I’m a Grown-Up Picky Eater; It Doesn’t Mean I’m Unhealthy

Your toddler may not be the only picky eater at the table. Here’s how choosy adults can leverage their power to eat well and put the stigmas of picky eating behind them.

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The words “picky eater” tend to conjure visions of toddlers with scrunched up noses, a plate of untouched broccoli on the table in front of them. They’re not supposed to describe grown ups like me. I haven’t been a toddler in more than 30 years. Even my own child has long since grown past the toddler years. But even as a woman in her thirties with a grown-up job and the grown-up bills to match, I am a picky eater. In polite conversation, I describe myself as a vegetarian, and while it’s true I don’t eat meat or seafood, the list of foods I will eat isn’t much longer now than it was in my childhood. A short list of foods and beverages I won’t consume reads like a tally of Americans’ favorite dishes:

  • Coffee
  • All nuts (save for pistachios, but including peanut butter)
  • Meat of any kind
  • Seafood of any kind
  • Stinky cheese (including the blue varieties)
  • Red wine
  • Broccoli
  • Peppers

If you’re asking yourself “Can that be healthy?” allow me to butt into your train of thought. Next you’ll want to know about my protein consumption, if my doctor is aware and on board, and if I’m getting the required vitamins and minerals in my limited diet. I’ve heard all the questions before, and then some. What sets me apart from most people isn’t whether or not I eat healthy foods; it’s how many healthy foods I have to choose from. I’ve learned over the years how to find healthy choices in my short list of “good” foods, and I eat them. Eggs and beans give me protein. Spinach and tofu give me iron. Cheese gives me calcium. Tomatoes load my body with antioxidants like vitamins A and C. I have other foods I like too. Chocolate. Strawberries. Apples. Pasta. To fill things out, I take vitamins. It’s true that many of my meals are repetitive because being picky limits my options. Fortunately for my 12-year-old, my husband is a foodie who assumes responsibility for cooking most of the time. Admittedly, when I cook, I prepare the same three meals on rotation. But repeating meals doesn’t make them any less healthy. And the fact is, despite my selective eating habits, I am healthy too. I visit my doctor for yearly blood tests to ensure my efforts are keeping me on an even keel. At my last physical, I was a little low on vitamin D, but that’s a regular occurrence for people who live in upstate New York in the middle of winter. My red meat–loving, stinky cheese–devouring, will-eat-peanut-butter-out-of-a-jar-with-a-spoon husband got the same warning from our doctor. The rest of my levels were all normal, and I walked out of the doctor’s office with a clean bill of health.

My Take on the Battle to Diversify Kids’ Diets

When conversations with other moms at school come around to picky eating, I often bring up my doctor’s assurances. Sure, I say, your kid might only eat three things, but have you talked to their pediatrician? Do they seem concerned? If not, my advice is to let it go. You may just be fighting an unwinnable battle. The fact is, a growing body of research points to picky eating being genetic. People like me, with our handful of foods we really love, are often the progeny of picky eaters. In my case, I tie my limited palate back to my grandfather, who, family lore has it, ate only seven things. My pickiness only worsened as my parents tried to force me to bend my likes and dislikes to fit their own. Growing up as a picky eater, I spent many a night at the dining room table, locked in a battle of wills. Unless I ate the food on my plate, I wasn’t allowed to leave my chair. But if I ate the food on the table, I knew well what would happen. My body would revolt. I still remember forcing down a sausage link late one night in a desperate bid to escape my dining room torture, only to step away from my seat and immediately throw up all over the hardwood floor.

The Psychological Impact of the Picky-Eating Stigma

That I would eventually become a bulimic at age 14 is hardly surprising. Researchers have found that using food as punishment can be a precursor to disordered eating, as is picky eating itself. I’m open about my eating disorder because I feel for other picky eaters who struggled to find control over their own diets. Don’t do this to your kids, I beg other parents. Don’t put them through what I went through. It’s not worth it. When I declared myself a vegetarian at age 15, it was in a home where the dishes served were still laden with meat, cooked in animal fat, and soaked in gravy. The healthy foods I did like were rarely available, so I ate around the edges and supplemented with pure junk. Doritos. Cinnamon coffee cakes from the convenience store. I saw food not as fuel but as something I was just going to throw up later anyway, so I might as well enjoy it. It was the power of adulthood that helped me turn a corner. I grew up, came out of the fog of bulimia, got married, and—like most adults—started buying my own groceries. And there they were: the foods I liked, available whenever I wanted them. Even better, I could walk right past the foods I didn’t like. Fast forward to today, and I’m still picky. But I have the power to make the right picks to stay healthy. Society may frown on the picky eaters of the world, but at the end of the day, we are who we are. We can fight it, the way many of our parents did when we were kids, or we can find ways to make peace with who we are. The decision is up to you, but having come through the fight, scarred by disordered eating and weary from the battle, I have just one bit of advice: You have more power than you realize.

Jeanne Sager
Jeanne Sager is a writer and photographer from upstate New York. She has strung words together for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and more.

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