lot less picky when I'm bike touring, though.

In summary: texture, flavor, knowing what I was eating, control, possible zinc deficiency, quality.
posted by aniola at 12:58 PM on September 24, 2018 [3 favorites]

Yes to all of the above, and the added emotional component that gets piled on as the years go by. You get made fun of for not eating certain things by your peers, or made to sit at the table until you finish all of your meal, or constantly nagged because "you don't eat enough!" It makes it hard to enjoy eating, and hard to like trying new things or broaden the range of things that you can eat. I was a somewhat picky eater, but I didn't eat very much. I often couldn't finish my food even if I liked it. I was frequently forced to, and there are some foods now that I used to like, that I can't even stomach and will gag if I try to eat them.
posted by backwards compatible at 1:00 PM on September 24, 2018 [6 favorites]

I am still dealing with the traumatic effects of my parents forcing foods on me that I just could not force myself to eat. I'd vomit at the table. I didn't want to do this. I had/have a ton of shame and anxiety around food over the years which I've worked on in therapy.

If you want to know specifically why lima beans made me vomit or I gagged uncontrollably trying to eat carrots, I dunno. It was the texture, the stress, they didn't taste at all pleasant, the mockery, the fear. Mine was certainly made infinitely worse by my parents reaction to it, and it's a diagnosed disorder in the DSM now.

The only way I could even begin to get over this was to divorce food from pressure to perform in public and be normal. I basically try foods super low key either by myself or in situations where I won't be judged/observed harshly.

I had an AskMe about it 7 years ago. Wow, I've come a long way.

Please do not shame her. Please.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 1:01 PM on September 24, 2018 [23 favorites]

My SO won't drink milk or cream since she found out it came out of a cow's underdangles when she was a kid. She is fine with cheese, ice cream and chocolate. I think this sums up to, it may not be entirely rational.
posted by biffa at 1:01 PM on September 24, 2018 [2 favorites]

It’s largely about texture, for me. Things that are very soft or very crunchy are usually okay. Anything in the middle has a high enough likelihood of making me gag or vomit that I’m not super excited about gambling on it in the company of my friends, family, coworkers, etc.
posted by Stacey at 1:02 PM on September 24, 2018 [3 favorites]

I am easily grossed out, which is why I was.
posted by jenfullmoon at 1:08 PM on September 24, 2018 [4 favorites]

I was a picky eater as a kid and I guess I'm still a little picky. A lot of foods tasted bad to me - most vegetables, for instance. Texture is important to me too. Oatmeal, eggplant, and avocado, for example, still seem to me to have unpleasant textures. I tended to assume I wouldn't like a lot of foods even without trying them. Partly just because that's what kids do and partly because I had come across enough foods that tasted bad that I had what felt like a realistic fear that anything new would be another one of them. I hated the idea of foods that had sauces or were mixtures of lots of things. Some of that was probably because I had come across sauces that were too strong tasting, because sauces gave foods a bad texture, or because mixes of foods might be more likely to include things that tasted bad or things I was afraid could taste bad. (Now I love foods that are mixtures of lots of things!)

I think bad tastes and bad textures seem more strongly bad to me than they do to a lot of people. Have you ever eaten something that made you gag or feel like you might gag if you had to eat too much of it? I think every picky eater has had that experience but I think there are a lot of other people out there who haven't experienced that at all.
posted by Redstart at 1:08 PM on September 24, 2018 [2 favorites]

I was a picky eater and am still sort of one. My aversions were largely texture. Slimy things, grisly things, crunching on a bit of bone in a sausage or hamburger patty = instant gagging. Do you like gagging? Would you enjoy trying to control your gag reflex at a table with a bunch of other people where it would be impolite to openly gag? Probably not. (Doesn't that sound stressful?)

Then my parents doubled-down on all of it by forcing me to sit at the table until I'd had X number of bites of the thing that made me gag. I didn't try new foods until I was on my own because then it was safe. When I was a kid, cooked broccoli and cauliflower smelled like a sewer to me and tasted really vile. Now I love them--I attribute a large part of that to the extra kid taste buds having died off.

Some of it was also personality. I have never liked being told what to do nor when someone tries to manipulate me. I still remember a lady at a family cookout trying to get me to eat a potato skin "because it has fiber and is good for you." I may have been five but I could tell she was judging me and screw her. Now I love potato skins. She should have kept her nose out of it.
posted by purple_bird at 1:08 PM on September 24, 2018 [6 favorites]

I was a picky eater well into adulthood. Some of it was, as I later learned when I put some thought into it, definitely a texture thing. Oatmeal (real oatmeal, not the instant stuff) smells AMAZING to me. I keep trying to like it but I gag at the first bite every single time. Can't do mushrooms because of the texture. I also don't like certain super strong smells; yogurt smells like rotten milk to me. Again, it looks amazing (blueberry whole fruit yogurt, I'm looking at you) but when the spoon gets close to my mouth, I smell rotting food and I can't do it.

Some of my pickiness was due to my mother really indulging me in unhealthy ways. She never, ever made me try anything (I know there's a fine line between trying a bite of something and forcing a child to eat) that I didn't want to try. She also let me quit basically every activity I ever started, but that's another story. She never wanted me to be uncomfortable in any way, including trying new foods.

My husband first convinced me to try new foods when I was in my 20s. I didn't have Indian food until I was past 25. I can't believe how many Indian-food-free years I lived! I still don't like mushrooms or yogurt or oatmeal, no matter how much I want to. But I will try pretty much anything now and I have an incredibly varied diet.

My daughter was a picky eater from birth. My husband and I decided not to make an issue out of it and we just provided her with the stuff she liked, and we also had a small plate next to her meal that had a little bite of everything the rest of us were eating (including her three-years-elder brother). We never forced her to try any of it, it was just there as a suggestion. One day when she was maybe 5 she tried something off the "try me" plate and she pretty much never went back to being picky after that. She was the 9-year-old having her birthday dinner at the sushi place. I would never have expected that when she was 2! I don't know if she just didn't like the way things tasted or if it was a texture thing or a control thing. All I know is we didn't force her to taste anything and she eventually grew out of it.
posted by cooker girl at 1:20 PM on September 24, 2018 [11 favorites]

Honestly (as the parent of a child with restricted eating), if someone could figure out the actual, technical root-cause "why" about "picky" eating, you'd probably win awards. All I can tell you is that it is clearly innate (he's been this way since he was tiny), it is partly about texture, and partly about flavor. In our family it does appear to be genetic - my mother in law can (and does) taste a speck of lettuce about 1mm square on a sandwich ... and she will (with great delicacy) remove it from her mouth. My husband finds foods that have veggies mixed in (like chicken pot pie) "disgusting" and avoids them rigorously.

My son's eating is not as restricted as it once was, but texture is a huge part of it ... as is fear. If he doesn't know what an ingredient is, he won't try it, because he's had so many negative experiences.

I can also say that past negative experiences do seem to play a part. As a small child he loved bananas and would eat them almost daily. One day he sneezed and gagged on his banana and he has never again eaten one. This happened when he was about three, so I doubt he has any actual memory of the incident now, but bananas remain on the forbidden list.
posted by anastasiav at 1:23 PM on September 24, 2018 [2 favorites]

It’s largely about texture, for me.

Ditto! I have a bunch of sensory things going on in my world: hate taking showers (i do anyhow), need heavy blankets, can't deal with itchy clothing, have a hard time with loud sounds or bright lights... so I assume my food stuff is/was part of that. My mom sort of gave up when I was a kid and so I got to mostly make my own food, ate what i wanted, and this reinforced existing patterns. She also wasn't a great cook so things like vegetables when I was a kid were the worst whereas now I mostly like them.

I grew out of a LOT of it and now the things I don't like are more outlier things and I will eat them if there's no way around it, I just prefer not to. So now as a grown up I won't eat seafood, olives, mushrooms or egg dishes (eggs in other things OK, there is a French Toast Line where anything less eggy is fine). I will try basically anything else, though if left to my own devices in my own home I eat basically five or six things most days.
posted by jessamyn at 1:25 PM on September 24, 2018 [3 favorites]

Also, a young relative has a sensory processing disorder that affects her ability to eat a variety of foods.

I think it's important to understand that thinking a child can control this is like expecting a depressed person to snap out of it or a child with Aspberger's to just suck it up and make eye contact more. I'm not saying you're expecting that — but a lot of people really don't get it and it's horrible for the children and, often, for their overwhelmed parents who are judged by people who assume they could easily solve the problem.
posted by FencingGal at 1:25 PM on September 24, 2018 [3 favorites]

My brother couldn't move his tongue from side to side, which made it physically hard to eat some things, especially things like peas and rice. He eventually went to speech therapy which helped.
posted by jrobin276 at 1:27 PM on September 24, 2018

I used to be a very picky eater as a kid. As an adult, I don't think I'm that picky, but but I still do have some specific quirks to my eating habits (which incidentally is why I think I got labelled picky as a kid; because I didn't like typical "kid" foods-see below).

Texture is a huge thing for me. In particular, very soft/mushy things are a hard no most of the time. I'm still scarred by the time I had to force down these salmon croquette patty things as a kid. It makes me gag just thinking about it. Mayonnaise, cottage cheese, creamy dressings (ranch, etc). Nope nope nope. I don't eat ketchup, although it's not as unappealing as the other stuff I just listed. (For some reason, I'm okay with yogurt, although I still occasionally have had yogurt or bananas trigger a gag reflex. I also can't stand ripe bananas...again, a lot of it is texture.) Similarly, I don't like cream based pasta dishes or any sort of potato salad or egg salad or anything like that. Soups are okay, as long as it's a thinner broth type base. Chowders or something with a cream base, not so much.

I also used to think I didn't like cheese, but I now realize I mostly couldn't stand kraft singles or cheddar cheese that kids typically ate. Although I tend to prefer more mild cheeses (mozzarella, Monterey jack). For whatever reason, cooked cheese is also much more okay for me then un cooked cheese. I also hate hot dogs, and because I'm picky about condiments, I tend not to like a lot of standard sandwiches (you know, lunchmeat, deli cheese, condiments), because it would basically just be bread+deli meat, which is pretty unappetizing. For whatever reason, I also am okay with most veggies, but again, I'm generally much happier if they're cooked.

The fact that I didn't like hot dogs, cheese sticks, and a lot of standard American style condiments was enough to have me labelled as a picky eater. It also wasn't until I lived on my own that I was able to branch out enough to discover a lot of the types of foods that I do enjoy.

I don't think I'm a super taster, because the other issue is that I actually hate bland food. (I'm one of those "poor a pile of salt" on my food people, unless it's got enough other spices to compensate.) So for example, if I go to an Indian restaurant or a vietnamese or thai place, I'd be willing to taste most if not all of the things on the menu. However, more American style food is actually where I have the most hang ups. Bitterness and spiciness aren't a problem for me. (Well, spicy is a problem for my heartburn, but I enjoy it from a taste perspective.)

I don't have a diagnosed sensory processing disorder, but as a kid, I also wouldn't wear certain kinds of clothes because I didn't like the texture (for years I wouldn't wear jeans), and even now, I have some auditory processing issues, so who knows.
posted by litera scripta manet at 1:28 PM on September 24, 2018 [5 favorites]

Ding Ding Ding = supertasters being genetic. At least in our case (my poor son.)

Popping in to say this form of “picky” includes and insanely sensitive sense of smell. The good news is you can turn it into a job in the culinary arts, wine, perfumery, etc.. You can definitely overcome it and make it a friend. Except for when people or their homes smell nasty, that never gets better.
posted by jbenben at 1:30 PM on September 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

I was a very picky eater as a child; I'm far less so now but I'm still a slight pain in the ass to go to dinner with because I'm hard to share dishes with. It can also be stressful for me to go to someone's house for dinner if we won't be ordering in. For me, it's mostly about texture; squishy or slimy things are a hard no. There aren't too many tastes I'll reject out of hand, though. For example, I kind of like the taste of uni -- it's mostly brine -- but the texture freaks me out.

I also have problems with soups or stews, as in, I won't eat them, full stop. Well, to be a bit more specific: I can eat clear broth, but it can't have anything at all in it apart from maybe a matzoh ball (and that I eat mostly to be polite). That's a question of texture, and not being able to see what I'm eating; who knows what icky things people can hide in there?!

Like others here, my mother tried to force me to eat foods I despised (egg salad being the most prominent), and it was actually really traumatic. Needless to say, I still hate egg salad, because as it turns out, forcing a child to choke down a food she hates does not make her like the food any better. Imagine that.
posted by holborne at 1:30 PM on September 24, 2018 [3 favorites]

And the tl;dr version of all that is that it's largely about texture for me, and I do think there's some sensory processing issues tied up in all of this.

Oh, and I was always like this, fwiw. My mother cooked a lot, and she was a big believer in the trying to get me to eat some of everything, so it wasn't for lack of exposure. (In fact, the things I still hate are pretty much all things I was exposed to as a kid; a lot of the foods I've realized I like as an adult are things I never tried as a kid.)

But with all that being said, I still tend to eat the same couple of dishes on a regular basis. Fortunately, I'm the kind of person who can eat the same meal 5 days in a row without issue if it's something I like. This might be a natural adaptation to being a picky eater kid.
posted by litera scripta manet at 1:34 PM on September 24, 2018

I feel like it's a bit futile to pin down any single underlying issue for pickiness when there can be a wide variety of factors at stake, some more important than others depending on the individual. I know there are foods I can't stand primarily because of the texture (avocados), and foods that just taste horrible to me (cilantro; tastes like soap to me). I have a brother on the autism spectrum that has an extremely limited range of foods he'll eat, directly related to sensory processing and other issues stemming from that.

Pickiness derives from some other underlying issue that's not always particularly obvious from the outside, and could be related to a variety of factors. It could be that they're a supertaster, but it could just as easily be a variety of other reasons too, so I'd be wary of jumping to any specific conclusion based on what you've described.
posted by Aleyn at 1:34 PM on September 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

When I was about four years old I threw up at the table after taking a bite of cottage cheese and ever since then I've been scared to try new things. As an adult, I am able to make more rational decisions about trying new food, but I steer clear of anything that seems to be of a texture that might make me gag.
posted by GoldenEel at 1:35 PM on September 24, 2018

For me, it's really a question of opportunity cost. I truly love eating, and I only get three meals a day to indulge that pleasure. I don't want to waste one of them (not to mention the money and, if I'm preparing it at home, time) on food that I can't guarantee will taste good. This isn't a total reluctance to try new food; the first time I ate shepherd's pie, for example, I was not worried at all, because it's composed of ingredients I enjoy. But in cases where I can immediately comprehend what something would taste like (e.g. tzatziki - who ever thought of mixing cucumbers into Greek yogurt?), it came take me quite a while to actually try it. (As it happens, I now love tzatziki.) I still have not tried Korean BBQ yet, because I just can't wrap my head around it. When I think about what to eat, I'm balancing that uncertainty ("Korean BBQ may or may not be good) against a certainty ("pizza/enchiladas/gyros/whatever are definitely good").

Personally, if you want to get psychoanalytical, I'm starting to realize it probably goes back to childhood stability. My dad was has pretty dissimilar taste buds, and he's uncompromising, so when I was with him, I was served a lot of food I didn't like (still scared of Swedish meatballs to this day), which often meant I would go to bed hungry. My mom both has better taste and was more concerned about us actually eating full meals, so on the off occasion she cooked something I didn't like, she'd find a way, whether it was Bagel Bites or McDonalds or cooking a second meal, to make sure I wasn't hungry. So that's probably a big part of it, and that also got wrapped up in other complicated feelings about security and affection relating to their respective parenting styles. Basically, eating food I don't like makes me feel deprived, which causes mild panic. So my example may not be that helpful, ha.

I do have some texture stuff (I don't like crispiness - potato chips are awful, carmelized or pickled onions are infinitely preferable to raw), but I believe most of that came later, as an adult.
posted by kevinbelt at 1:38 PM on September 24, 2018 [2 favorites]

I don't consider myself picky any more, but I am... particular. As a kid, I was definitely picky and my own kid is pretty picky. I am a supertaster (damn those bitterness test strip thingies, which I could not taste, I have all the other hallmarks of being a supertaster so I'm going with it) and that's a big component. I can taste when someone has added coffee to a chocolate dessert at like 1 part per billion and I HATE it. Like, scrape it off my tongue immediately hate it. I taste flavors in food that my husband is baffled by the existence of.

Secondly: I'm sensitive to texture. My kid has this sensitivity as well, and I am super sympathetic. Slimy and mushy things are right out. When soup is made at my house, I have to make it because I'm the only one who pays attention to when to add the various ingredients so they don't get mushy. Mushy food makes me gag and I've got I guess some weird oral mechanics going on when I eat and drink (I do drink really weird, people have remarked on this).

I'll tell you what though: it is possible to do everything "right" with your kid and still have that kid go through "only eats white food" typed pickiness phases. At 9 months old, my son was happily chowing down on homemade lentil coconut curry puree. We made all his baby food at home and he experienced a large variety of flavors and textures. At 18 months, he'd basically stopped eating to such a degree that he began to lose weight and he we had to get medical professionals involved. That lasted for 2-3 years and then round about 5 years old he started eating more like a typical picky kid and not an actualfax breathetarian.
posted by soren_lorensen at 1:40 PM on September 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

Mostly-former picky eater here. I think for me a lot of it was a combination of aversion and autonomy. Basically any time my parents forced me to eat a thing I didn't like, I relearned and reinforced the original aversion. The aversions got worse the more I was forced. It wasn't just any one thing (taste, texture, or smell), though.

As an adult I have found my way into eating a lot of foods I wouldn't touch as a kid. The big thing for me has been figuring out what was "no, I just don't like that" and what's actually setting off a bad reaction. The things in the first category I can generally train myself to eat without too much difficulty (big wins: salad and fish), but the things in the second category trigger a reflex like I'm eating something rotten (sorry, poultry and eggplant, it's just not going to work out between us).
posted by fedward at 1:51 PM on September 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

I am really picky but I also eat a lot of unusual things, so it is not at all a fear of weird things. I love rye bread, sushi, goat cheese, calamari and root beer, for example. Mostly it is either flavor or texture. I hate raw tomatoes and cantaloupe because of the flavor. I don't like steak because of the texture but I do eat thin roast beef and hamburger. I don't like brown gravy, but I do like chicken pot pie and the lighter gravy in it. That is also a flavor thing.

There are a few things I don't eat because they don't agree with me, like cabbage and Coke Zero. I'm also very intolerant of pine nuts. When I verify these items are not in my order, I probably appear picky because I don't want to go into detail about how they affect me. TMI, you know? When I ask for no tomatoes, often the question of an allergy comes up and I am always clear that I am not allergic. So, if they put some on and have to take them off, that's not a problem for me.
posted by soelo at 2:09 PM on September 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

Also, I had some other food aversions that were about how the food made my stomach feel. In particular: pancakes and blueberry muffins. Decades later I was diagnosed with celiac disease. (Some aversions may be your body saying "no!" for good reasons.)
posted by purple_bird at 2:09 PM on September 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

I was a "picky" eater as a child and although I'm not sure what is and isn't a supertaster, I definitely have a highly developed sense of taste--I will sit with a relative who used to be a professional taste tester and discuss the various notes in corn syrup-sweetened baked goods vs sugar-sweetened. While I still loathe melons and can't handle spicy foods, I've learned to love black coffee and spinach and sushi and all sorts of things. There are few things I don't eat. And this all started switching on very quickly at about age 18.

Why 18? Why not another age?

Well at 18 I became responsible for my own food, and I started eating actual food for the first time in my life. Before I had been exposed mostly to highly processed, often ill-prepared foods. Now I was the kid in the college dining hall saying "SPINACH! I NEVER got to have SPINACH as a child!" and filling my plate with fresh spinach. When I tried to make a pie like I'd had in childhood--store bought crust, Jell-O pudding, and Cool-Whip-- I spat out the first bite because I could taste all of the nasty chemicals in it.

When I go home I'm still a picky eater. Subway bread is nasty to me and smells like feet. Fast-food burgers horrify me. The KFC biscuits have SOMETHING WEIRD in there for texture, and god help me when I'm faced with my mother's back-of-the-soup-can casseroles. The sysco truck is my nemesis. I could live in a rural area again but I would have to make EVERYTHING from scratch.
posted by Hypatia at 2:21 PM on September 24, 2018 [4 favorites]

I’m not a supertaster; rather the opposite. I can taste BIG FLAVORS and that’s about it. Trying new foods isn’t that enjoyable to me. Foodies mystify me. There’s basically zero benefit to me to eat something new. (Besides social/health reasons).

Add to that the fact that I have reflux, allergies, and intolerances, and I generally associate new food with being uncomfortable, at best.

Now that I’m an adult, I am not notably pathologically picky, but probably only because I know how to avoid new-food situations altogether.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 2:30 PM on September 24, 2018

I'm a pretty picky eater (I'm better as an adult than as a kid, though I do bring my own food places still Just In Case) and yeah, a lot of it is texture issues. A lot of mushy stuff is a no go and...I guess the best way to describe it is "inconstant texture" like bread with seeds baked in or unexpectedly encountering a seed in a section of orange. Either of those things will make me gag. A lot of it is also smell-based. If a food smells bad to me - and a lot of commonly-enjoyed foods like tomato sauce or potatos smell bad to me - I'm not going to put it in my mouth.

As an adult, I'm pretty okay with trying new things if they don't look like they're going to be a badwrong texture, they smell all right, and they're not made of things that aren't already on the This Does Not Go In My Mouth list. Some of the things on that list have been reevaluated but I can't eat them around people who knew they were on the list, because they always make such a big deal about it and I feel self-conscious and anxious. So, y'know, if your niece has never liked eating a certain vegetable and one day decides to try a bite, maybe don't stare at her the whole time and then ask a lot of questions about the experience because that is why it took me so long to start being okay eating rice.
posted by darchildre at 2:32 PM on September 24, 2018

Food allergies/intolerances are a big part of it, for me. I have mild to moderate allergies to eggs, peanuts, and shellfish. So there is always that fear of something I'm allergic to being in what I'm eating. (Egg is in SO. MANY. THINGS.) Trying new things stresses me out because it could be something I am allergic to, but due to never having tried it I don't know about it. In addition, I also suspect I might be a supertaster because I can't stand stinky cheese, fish, or bitter things, and generally hate the taste of alcohol.

Add to that the fact that both of my parents are picky eaters with an aversion to trying anything new, ever, and it ends up with me being the most adventurous eater in the family, despite all of the above.
posted by jet_pack_in_a_can at 2:36 PM on September 24, 2018

The real answer for most people, though, is that everyone’s brain categorizes items as “food” or “not food.” It’s evolutionarily beneficial to not eat “not food.” Because we’re people, a lot of this is socially-learned, but some of it is instinctive. What is considered unreasonably picky changes based on the context, and a mismatch between instinct and social context = “picky.”
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 2:39 PM on September 24, 2018 [2 favorites]

A lot of what I was going to say was said already, so I just want to add this one point - food pickiness can look irrational to the outsider, but they make total sense to the picky eater in question.

Case in point - me. My least favorite food on the planet is cheese. I can barely tolerate it, even in it's blandest forms. The taste is too powerful, the texture is revolting, and it just poisons whatever dish it touches with it's absolute foulness. I'll watch a food recipe video, think 'Oh, that looks good!', until they invariably introduce the cheese, and then I'm like NOPE nope NO.

However, I love Cheetos and Cheez-its. Can't get enough of them. Friends have asked for an explanation, and all I can do is shrug my shoulders, and mumble something about textures.
posted by spinifex23 at 3:13 PM on September 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

Children have strong drives both to neophilia -- trying new things -- and neophobia -- fearing new things, both of which help them stay alive by learning and experiencing new things that are beneficial, and by avoiding and fearing new things that might kill them. You can watch kids cycle between those two poles on a lot of developmental issues (now she's terrified of playground equipment; now she's a dardevil! now he wants to meet every new person he sees; now he cries and hides behind mom!), and food is one of the areas where that is most intense, since food is literally a life-and-death situation in choosing between nourishment and poison.

So, leaving aside supertasting, allergies, texture problems, bad parenting control dynamics, etc., food pickiness in children is totally normal, and tends to go in cycles. If you have an idiopathic picky eater (that is, there's nothing else going on causing the pickiness), pediatric nutritionists will suggest waiting for a slightly more neophiliac phase with food and introducing new foods in that phase, when kids are open to it, and not fighting a losing battle during neophobic phases. The idea there is that you get over the newness hump when they're in a liking-new-things phase, and then work to maintain the broader diet during the hating-new-things phase (but don't add any further expansion). We were given this advice for a picky eater with some other stuff going on, but we've found it to be good advice for normal childhood food pickiness (what I like to call "age-appropriate dislike of casseroles."). The nutritionist also told us that everyone just has their own neophobia/neophilia set point when it comes to food, and some people are just naturally adventurous eaters and others are naturally resistant to trying new food, and it's not worth getting super worked up about in adults as long as they're eating reasonably healthy.

What gets called "picky" is also very culturally mediated -- I'm a pretty broad eater, but I absolutely loathe cucumbers (they taste disgusting to me), so I calmly and quietly pick them off my salad, and all the dang time people notice me doing that and call me picky ... because refusing to eat cucumbers is weird in the US. Hating kale (which I love!) is normal and doesn't make you picky, but hating cucumbers is picky. Hating mashed potatoes will get you marked as picky, but hating mashed rutabaga will be considered quite normal.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:14 PM on September 24, 2018 [17 favorites]

I'm autistic, and like many autistic people I have real trouble with some textures in foods. Gooey and slimy are real problems for me; undercooked egg white is awful. It's no fun to be eating a dish I otherwise love, notice that the egg white isn't set, and feel my stomach convulse with nausea.

In other respects, I'm quite an adventurous eater. I like foods from many different cultures and cuisines and I love spicy and sour and bitter flavors, but some textures I just can't get down. Luckily, I'm an adult so nobody tries to force me to.
posted by Lexica at 3:28 PM on September 24, 2018 [2 favorites]

I'm another adult who is a genuine picky eater.

I am a supertaster (I think - I haven't ever had it tested, but it sure seems that way), plus I have been diagnosed with moderate OCD. These two things combined mean a lot of flavors and textures literally make me gag.

Growing up I didn't mind the taste of lettuce, but it tasted really, really strong to me. If it was on something - a sandwich, a tostada, etc. - then all I would taste was lettuce. So I had to order everything except for salads without lettuce.

I'm fine with the taste of tomatoes, but the texture weirds me out. The seeds are slimy and the peel sometimes rolls up into little spears that I hate. I know, intellectually, that it shouldn't matter, but it does.

And then there are foods like onions where I detest the taste AND the texture and immediately gag if I bite into one.

None of this is controllable, although I have expanded my palate a bit as I've gotten older. But when I was a kid my family acted like I was just being a baby, which only made it worse.
posted by tacodave at 3:46 PM on September 24, 2018

I was considered a picky eater when I was a kid but as an adult I realize (and have had this confirmed by other adults) that both my parents are objectively terrible cooks. Home-cooked food in my childhood house was invariably disgusting which made me dislike things I now love (red meat, curry) and made me shudder to even contemplate things I now think are acceptable (spinach, chicken soup).
posted by pseudostrabismus at 4:30 PM on September 24, 2018 [3 favorites]

I suppose I currently identify as a picky eater because ever since getting sick a few months ago my appetite and taste buds have severely limited what I want to eat. Some of it is due to texture - the thought of eating meat or anything thick/creamy makes me gag. Salads and raw vegetables are a turn-off because they have started to wreak havoc on my intestines (IBS?). I mostly subsist on starches, broths, and very-cooked vegetables these days.

When I was a kid I was adventurous and always had crazy stuff in my lunch box. It caused a lot of not-positive attention at lunch time but didn't deter me. My classmates who seemed picky seemed to avoid anything that was "weird" and would make them stand out socially. Just a hunch.
posted by joan_holloway at 4:33 PM on September 24, 2018

My hypothesis for the broadest answer is that to a certain extent, picky eating makes evolutionary sense. (And so does adventurous eating - we are a species of contradictions.) Human beings can survive and even thrive on all sorts of diets both limited and varied, but we're not as canny as some of our animal cousins when it comes to avoiding things that could make us sick. We rely on memory and pattern matching as much or more than on our senses, and you could argue that some of our ancestors who found a few "safe" foods and stuck to them might have had a leg up on would-be ancestors who went around sticking everything in their mouths.

I'm not a super picky eater myself, but my "no"s are hard "no"s. Anything too bitter or under-ripe (tasting "green" when it shouldn't) pings as tasting chemically/cleaner-y to me, and certain woody, pulpy, or stringy textures make me gag. Happily, this still leaves most things open to me outside of green bananas, green beans, raw oranges, mature asparagus, etc., and some of my favourites are things that are common turn-offs (olives, anchovies, spinach, blue cheese), but I sympathize with other people for whom certain foods set off a physical reaction or anxiety.
posted by northernish at 4:37 PM on September 24, 2018

I think the big dividing line that is sometimes hard to get across to normal people is that "oh I'm so picky, look at this long list of foods I don't eat" is a still huge distance from where some people are. I have a list of foods that I *do* eat, and it fits comfortably on a page. It doesn't really bother me though, because of two things:

1. I can suppress the fear reaction to trying new things and just try them out of curiosity. I still don't *like* 99% of new things (sometimes taste or texture or both), and sometimes I can't even swallow a bite. But it's a big positive to feel like I'm not letting fear of the unknown limit my options unnecessarily. I think this is really hard for children - I couldn't do it until adulthood.

2. Picky eating can lead to extreme social anxiety - avoiding social situations where people are eating, compulsive lying to avoid the topic, fear of offending hosts, and generally a spiral of avoidance tactics. I'm almost completely immune to that - I have no hesitation in saying that I'm exceptionally picky and couldn't possibly eat anything at your party, but I'm happy to be there and please don't worry about it. I don't mind if people insist on asking a dozen follow-up questions when learning this for the first time.

If I was raising a picky child I would focus on these kind of coping mechanisms rather than specific food choices or diagnoses. As plenty of others have said above, sometimes pickiness is a temporary thing and sometimes there's an underlying cause that isn't fixable.
posted by allegedly at 5:13 PM on September 24, 2018 [2 favorites]

I was a fairly picky eater as a child and as an adult, but when I turned 40 two things happened: I totally lost my sweet tooth, and I became the least picky eater I know. I guess the two things are probably related, but I don't know. I feel like the sweet tooth went first... like I was eating all kinds of candy and drinking soda every day and then couldn't stand anything sweet at all (except sweet baked goods, for some reason, although just a bit at a time).

I can totally remember hating squash and mushrooms and liver and a bunch of other stuff, and I think it was all related to texture. When I put mushrooms in my mouth now I still remember the revulsion and expect the same reaction, but it's fine. Same with squash, especially.

I'll basically eat anything now, and I haven't run into anything I didn't like for 8 years, including Kæstur hákarl (Icelandic fermented shark)... like I could tell it really shouldn't be food, but the taste and texture didn't bother me at all, I kind of liked it.
posted by Huck500 at 5:54 PM on September 24, 2018

I wasn't an exceptionally picky eater as a child, but it did take me time to get used to the idea of a food I hadn't tried before. My parents were good about this, in that mostly they left me alone if I didn't want to eat something. I might be frowned at but that was it. My uncle was another matter. Very fond of bloody steaks, lobster and crabs, caviar and the like (he hosted a lot of gatherings for his work, so foods like these were often around) he would get very annoyed when I refused to try these things, because his own kids, who were my age, liked them just fine. I didn't eat those foods at home, though, so the idea of eating bleeding nearly-raw meat or peeling apart a crustacean or ingesting a pile of fish eggs grossed me out. As an adult, I eventually learned to eat medium-rare steaks (before going vegetarian) but there was always the faintest sense of queasiness involved... maybe because of my uncle, but more likely because we just never ate steaks growing up. So much of food and how people perceive it, ime, is closely tied to how they experienced it as children, sensory issues and so forth aside.
posted by Armed Only With Hubris at 6:12 PM on September 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

I was a picky eater as a kid, and also a very small child with a tiny stomach. I am not a supertaster, but some mushy foods, and vegetables with a strong “green” flavor, are a no go for me. Asparagus, green peppers, olives, broccoli, Lima beans, peas, green beans, that sort of thing. Cooked fruits and vegetables are largely a no, certain flavor profiles (particularly spicy or sweet/sour), cooked beans, fruit pies, soups with vegetables or beans.

As an adult, I like a decent array of fruits and vegetables that I almost always eat raw. I’m fine with mashed potatoes, cottage cheese, oatmeal, rice pudding, lox, so it’s not mushy foods across the board, or even cooked vs. raw, it’s just kind of a pass/fail based on the specific food item. And I do like shellfish and sushi, which a lot of supposedly non-picky eaters won’t eat.

And yes, the primary driver behind my developing a wider palate as an adult is because I have complete autonomy over whether or not I eat something. Nobody is literally forcing me to sit down and put an item of food in my mouth or risk shame, yelling, grounding, or physical violence. It’s amazing what a damper those things put on your appetite and sense of adventure!

I’m still pretty hesitant to try new foods, but I’ve largely adopted the “try it just to say I did” philosophy and can brag that I’ve enjoyed things like head cheese, whipped pork fat, various kinds of roe, beef carpaccio, and many other foods that a lot of people wouldn’t eat. Practically everyone I know refuses to eat clams, which I love, for almost exactly the reasons I refuse to eat beans, so it’s really just a matter of perspective.
posted by Autumnheart at 7:28 PM on September 24, 2018

Wanted to add that my son has mild autism and has always been a picky eater. At age 3 he only ate 9 foods. He’s had years of feeding therapy to overcome aversion to smells and textures that make him gag or vomit. After a lengthy GI workup including endoscopy with biopsy, we found that he has mild Eosinophilic Esophagitis (EoE), which is a local mixed allergic response to some kind of food(s) in the esophagus. The specialists told me it’s auite common for so-called picky eaters to self-regulate/restrict because they are very intuitive about avoiding foods that make them sick (reflux, pain, and/or this allergic response). Fascinating and sad.
posted by sealee at 11:26 PM on September 24, 2018 [5 favorites]

Everyone I know sees me as an experimental omnivore, but recently I've learnt that I am actually a very picky eater, and that helps me help kids who struggle with food.
My gran was a supertaster, and she was great with picky eater kids, so I guess I've learnt from her, even though I didn't get what she was doing when it happened. And my youngest, who is adult now, was an almost-not-at-all-eater till she was three or something, after which she gradually became an omnivore. Maybe she is also a supertaster, we haven't tested it, but it fits with her development in food.

When I was a kid, my stepfather insisted we eat everything, and he made quite a spectacle of bringing home weird stuff from his travels and also all sorts of shellfish and veggies on a day-to-day basis. We went out fishing for uni and garfish and ate them the same day. We foraged, not only with him, but also with our grandparents and aunts and uncles. They hunted, and brought in crabs and shrimps from friends. I liked all of that. My mother preferred and prefers baby-food to this day, and on several occasions when my stepdad was away, I have vomited at the table when some sort of bland obnoxious gruel or porridge or mash or soupish thing was dinner. My dad and stepmom loved bland food like hotdogs and potato salad, and I hated it, but never to the point where I was sick. Writing this, I realize there has to be some psychological aspect to it. I would eat everything if my stepdad was home, or if I was at my grandparents, and almost nothing except my few favorite foods in all other situations. (Favorite foods being rye-bread with chopped liver and pickled beetroots, or smoked herring with raw onion, for instance. This added to the perception that I was an omnivore but a bad child).
I also had a rare allergy to MSG. No, I didn't get headaches or whatever, I had severe rashes and respiratory symptoms including astma, but because it was so rare, it wasn't acknowledged till I was adult, and I spent many hours of childhood in dark rooms with medicine. I've grown out of it, and I love my parmesan cheese and soy sauce, but I still hate the taste of chemical MSG added to processed foods.

Back to practical stuff: With my youngest, we all agreed to ignore her pickiness and just eat, we have family dinners every day, and we always have several choices of food, so she could eat what she liked. Over time, she moved from only eating the bread and butter to eating everything there, and now even asking for the dishes she hated the most like fried egg-plant. We never talked about it, never criticized her, just put out the food.
posted by mumimor at 5:21 AM on September 25, 2018

I've been a picky eater all my life. By the time I remember becoming aware I was a picky eater my parents had mostly given up trying to make me eat foods I hated. My mum told me when I was younger she'd tried following James Dobson's advice and reheating the same meal over and over until the child got hungry enough to eat it, but by the third or fourth reheating she didn't think anyone would be able to stomach the food so she gave up. (I have no memory of this at all.)

I have two brothers. The youngest was also a picky eater as a child (I'm not sure about now) and the middle brother would eat anything.

Many, many foods are just not appealing to me because of some combination of taste, texture, appearance, smell and association (onion: combination of taste and texture; mango: taste is unpleasant but the smell is worse). Some foods I'm able to tolerate eating but it isn't enjoyable. There are other foods I can only eat in very small quantities before I hit my limit and my gag reflex kicks in.

For instance, pumpkin has always been one of the foods I dislike and one of the few my mum insisted on still giving me. I used to choke it down by cutting off the edges to make my piece as small as possible and swallowing it whole with an equal-sized dab of margarine. I tried a little bit of pumpkin again recently at a dinner with a fixed menu and it was still awful. But I did manage to teach my myself to tolerate flat whites/lattes/other milk-based coffees without sugar after reading Bee Wilson's book.

Sometimes foods get better with exposure and sometimes they don't. I don't try new foods because if I'm at a restaurant I don't want to spend money on a meal I might not like, and if I'm cooking for myself I don't want to spend time and money on something I won't eat and have to duplicate the effort to make something I can eat. I don't enjoy cooking or deciding to eat so I minimise it as much as possible. I make all my meals for the week ahead on Sunday so it's out of the way. I generally rotate between a few dishes that I don't mind eating and don't take too much effort to make. When I'm looking at a new recipe I'm always mentally subtracting the ingredients I wouldn't use and trying to work out if it's still possible to make and will taste good without those ingredients.

Quite a lot of the clearer memories I have of my childhood centre around food. I disliked family mealtimes partly because it was a constant reminder that I was defective/unhealthy/a disappointment/and embarrassment, because I couldn't just eat anything I was given.

When we were in primary school my mum packed our lunches. For a while I was having a peanut butter sandwich everyday because there was nothing else I would/could eat. My mum used to make dozens in advance and freeze them. One day when I was about 7 or 8 I was eating my defrosted sandwich and the smell/texture suddenly became overwhelming and I couldn't keep eating. So for some stretch of time (months maybe?) I didn't get lunch. I remember secretly throwing my sandwich in the bin at the end of the day when no teachers were looking, because my school had a rule against throwing out food and I didn't want to get in trouble at home for not eating my lunch.

In high school I was responsible my own lunch. For most of years 11 and 12 I don't think I ate until after I finished school and got home because I couldn't think of anything I wanted to/could stand eating for breakfast and lunch.

I've craved sugar most of my life and always subconsciously thought it was because I was a bad/weak person. After I got into powerlifting a couple of years ago I trialled eating minimum 1.5g of protein per kg of bodyweight. I felt full all the time when I was doing it, and for the first time in my life I looked at a table covered in biscuits, cakes etc. for a morning tea at work and didn't feel any desire to eat any of it, much less all of it.
posted by aussie_powerlifter at 5:56 AM on September 25, 2018

I want to try to understand why picky eaters are picky. A weekend spent with my 11-year-old niece is prompting the question, but this kid's issues are clearly shared to an extent by one of her parents (and some, but not all, of her siblings) and it seems to be an innate thing, not a kid being stubborn. She has been this way virtually since birth.

Kids tend to be picky due to a natural predilection for sweetness, sensitivities around texture, a means of exerting control in their little lives, and/or a combination of the above. Plus we are products of our culture and consider our own foods "normal" and others' to be "different." Since one of her parents is also a picky/simple eater, familiarity and comfort with a limited number of foods has been further normalized.

She may rebel later, or she may not.

I'm a formerly VERY picky eater, now adventurous omnivore, and it was mostly about control issues. The fear of experiencing unpleasantness was visceral and real. Meanwhile, discovery of something newly delicious was not much of a reward for me at the time, as it would come with everyone making a BIG FUCKING DEAL about it. Once I got more independence (i.e. I went away to college) I finally had the space to experience eating food by myself with no interference, and finding new delicious things became a reward that was absolutely worth the risk of a few misses.

It turns out that for adult-me, tasting something that I don't much like is not really that horrible or embarrassing of an experience, but I was very sensitive to teasing as a child and it just wasn't worth it.
posted by desuetude at 2:33 PM on September 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

If you're someone who enjoys only a limited number of foods, and/or is reluctant to try new things - can you explain it to me? Is it that only a few things taste good? Or is it fear of stepping out of your comfort zone? Neither/both?

It can be all of the above. I'm not much of a picky eater, but I've been close to some very picky eaters. As someone who loves to cook for others and gets really excited about food experiences, I've tried to understand the pickiness of those I am close to.

In some cases, things that I don't even think of as bitter, they detect as bitter. This might include coffee, dark chocolate, and celery. Just a hint of any of those things in a drink or dish can ruin the entire thing for someone who has that issue. Someone who simply hates coffee will find even the most fantastic cup of coffee terrible.

They might find some foods difficult to chew. Stuff like oranges, fruits or vegetables with skins, shrimp, and steak. They might just chew it and chew it and never feel like it's broken down enough in their mouths to finally swallow it. I used to occasionally have this problem as a kid when I bit off too big a piece of carrot. It's like you just keep chewing forever and can only swallow the thing with the help of a beverage.

Regarding comfort zones: Some people are really excited by the idea of trying a new cuisine, but it's the total opposite for someone who is a very picky eater. The fear of stepping out of one's comfort zone can have more to do with an actual fear of only foods you hate - or expect you'll hate - being served for dinner, with no opportunity to eat again for hours. I imagine this fear would be pretty acute for a child who is following her family around and doesn't have the authority to just get herself something else to eat.

And then just the knowledge that you're so picky that you've drawn attention to yourself and people at the table are watching you eat - that tends to exacerbate the problem.
posted by bananana at 8:00 PM on September 25, 2018

I suspect I would qualify as a picky eater. I don't eat dairy products or eggs, as I've discovered they set off my IBS, sometimes to the point of throwing up. I don't eat mammals, because I was raised to think that was wrong and they still don't look or smell like food to me. I do like trying new foods, but it can be somewhat hazardous when I'm eating out, so I'll often play it safe at a restaurant, but try new recipes at home.

My daughter is a pretty adventurous eater, but definitely has things she won't eat (or would prefer not to), which I think is true for most people. We've always been supportive of when she's feeling adventurous. Sometimes she'll order something just to see what it's like, (not usually from the kids menu) but she'll usually try whatever my spouse and I have gotten as well. Then she'll finish whichever of our dinners she likes best. (Portion size in the US is so out of control that we can usually both eat enough dinner from one of the meals.) And at home, she's always welcome to fix a different meal or more food to go with dinner, and eat however much or little of dinner she wants. She can also suggest favorite meals, so they get on the rotation often. At someone else's house, she might appear quite picky (especially when she went to read all the ingredients for things for allergies), but she's not picky because she knows a ton of stuff she likes to eat.
posted by Margalo Epps at 5:23 PM on September 28, 2018

Thank you, everyone, for your thoughtful responses. I definitely try hard not to pressure or shame my niece for this but it’s so difficult for me, someone who loves food, to understand. I appreciate the perspectives.
posted by something something at 6:33 PM on October 2, 2018

Something else that might help is reading travel diaries about food cultures that are very different to the US. Imagining yourself trying to eat eg horse meat, tripe, haggis, or cow testicles might give you some easy-to-access empathy for those of us with similar feelings towards more common foods.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 7:58 AM on October 3, 2018

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