Let me stray from politics for a merciful minute to pick up the subject of... pickiness. At the table, that is. I’ve chewed on this topic before, detailing the proliferation of dietary limitations and aversions that beset today’s dinner host and turn the task of making a dinner menu into quantum mechanics. Today I want to switch my focus to the picky eater, and how we see him or her.  

I care about picky eaters because my wife and I are raising one. Our ten-year-old daughter is fanatically stubborn at the table. Her pickiness is less a matter of restricted range than rigid adherence to certain formats and an adamant resistance to anything new. She’ll eat most meats, plenty of starches, almost all fruits, and a smattering of veggies... but only in certain ways. The veggies have to be raw. The bread has to be white. No sauce on anything, ever. And heaven forbid that she try something outside her well-established repertoire.

Should I care? In no other area does our daughter show any particular sign of being anxious, control-freakish, or obsessive. And she does end up with a balanced diet, via a regular rotation of various combinations of the above foods. Everyone hastens to reassure me that she’ll grow out of it; every adult, after all, can regale you with stories of how horrifying he or she found cauliflower/ brussels sprouts/ beets as a child, but now happily feasts on them all. Our daughter will expand her taste horizon. She’ll succumb to peer pressure and want to eat cool foods. The adventurousness evident in other areas of her personality will seep in to her eating. Don’t worry about it.  

But I sometimes picture her at 25 – a wan and willowy young woman still eating hot dogs and pasta with butter. And missing out on how glorious food can be.

Apparently my worry is not unfounded. An article in the New York Times, “When the Picky Eater is a Grown-Up,” discusses the phenomenon of “selective eating” among adults. I’ll confess: I started the article curious to know more, and finished it shaking my head in bemusement. Months back, when I blogged about that impossible dinner party, I was questioning the way we have imbued culinary life with identity politics. This time I’m questioning the assumptions that guide our understanding of the picky eating phenomenon itself, at least as presented in the Times article. The assumptions are profoundly therapeutic. Even absurdly therapeutic.

Consider some of the terms put forward by the article’s author and the experts she cites. Adult pickiness – oops, selective eating -- follows “a pattern [that] started in childhood,” for which we may be able to identify childhood “predictors.”  Of one finicky eater, we learn that “her selective eating posed new challenges when she fell in love with a man from a ‘foodie’ family.”  She tells her own story in confessional mode: “It’s a really scary thing to overcome. People aren’t choosing to dislike food. There’s a lot of shame involved.” And the key to ending her pickiness? “Having the support of a nonjudgmental partner.”

The article informs us that researchers at Duke and the University of Pittsburgh are busy studying adult picky eaters via an online questionnaire. (One question: “Do you get anxious about social situations because you will be expected to eat?”). Still, “the causes of long-term picky eating remain poorly understood. In some cases, a childhood dining scare from choking or vomiting may cause lingering fear. Texture also plays a role in food acceptance.”

Social anxiety over food acceptance! Fear over food texture! By now you will have figured out my, um, particular beef on this topic – namely, the way we are being asked to construe picky eating as no mere peccadillo, but rather a pathology and lifelong struggle, somewhat along the lines of alcoholism, requiring institutional, medical and personal support. “Many adult picky eaters want to change,” the Times informs us, “but they find certain foods too unappealing to even put on a plate. In extreme cases, they may shun nearly all foods, a condition the American Psychiatric Association calls avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder, or Arfid.”

Here, verbatim, are the article’s closing paragraphs, in which two experts sum up the hurts of the picky eater and describe the path to healing. 

Dr. Zucker said some adult picky eaters come to the Duke center for help when they are concerned about being poor role models for their children, for example, or they panic about attending business dinners. Psychologists and social workers help patients gain insight into the biological, emotional and social factors behind their selective eating. “A person’s experiences often need to be validated and fully understood before changes are even considered,” Dr. Zucker said. New foods are then slowly introduced in an effort to expand the palate.

Dr. Zucker compared the process to physical rehabilitation for an injury, requiring much work and practice. Patients who have eaten only smooth foods may, for example, need to consult with an occupational therapist to learn how to chew and swallow more effectively. They are also taught ways of handling situations like eating in public or explaining their food preferences to others.

One thing experts advise: Don’t push food at adult picky eaters. “It’s incredibly stressful to them, because most of us are perfectly happy to say, ‘Come on, try it. It really tastes great,’” Dr. Kauer said.

While loved ones’ concern is understandable, selective eaters consider it intrusive and an attack on their sense of self, Dr. Kauer said. “It’s getting into their space, and it has nothing to do with you.”

Please don’t mistake me: I’m not out to mock anyone’s eating disorder; that’s a tragic medical condition which we all know can be life threatening. What I’m resisting is the push to capture every peccadillo, every nook and cranny of simple human variety, with a diagnosis, and then to attach to it the whole apparatus of paid professional help.  Consulting an occupational therapist to relearn how to chew, and a psychologist to learn how to explain your eating habits to others? Are we really that far down along what novelist T.C. Boyle called “the road to Wellville?” I’m imagining what passes for a spat in the picky-eater marriage. Honey, I can’t overcome my anxiety about failing to expand my palate until you stop attacking my sense of self and start validating my experience as a smooth eater.

I generally roll my eyes when politically conservative friends complain about “the nanny state.” But not this time. As my wife (who is a social worker acutely keyed to the manifold varieties of mental and emotional suffering and illness that abound in the world) said when she read this article, “Now everything is a disorder -- we have pathologized every last corner of existence.” When you depict everything as a pathology, a lot gets left out of the picture. This kind of determinism construes the human being as a helpless slave of biological impulses and environmental forces, an overgrown infant whom we have to coddle and reassure. And teach how to chew and swallow.  What’s it all about, Arfid?

The Times article left me with one weird, glimmering hope. I couldn't help noticing the names of those two food-and-eating researchers -- Dr. Zucker and Dr. Kauer. As a German speaker I know these names translate to “Dr. Sugar” and “Dr. Chewer.” Advice for picky eaters... from Dr. Sugar and Dr. Chewer?! Could the entire article possibly be the creation of some punning novelist indulging Nabokovian mischief?

I hope so. But if not, and if such mirthful skepticism as I’m experiencing right now really constitutes an attack on the picky eater’s sense of self, then OK, let me fire the next salvo: stop whining and eat your peas!

Now, if only I can get my kid to do it.   




Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

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