Daniel Dawson abhorred olives as a child. Their bitter flavor turned him, well, bitter. Now he’s the senior editor for Olive Oil Times, a trade publication dedicated to all things olive oil.
“Once I decided that I didn’t like a food item, I had a zero-tolerance policy for it,” Dawson, 29, says. “My experience rediscovering the taste of olives a few years back caused me to reconsider that policy.”
Children are often described as picky eaters when they’re averse to trying different foods. Steak? Ew. Chicken? Ew. Vegetables? Double ew. While kids often seem to grow out of it, not everyone does. And some picky eaters aren’t just picky, but grappling with an eating disorder.
“It’s not necessarily the case that people are going to grow out of being hesitant about these specific foods,” Dr. Sam Scarnato of the The Center for Nutritional Psychology says.
So, how does one conquer the picky eating monster? Treatments for children and adults will differ depending on the severity of the situation, but experts say everything from repeated exposure to foods and consulting with medical professionals could best address problems before they spiral out of control.
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Where does picky eating come from?
Scarnato comes across picky eating daily, and finds it runs in families. If a parent or caregiver balks at broccoli, they shouldn’t be shocked when their child refuses green veggies too.
Health coach Dianna Carr, who manages Be Well Health Coaching LLC, says maybe these adults weren’t exposed to many different foods as children, or they had a traumatic childhood experience like choking on a certain food.
Sometimes it’s about genetics. “Some people are genetically predisposed to be super-tasters,” Jenna Griffin, founder and CEO of Generations Nutrition & Wellness says. Super-tasters have an acute sense of taste and experience bitter flavors more intensely.
“This may lead them to avoid certain healthy vegetables like cabbage, broccoli, kale, etc., because the bitter taste is overpowering,” Griffin adds.
But when does picky eating transition from not liking the taste or texture of a food to a potentially serious medical condition?
Medical and sensory issues like anxiety, chronic constipation, allergies or even post-nasal drip could contribute to picky eating. In those cases, Scarnato says recommendations will vary depending on the outcome of a medical assessment.
Another factor? Money. “Families who are on a lower budget, they’re not going to venture out and buy a whole bunch of different foods that their child isn’t going to eat, because they’re afraid then that they’re wasting food,” Scarnato says.
The different kinds of picky eating
The spectrum of pickiness ranges from those who can eat foods but don’t, to those who struggle with an eating disorder.
Nicole Peicher, 23, is on the can-but-doesn’t-want-to end of the spectrum. The Miami resident lived off chicken nuggets, pasta, chocolate and Cheetos growing up. Friends stored chicken nuggets in their houses for her.
Peicher has a companion in Thomas Hammock. “I was known as the ‘Chicken finger kid’ at the local restaurant in my hometown because that’s all I’d eat there,” says the 35-year-old Birmingham, Alabama resident.
In college, Peicher ultimately sought advice from a nutritionist to take control of her diet. She tasked herself to eat a new food, such as a fruit or vegetable, every day.
Now she experiments with variations of her old staples – like breading chicken with almond flour as an alternative to a fried chicken nugget. She shares recipes on her Instagram page that offer healthy alternatives, and sells healthy desserts.
Elizabeth Hilpipre of Omaha, Nebraska, is still a picky eater as a 37-year-old, but challenges herself anyway. “I keep thinking I’m going to like fish and I hate it every time,” she says. “In fact, when I first met my in-laws they made salmon. I ate the entire thing to be polite. It took a few years before I came clean that I don’t like fish.”
On the other end of the spectrum: avoidant restrictive food intake disorder, or ARFID.
ARFID is an eating disorder where a person doesn’t eat enough calories to grow and develop correctly, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. In adults, the disorder inhibits basic bodily functions and leads to significant weight loss.
“Children who don’t outgrow normal picky eating, or in whom picky eating is severe, appear to be more likely to develop ARFID,” per the National Eating Disorders Association. “Many children with ARFID also have a co-occurring anxiety disorder, and they are also at high risk for other psychiatric disorders.” Additionally, people with autism, ADHD and intellectual disabilities have a higher chance of developing ARFID.
Warning signs include:
- Disinterest in food or no appetite
- Trouble sleeping
- Severe weight loss
- Limited diet to certain textures
- Hair thinning
Specialized treatment and therapy could treat this behavior, Carr says. Griffin emphasizes the importance of warning signs.
“I would consider referring a client to another professional – psychologist and/or eating disorder specialist – if they exhibit signs of overly restrictive eating,” Griffin says. “If they eliminate whole categories of foods, their ‘picky eating’ may actually be a form of disordered eating.”
How to expand your palate
Experts offered a plethora of picky eating tips – but be prepared for trial and error.
- Don’t give up after trying something once. “One of the things that we know about picky eating is repeated exposure seems to be like the number one thing that research shows is helpful,” Scarnato says.
- Use the same food but try a new preparation.. It might take several tries before you find the way you like a food, says Carr. If the issue is texture-related, try a new cooking method. If it’s about the taste, try a new sauce or dip with vegetables to appease your palate.
- Be in a comfortable environment. “You want to make sure that there’s no pressure, no judgment so that if you end up not liking the food, you don’t feel embarrassed,” Carr says.
- Don’t rush the process. You can’t expect to undo your picky behaviors overnight, and keeping motivated is key, Carr says. “Celebrate the small wins,” she adds. “If you take one bite, great. Next time, try for two bites, then three bites, giving yourself some slack and some grace throughout the process, because behavior change is hard for people, and it does take time.”
- Have fun. “Make trying new foods a fun event to look forward to,” Griffin says. “Designate one day a week to trying something new, whether it’s a new food or a new recipe. Consider holding ‘Taste it Tuesday’ or ‘Try it Thursday’ each week to celebrate getting out of your comfort zone.”
Varied eating matters for proper nutrition, but expanding your palate could lead to more than only physical health improvements.
“I don’t think you need to like every food, but just expand it enough where you can feel confident in social situations that you will find something you’ll enjoy,” Carr says. “That would definitely help confidence and just increase quality of life.”
Hammock lived this experience. “I also think it builds a confidence of trying new things in general, not just food, once you see it’s not so bad,” he says. “Even if you wind up not liking it, just wash it down with plenty of drink and you’re no worse off than when you started, and who knows? Maybe you find a new favorite.”
The next time you want to try something new, consider Dawson and the olives.
“Had I not started eating olives, I would almost certainly not be in my current job,” Dawson says.
If you or someone you know is struggling with body image or eating concerns, the National Eating Disorders Association’s toll-free and confidential helpline is available by phone or text at 1-800-931-2237 or by click-to-chat message at nationaleatingdisorders.org/helpline. For 24/7 crisis situations, text “NEDA” to 741-741.
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