Ask a roomful of parents with young children how many of them have to deal with picky eaters, and most of them will probably raise their hands. By the time these youngsters hit their teenage years, most of them will have outgrown the all-hot-dog or mushroom-free diets. Most, but not all. For some folks, these picky eating habits stick with them well into adulthood.
While many people write off such particular eating as stubbornness, it’s a lot more complicated than that. Smithsonian.com explained picky eating has to do with genetics, the smells and textures we perceive, and flavors we taste while in the womb. This means mom’s cravings for unhealthy eats while pregnant could be at least partially to blame for a kid who won’t go near vegetables.
Picky eating can become so restrictive in some cases that it’s even classified as a type of eating disorder called selective eating. The curious thing about selective eating disorder is it doesn’t really correlate with calories the way anorexia and bulimia do. Still, The Wall Street Journal pointed out this type of eating can lead to nutritional deficiencies and health problems down the road. Not to mention it makes dining at social events nearly impossible.
Becoming less restrictive about food certainly isn’t as easy as just deciding to change, but this mindset is definitely the place to start. Whether you or someone you know struggles due to picky eating, these five strategies can help.
1. Ease into it
Though jumping right in and trying a big plate of whatever green veggie you hate is admirable, it’s probably not going to work. This all-or-nothing approach is just too frustrating, and you’ll struggle to eat more than a bite. Instead, try introducing offending ingredients to the foods you do like. Macaroni and cheese, for example, is a great vehicle for just about any vegetable. Make the pasta as usual, but cut back on some of the noodles and add the veggies to the same cooking liquid during the last few minutes of boiling. Even if you don’t love broccoli smothered with gooey cheese sauce, you’ll like it better than a plain pile of steamed veggies.
You can fool yourself even more with puréed foods that mix right into the sauce. Blended butternut squash is available right in the frozen food section of the grocery store. Since the color is already orange to begin with, you’ll hardly notice it once mixed into a Rachael Ray’s squash pasta, featured on Food Network.
2. Try and retry
It’s not unusual to eventually love a food you once found repulsive. Consider the popularity of bitter IPAs and funky blue cheeses. It’s the rare child who would taste either of these foods and want to go back for more. Some of these shifts in taste happen due to cultural influences, but a lot of it comes from repeated exposure.
Some experts suggest you need to try a food 10 times before you’ll actually like it. One 2010 study highlighted the role exposure plays. Researchers offered fourth and fifth graders a variety of vegetables, then asked them to rank how much they liked each one. At the end of the study, the number of children who said they enjoyed vegetables they previously disliked was greater for those who had tried the veggie eight or nine times.
3. Commit to trying something new every week
Standing in front of an unusual ingredient at the grocery store or seeing it on a menu might make you feel a little panicked. Instead of going into these situations blind, do some research. Before you leave for the supermarket, decide ahead of time what new ingredient (yes, just one) you’ll be trying for the week. Once the food is written on your list, it takes the decision-making factor out of things when you’re filling your cart. This method will likely lead to healthier choices, too. A recent study found shoppers who use grocery lists tend to have a better diet and lower BMI than those who don’t.
If you’re planning on going to a restaurant with friends, look up the menu online. Most restaurants update their offerings regularly, so what you see via the website will be pretty close, if not identical, to what you encounter once there. This gives you plenty of time to see what options you have without the pressure of a busy server waiting to take your order.
4. Work around unpleasant textures
Talk of selective eating usually swirls around flavor. While the way foods taste is a key piece to the picky-eating puzzle, texture is just as important. Foods that are perceived as slimy are usually the most problematic. Raw tomatoes are a good example. Marcia Pelchat, a psychologist who specializes in food preferences, told Yahoo Food tomatoes have a lot of textural change from the skin to the seeds to the flesh, which picky eaters often find offensive.
Your best defense here is acquiring a few culinary skills. Cooked tomatoes, for example have a much more homogeneous texture than raw ones. If you find the softness of fish off-putting, try coating the fillets with crispy breadcrumbs before cooking.
5. Have your friends hold you accountable
Like with New Year’s resolutions, deciding to become less picky about food will only be successful if you hold yourself accountable in some way. Your friends can really help you in this department by regularly setting dates to have dinner together, either at home or at a restaurant. You’re a lot less likely to back out if you know someone is counting on your company.
Be careful about who you choose, though. Friends who challenge you to branch out in a supportive manner are going to be a huge help while those who tease or taunt are only going to make you feel crummy. And maybe start with the pal who thinks Thai curries are adventurous rather than the one who’s itching to try bird’s nest soup.