Photo by James Dickinson
You'd think that I'd get over it. You'd think that I'd stop caring. You'd think I'd at least stop talking about it.
I've exposed my daughter to an enormous variety of food, and yet she eats almost nothing I cook.
She does eat crackers, mac-and-cheese, pizza, chicken fingers, French fries, fried chicken, tacos, salami and, inexplicably, Serrano ham. Notice the lack of vegetables. And the lack of fruit (although she loves jam). She's exactly the right height and weight for her age and is the healthiest member of the family. I, on the other hand, eat plenty of fruit and vegetables, a modest amount of protein, and plenty of whole grains, but I catch every germ that comes along. I'll probably die young(ish) of an acute case of phytonutrients while my daughter snacks her way into her 90s. I'm inclined to think it's genetic — after all, her great-grandfather used to secretly palm her father cash to get him to eat when he was a child. Clearly, crack cook that I am, it's not my fault.
However, I asked Stephanie Lucianovic, author of Suffering Succotash: A Picky Eater's Quest to Understand Why We Hate the Foods We Hate , what exactly was going on here. And more important, would it ever end?
Lucianovic is a recovering picky eater. Publisher of the blog The Grub Report ( grubreport.com ), contributor to Bay Area Bites (Northern California public television and radio station KQED's aggregate food blog), culinary school graduate and freelance food writer, she says the only two things that are pretty much off the table for her at this point are raisins and bananas. "I really, really hated most vegetables [growing up]," she says — as well as oatmeal, grits, flan, tofu, fish, wild rice, dates, coleslaw and mayonnaise among many, many other things.
It wasn't until she began dating her future husband that Lucianovic realized she had a vested interest in overcoming her aversion to so many foods. Her husband ate everything. "I didn't even know what pad Thai was, and I didn't want to admit I'd never had it," says Lucianovic. "I hid it from him — I didn't want him to think I was provincial." She began cooking, one ingredient at a time mixed with other ingredients she knew she liked. "I'd have a bite off of Mark's plate [when the couple went out]," she says. " ‘All right', I'd think. ‘I can eat that.' " She slowly began to eat more and more things.
There are a few ways scientists look at picky eating, Lucianovic says. One that's gotten a lot of mileage in foodie circles is the supertaster. Boiled down to very simplistic terms, this means that if you have a particular gene receptor on your tongue, you're more sensitive to bitter flavors. This could be a reason that certain foods are unpleasant to people. "This doesn't mean you hate bitter things — you may love them," she says, "but you taste them ‘louder' in your mouth than other people."
The reason for this kind of taste sensitivity, scientists suspect, is part and parcel of the survival instinct. "If the flavor doesn't fit a familiar food experience, and instead fits into a pattern that involves chemical cleaning agents and dirt, or crawly insects," writes Harold McGee, author of On Food and Cooking , in the New York Times article "Cilantro Haters, It's Not Your Fault" in 2009, "then the brain highlights the mismatch and the potential threat to our safety." It's not the tidy answer that it might seem to be on the surface, though.
Sensory processing may be another factor. Texture can be an important element in why or why not a food may be rejected. My other daughter, who eats nearly everything, can't stomach apple pie or applesauce because of their viscous mealiness. My husband won't eat pot roast because it's too stringy. I reserve my texture issues for blood sausage (not to mention the blood thing). Even temperature can be a problem. Lucianovic talked to a fellow culinary school student who only ate tepid food growing up.
Fortunately, sensory issues can be developmental — toddlers' nervous systems are in process, and food rejection comes and goes. Those kinds of issues also can be overcome by gradually exposing children to the offensive food so that their system gets used to it. Reassuringly, Mary Henck, a registered dietitian and clinical nutritionist with Children's Hospital of Richmond at VCU, says that she tells parents, "Picky eating is a normal part of childhood development … 50 percent of children aged 18 [to] 23 months are picky eaters."
Of course, the big bad wolf of picky eating is the psychological aspect that also can surround it. A child won't eat something at dinner because of its particular taste/smell/texture/temperature. Repeat the next night. And the next. Ad infinitum. Parents get frustrated, the stress around mealtime accelerates, and now there's a full-blown psychological trigger in place.
"The most important thing is for all caregivers to be consistent in their approach to feeding their child," Henck says. "You don't want feeding to become a battleground." Easier said than done.
Are you a bad mother if you've already fought your way through a big chunk of your child's life struggling over food? Yes. I mean, no. That would just be me. I eat most things and have a hard time understanding why something I think is perfectly delicious is basically rejected as garbage (as in, throw-it-in-the-trash-can-and-please-remove-it-from-the-room-immediately). Reading Lucianovic's book and talking to her, however, was enlightening.
I don't like green peppers, curry, anise, fennel, sherry, tarragon (unless it's in béarnaise sauce) or offal. I've got my own picky thing happening and never even gave it
a thought. But by acknowledging the things that make me gag (literally) and adding up the total, I've grown more tolerant of
"You just got lucky," Lucianovic says, if you have a child who eats a wide range of foods. "Picky eaters are born, not made. Parents can help make them better — but it's not your fault." Do I hear the soft sound of hope dropping into my future?