My War With Food: Why Being A Picky Eater Is Kind Of Ruining My Life

Ice cream from Maya

Last night, my roommate, Jen and I went to newly-renovated Maya to take advantage of the last day of NYC Restaurant Week. I’d been to Maya before (only for margaritas, which are amazing but out of my price range after happy hour), and that’s partly why Jen chose the venue. Like anyone else who has hung out with me more than once, Jen is all too familiar with my picky eating ways, so she was very strategic in her selection of the restaurant. Once we grabbed our table and started looking at the menus, she did something that showed me just how far I’ve fallen.

“Laura, I think you’ll like the chicken tacos because it’s the least complicated entree here,” she said, pointing to the item on the sheet of paper.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the same thing my mom has been doing to me for twenty years. Every time we go out for food, she scans the offerings and makes unsolicited suggestions. I’ve expressed frustration with this a many time and said things like, “I can read, mom,” but ultimately she has grounds for listing my options before every meal. I’m the pickiest eater in the world, and it is affecting my relationships to an unhealthy degree. I live in New York, for Christ’s sake. Julia Child would roll over in her grave at some of the things I’ve done.

Hi, I’m Laura

While some have attributed my bird-like behavior to Youngest Sibling Syndrome, of which I’m most definitely a victim, I think there’s more to it than being the runt of the pack. This might seem like a whack job statement to you, but I believe it wholeheartedly and will repeat it until the day I die: One of the most unreasonable things you can ever expect a person to do is put something in his/her body that feels wrong to that individual. 

And yet no one with the exception of me subscribes to this notion. In our culture (and many others), it’s wildly disrespectful not to eat everything on one’s plate. I’m rarely one to gobble up all the food in front of me, and it made me somewhat of a pariah when I stayed with my friend’s family in France two summers ago. I tried to explain that I have a tiny stomach and throw up when full, and they thought I was lying until it actually happened one day. From then on, they went easy on me, but they found my pickiness genuinely tragic.

My friend, who grew up in the south of France, said of it one night, “Laura, we love food more than anything in the world. It represents family time and bonding. We enjoy it, so it’s really sad to us to see you eat. It’s clear that it’s torture for you, and that breaks our hearts.”

A few nights later, I stared with disdain at one unappetizing dish or another and she took my plate to the sink.

“Laura, just stop. You’re fighting with your food.”

And she was right. I wrote about the rift it caused in my travel blog:

“Once I find a food that I love, I can’t get enough of it. Why would I try new things if I’m already on cloud nine with jambon beurre (ham and bread) baguettes?

 

…[T]he whole food thing can get a bit unreasonable. For example, we were all out to dinner this evening and I kind of wanted to order spaghetti napoleon (spaghetti with meat sauce, because I’m dull). Well, the pasta never happened. Last time I ate with Marly and her family, I couldn’t finish my plate of pasta carbonara. She implied that the portion size would be just as big, and I didn’t want to be shamed again for not finishing my food. No one means to make me feel this way, but I do. I’ve never before in my life felt like I’ve let anyone down by not eating my entire meal. It’s different here, and I don’t want to disappoint the others.”

As you can see, I’ve been at war with food forever, but not with what I like to call my allies: strawberries, raspberries, pasta, chicken, steak, cheeseburgers, milk, cereal, broccoli, yogurt, burritos, ice cream, green beans, and salmon. In a world of obnoxious and snobbish foodies who pride themselves on chewing exotic and oftentimes repulsive things, I’ve had to master the art of pretending I’ve eaten a substantial amount of food. The trick is to mash all the contents together or surreptitiously give your leftovers to someone else.

On my first Valentine’s Day date ever, my then-boyfriend cooked shrimp and pasta for me. I’d liked shrimp as a kid but since grown out of it, so when my significant other excused himself to go to the bathroom during dinner, I whistled for the dog, who happily accepted the food on my plate. I later told my ex-flame what I’d done and we laughed about my picky antics (he loved to call me “the bird”), but it’s rather troubling than eight years have passed and I’m still pulling the same nonsense. I did this in France two years ago, and believe me, I was embarrassed afterward. Those poor puppies:

“Marly’s grandpa put four different types of cheeses on my plate. I of course devoured the goat cheese, but I was most definitely not crazy about the brie, which tastes just as bad as it smells. All the French supermarkets reek because of the brie, and the scent is strong enough to make even Marly, a French native, hurl.

The other cheeses were all right, and I did not mention that I was repulsed, because that would be so unbelievably terrible. I ate 70% of the cheese, and the rest, I gave to the dogs. Yeah, I know I sound like a little kid, and it’s awful, but at least someone could enjoy the cheeses. I know I couldn’t, and dogs will take whatever they can get. So, thank you Dora, Gaston, Daisy, Luna, and Ocea for bailing me out. Dogs really are man’s best friend.”

Me and Gaston, one of my rescuers

In a perfect world, my diet would consist of burritos, one meal a day, and a bowl of strawberries and large glass of milk for dessert. This would of course be the worst thing for my health, but I’d be happy as a clam. In a nutshell, I’m Jada Pinkett-Smith: I eat to live, not vice versa.

All I really need to be happy

It must be said that I do not have an eating disorder. I have never purposely deprived myself of anything to stay skinny. Believe me, I could never give up ice cream or burritos, nor could I choose to jeopardize my fertility just to be tiny. Some would say picky eating is an actual disorder, and while I’m hesitant to diagnose every peculiar behavior pattern in existence, a part of me actually suspects it’s not just about being an ungrateful brat. I’m physically incapable of digesting foods I dislike, no exceptions.

I do not exaggerate when I claim my friendships and relationships have been ruined because of this. Food is supposed to bring people together, but it only creates a distance between me and those I love. I wish I could man up, plug my nose, and scarf down something that makes my insides burn and gag reflex kick in, but my body will never be up to the challenge.

Family members have tried to change this about me for years, and most of them gave up my second year of college. My parents even took me to the doctor about it in grade school, but were told I’d wake up one morning and outgrow it. That day never came.

If I haven’t changed at 24, there’s a good chance I’ll remain this way until I die, meaning that if any man by some miracle decides he’d like to marry me, he will be in for a lifetime of underwhelming dining experiences and arguments over food. I’ll never be able to share a bottle of red wine with said husband, as wine gives me the worst migraines ever. I will never be open to trying out that cool new sushi joint down the block. Double dates would just turn into awkward outings, as I’d be averse to ordering oysters or any other adventurous pre-dinner snack. Oh yeah, my in-laws would want to strangle me during every meal. Someone once said that little things put the biggest strain on marriages, and if that’s accurate, this unfortunate character flaw of mine could potentially destroy my own.

I’m often told that my pickiness is a sign of immense ingratitude and the epitome of all our country’s problems. There are countless people starving in the world and I shun the plethora of food presented to me. I could show appreciation, but I’d like to add that I find it sick and twisted of some folks to purposely eat until they vomit just because they can. I wish I had a better, more selfless answer for you, but all I can say is that I will never be able to bring myself to eat what feels wrong to me. Here’s another reason why this is limiting: I’m not flexible enough to fly to cool places such as India or China because they do not have what I need food-wise. Am I going to walk away from opportunities to travel to amazing countries because I’m a baby? I hate to admit the answer is yes.

On second thought, being a picky eater does have a few perks. After dinner last night, my roommate and I went out to an upper east side bar and met a couple of dudes, none of which I had any interest in pursuing. Yet a guy named Lance, who happened to be one of the most abrasive people I’ve ever met, would not leave me alone. A New Yorker, he hurled questions my way and made me feel so uncomfortable, I decided to check out early — solo. On my way back to my apartment, I texted my roommate to say that while funny and entertaining, Lance was not for me.

Because human nature kind of sucks, he was drawn to my assholiness — so much so that he begged my roommate for my number. She laughed about it this morning but I was at a loss. Here’s a note from him, too:

Oy

“Why does he like me?” I asked. “I was so rude to him.” I’m not proud of my surliness, but he had made my palms sweat with his comments and jarring remarks.

“Well, he wants to take you to Calle Oche,” she said. “You should go. But I did tell him that you hate seafood, so we had to rule out the first couple of places he had in mind.”

I breathed a sigh of relief and smiled. I knew my weirdo tics would bail me out someday.

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7 thoughts on “My War With Food: Why Being A Picky Eater Is Kind Of Ruining My Life

  1. Try being a vegetarian. Not only do I refuse a lot of what people make but there is this unsaid assumption that I judge all meat eaters as, I don’t know, cruel to animals? Also, in Peru one of the delicacies is Cuey. That is guinea pig. NOM…?

  2. I’ve never heard picky eating described the way you’re talking about it here – as something so difficult and unpleasant that it gets in the way of your relationships. This gave me a lot of pause for thought and allowed me to identify with something that I, like a lot of the people you describe in this piece, used to see as just babyish and ungrateful. I am sorry you have to go through the experience of being picky, but I do hope that you at least enjoy and find comfort in the foods you do like. You’ve written a really eye-opening post. Thanks.

  3. Pingback: This is so not the way to get a girl to agree to have dinner with you « Laura E. Donovan

  4. Its hard to know if extremely picky eating as you’ve described is purely psychological or if their is a genetic component (likely both). NPR had an interesting talk on it recently: http://whyy.org/cms/radiotimes/2012/03/08/picky-eaters-discretion-or-disorder/

    Either way, it may be hard if not impossible, to treat. I have a friend who is also very very picky with her eating. When my friends go out as a group, we either have to carefully screen the menu in advance to make sure she has at least a couple dietary options or make a separate food stop for her. Being such a picky eater has been not only hard for her socially as well as physically (she doesn’t care for most fruits, vegetables, or berries). I know she wants to try new foods (she often expresses it), and will sometimes sample new foods, but she rarely discovers new things that are palatable. Her diet consists of mostly white foods (white potatoes, white breads, white meat), although she has been challenging herself to introduce new food items. Sometimes she resorts to the those Ensure shakes because of convenience and / or lack of food options.

    When I first met her she was very judgmental of what people ordered for themselves. “You got a lamb-burger, that’s disgusting!!” “Eww, I hate berries. How can you stand the texture, it is disgusting.” That in turn would make me defensive. I realized that people had been chastising her about her dietary limitations for so long that she was now acting out based on her own food insecurities. We all have limitations, no one is perfect. I think people need to approach picky eating with acceptance, if people don’t feel persecuted for disliking a particular food, perhaps they will be more willing to try new things. Likewise, I think picky eaters should be cognizant that many people have emotional connections to food, and insulting or outright pushing away a new food can be insulting. This is especially true if the food was personally prepared (your story about feeding the dog made me sad – I’d hate to have a date go that direction).

    On a side note, I’m the complete opposite of you. I can eat anything and I’ve rarely come across a food that I hated. I feel vetted now that I’ve been to Asia a few times. My biggest reason for abstaining from a certain food is due to health reasons. It’s interesting how different people can be.

  5. Pingback: In Defense of Picky Eaters (and Why You Shouldn't Shame Them)

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