Understanding the "Picky Eater"

As a kid, I was the designated “picky eater” of the family.

Every family has one, and we all know who they are. My mother would often introduce me to new people as “her picky eater” and the one “whose best vegetables are ketchup and pumpkin pie.” I would slink off with the kids, doing my best to disappear until the inevitable dinner bell rung and I'd have to endure the humiliation of being the picky eater in front of strangers.                                                    

I was born with a birth defect that left benign tumor tissue in the right side of my face, which made it look like I had Bell's palsy, but it wasn't Bell's palsy. I was an otherwise perfectly normal and healthy baby, until I started growing tumors on the top of my tongue at around the age of six months. I couldn't suck or swallow without screaming and my mother resorted to feeding me tiny amounts at a time. From then until I was about three years old, I had tumors removed from my tongue three times. They would become big abscesses that oozed blood when touched with a tongue depressor. Because I couldn't suck a bottle, I had a feeding tube off and on throughout my toddlerhood until it was clear that the tumors were not growing back and I could begin to eat naturally. However, by that time, I had developed a very sensitive gag reflex and had grown into being one very picky eater.

My family indulged my picky eating habits until it was decided that I needed to learn to “eat what everybody else was eating,” which was perhaps around the age of 4 or 5. No more cheese melted on bread or bowls of oatmeal for dinner. I was placed in my chair at the table and told in no uncertain terms that the tiny bowl of navy beans would have to be eaten before I could get up. I was given one slice of buttered bread and a small glass of milk, which I viewed as my only rations, and I was left to sulk my way through dinner as threats were issued from across the table. As tensions began to rise, my food remained untouched. Alone as the picky eater of my family, I became the center of attention at dinnertime. My family would attempt to eat calmly, but every eye was on me. If I moved my bowl closer to my nose, they noticed – and I noticed that they noticed. If I began to dig around with my spoon, there would be a sort of threatening encouragement: “You know you're not getting up from this table until you've had two big bites.”

I couldn't move without being seen.

I was a generally well-behaved, quiet, albeit shy kid. Mostly, I saw myself as a good kid even at a young age, especially in comparison to my tomboy older sister. But at mealtimes, I felt my moral failure distinctively. I knew I was somehow “bad” because I wouldn't eat the food that my family was eating. I knew it because my mother would begin to raise her voice and acquire a sternness that wouldn't melt until bedtime. My older sister would watch me with glee on her face at mealtimes as our roles were reversed, and I took on the role as problem child: I became the stubborn, spoiled picky eater and for once she was the angel in contrast. Dinner was frequently the most painful part of my young existence, and although my sister was often my fiercest ally, she was also simultaneously my archenemy.

In the war I fought with my family over food, my sister was on the same side as my mother. She ate broccoli and loved it. She was the first one to shout for my mother if I started sneaking things into a paper napkin. In a way, I saw breaking down and giving in to that first bite as also a way of letting my sister win: she would get the gratification of seeing me suffer though it, and I simply couldn't let that happen.

I would not touch chicken on the bone because bones genuinely reminded me of the tongue depressor used by doctors, but I didn't figure this out until I was much older. I would not touch vegetables other than potatoes. I especially hated the smell of cooked greens. I didn't like pot roast or the texture of meatloaf. But there were moments when my parents got desperate and my mouth was pulled open, my arms held down, and a team effort was made to spoon beef stew directly into my mouth as tears spilled out of my eyes. As time went on cauliflower was hidden in cheddar cheese (it was quickly detected), and even turkey nuggets were cleverly disguised as just “nuggets” to try and get me to try a new protein source. My sister was in on that secret and when she told me the truth I naturally felt like my whole family had deceived me. Every evening before dinner I would come to the kitchen to scope out the situation: would there be a battle tonight or were we having spaghetti? I could eat spaghetti if I carefully ran each noodle between two fingers, removing the bits of hamburger, onion, and olive.

I can distinctly remember sitting at the table one day when I was a little bit older, maybe 7 or 8, having been told that I couldn't get up until I'd eaten the combination frozen pizza put in front of me. My mom wanted me to taste the bell peppers and the sausage, two foods I hadn't tried. The truth was that the pizza smelled good, and I wanted to try it. But I also knew that picking it up and taking a bite would draw the attention of everyone in the room, and I'd be locked into a catch-22: if I liked it I would have to endure the taunts of, “See what you've been missing all this time?” and I'd never be allowed to not eat it again. And if I genuinely didn't like it, nobody would believe me and there would be public outcry. For a shy, picky eater like me, there was no right answer, and this dilemma would play out over and over again. I wasn't really able to explore food on my own until I grew up. The pressure and attention of trying things at home was simply too much, and the options of available food didn't vary much.

I stopped being a picky eater gradually in my teens and twenties. I learned to listen to my body and I began to crave things like mushrooms and bell peppers and spinach salads – foods I never would have eaten if I'd still lived at home because I would have had to endure comments like, “Well, I never thought I'd see the day, she's finally eating salad!” Now, in my early 30's, I've lived abroad extensively in three countries for the last five years, including China. Living in Asia, I've eaten foods the majority of Americans would baulk at. I've had entire meals composed of meats and vegetables that I couldn't identify prepared in ways I was unfamiliar with. Learning to deal with this gracefully happened slowly, one step at a time, and it began with me realizing the intrinsic and emotional connection that sharing food has with sharing culture. I felt a lot of shame in connection with food while I was growing up, which was something I wasn't able to process until I was much older. Space, to explore on my own, would have helped.

Today, I'm no longer a picky eater, but if I go to a potluck or family gathering with my immediate family, I'll most likely bring a dessert or coffee. For friends, I'll cook Thai or Korean or Chinese food, but my immediate family simply isn't that adventurous when it comes to food, and if I'm really honest, I just don't want to hear “Oh, you used to be such a picky eater!”

Natasha Swinney