Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Picky eaters

Flickr: bethany actually
I was recently talking with a friend of mine about getting more serious about cooking.  There was a class on cooking with apples I am thinking about taking and she said.  "I hate apples."

My first thought was: who hates apples?
Then I remembered that when I was a little kid, I didn't like apples very much.  I would eat the skin and then throw away the white part. Partially because I had a very small mouth and tiny teeth (no jokes please) and I had trouble biting into the fruit. I disliked bagels for the same reason: I couldn't chew them.

Was I a picky eater?  I remember every mealtime being a struggle. My parents ate out a lot and there were countless meals which ended with me playing with my food, waiting for dessert. My parents expected me to leap from the womb fully formed, with an adult palate, eating salad, broiled steak, and fish and rejecting dessert as they did. Instead, I loved hot dogs, chicken nuggets, birthday cake (with extra flowers made of frosting), pancakes, and ice cream sandwiches.  The less the item resembled food in its raw and natural state, the more I wanted it.  Although I didn't have a particularly large appetite as a small child, I don't think I willingly ingested anything green until I was thirteen (and that was a green, er, apple). Not counting chocolate chip mint ice cream, of course.  I'm not even a big fan of mint chocolate, but sugar was sugar.

Picky?  I happily devoured liverwurst and provolone cheese, two foods that most adults won't touch. I adored fruitcake. I didn't like potatoes or pasta because I found them too bland, not too spicy. Back then I thought of a picky eater as the little skinny girl who went to a video game party with saltines and peanut butter because she wouldn't eat pizza.

Regarding what 'makes' a picky eater, I can say with some authority that the best way to generate a debate on a food discussion board is to post something about having to 'feed' one, and you'll be subject to 728 posts about how awful parents are who have picky eaters and how the posters were 'forced' to finish everything on their plates. 

Well, as I said, I got apples and creamed spinach as afterschool snacks and my mom didn't even keep sugar in the cupboard, but I still ended up with a weight problem at age ten, and it was well after graduate school that I discovered "hey, I feel much less crappy if I eat something besides cupcakes and candy all day."

Now I'm a health nut and literally every single food I consume on an average day I would have refused to have smelled as a child.

I have read that very young children will select a naturally balanced diet if left 'alone' but most scientific literature seems to suggest that we evolved as a species to have a strong preference for sweetness. It makes sense: poisons tend to be bitter, so evolution would favor people who like sweet things as kids. Their ancestors were more likely to spit out the poisoned berries than chow down on them.

I'm no scientist, but I did study literature, and in an era well before the evolution of the Happy Meal kids loved sugar.  Read this excerpt from one 1798 manual about how to 'manage' servants:

"Now, Master," said a fond nurse to her favorite boy, after having given him sugared bread and butter for supper, "now master, kiss me...when mistress asks you what you have had for supper, you'll say, bread and butter, for you have had bread and butter." to its spoiling his teeth, he does not care about his teeth, and he sees no immediate change in them: therefore he concludes that his mother's orders are capricious, and his nurse loves him better than his mother does...The taste for sugared bread and butter is soon over but servants have it in their power to excite other tastes with premature and factious enthusiasm.

Flickr: Iban
So, kids have been loving sugar for a long time and parents have been worried that servants/schools/babysitters/advertisers have been pumping up their kids with sugar for a long time.  However, I do note that this 18th century person seemed to think the taste for sugar on bread would go away. But there are more and more adults I encounter who like sugar in their barbeque sauce, sugary coffee drinks, and sugary stir-fried sauces even on their vegetables (presuming they eat vegetables at all). One of the main 'problems' with picky eating is not that it is immoral (I think the idea that you have to clean your plate at every dinner party is pretty silly) but that most picky eaters tend to fixate on chicken nuggets and ice cream, not broiled fish and broccoli.

I'm really not sure where I stand on the picky eater debate.  I've known parents who are serious foodies whose kids eat about three foods (all of them white) and kids with relatively unadventurous parents who will eat garlicky hummus. Preference, like so many aspects of the human character, is a weird synergy of nature, parental nurture, and the larger social environment.

But if so much of this is nature, what did kids eat before chicken nuggets were born?  Before refined sugar on white bread and butter was available to shut kids up in the nursery?  Surely they must have eaten something?

Pain in the ass that I was as a kid, I will say that the fact that even the junk food I ate like fried clams and eclairs often came from pretty good fish shacks and local bakeries. I did develop a palate that helped me when I decided to become a healthy eater later on, as opposed to one boy I recently met who only liked Chips Ahoy cookies and wouldn't eat homemade chocolate chip cookies because they tasted 'weird.'

Although, I was talking with another friend of mine last night...she worked at a daycare center in a low-income area when she was in college.  The children received a hot lunch, often food like Salisbury steak, live, and slimy, badly-cooked okra and collard greens. If they were lucky, they'd get a slice of white bread with some processed cheese microwaved--not broiled--on top of it.

It was often the only meal they ate all day and they always cleaned their plates. 

I'd love to hear your thoughts about picky eating: Are you a picky eater?  Were you a picky eater?  What about your kids?  Who has the strangest 'picky eating preferences' of your circle of friends?


  1. I have a post about picky eaters! And it includes a recipe! (If you ever write something about the anti-Christ, then I have one more recipe post that I can spam your comment section with.)

  2. I loved the post! Not spammy at all (and it even includes a recipe, which jives with my blog ;) I also enjoyed reading the comments, too. I never knew there was such egg hatred out there. I eat food with eggs, of course, although I can take or leave scrambled eggs and such. I had no idea that people would or could do without them entirely unless they were vegan.

  3. I find the whole picky eater debate as intense as you do, with more opinions than one might get on a religious or political topic.

    And (as you pointed out) there is a lot of those comments from people who ate whatever they were told to as children mocking parents who cater to the whims of their picky children. I mostly ate was I was told as kid but that didn't stop me from having a strong dislike for certain foods as an adult.

    Those discussions also tend to degrade to a fairly snobbish point where somebody tells anyone who doesn't like something universally popular (or more than two or three major foods) that they cannot be taken seriously as an eater because of it.

    I have said in past (and maintain) that taste in the mouth is not that different from asthetic taste. Some people love green and some people hate it, would never, ever have a green sofa (which I do). I admit there are food prejudices we form after a bad experience, often in childhood or after eating something when we were sick and should not have chosen that particular food, but sometimes a like or dislike might be about how something speaks to us, the same way music or another artform does. (I know three people who voluntarily saw Neil Diamond last month which I would not anymore than I would eat a shrimp.)

    More recently I developed another take on food dislikes when a intuitive told me that in the 15th century (more or less) I had worked as a little nobody in commercial fishing business, was overworked, underpaid, neglected my family, and ultimately died with major regrets. I am not a fan of fish all that much, and after the past life reading I kept wondering if it was an unresolved, centuries-old grudge.

  4. There are a few major spelling errors in there.

  5. @CatBoy--it is very odd the degree to which people regard picky eating as immoral--I have even heard people who say "I would never date a picky eater." While I can understand the logic behind it (the assumption that someone who is picky is unadventurous), as you said, a combination of bad childhood experiences, genuine medical issues (spanning from IBS to allergies to intolerances to horrific food poisoning) can have a lasting impact on a person's attitude towards food.

    I have known very open-minded people who have strong preferences and dislikes, for example, and quite close-minded people who shove everything in their mouths.

    However, I guess there are two sides to the issue. In reading over flurrious' piece, I do nod my head at her point that some people seem to hysterically define their entire identities around their food preferences. (I AM THE GIRL WHO HATES ONIONS, REMEMBER?) And sometimes a dislike of certain 'ethnic' cuisines can seem to have a coded racial message.

    And that makes me think: perhaps all of the hatred against parents with 'picky' eaters and parents worries that children don't like the foods the parents want the kids to eat is less about food and nutrition and more about culture, class, and ideology. In other words, "I am an upper middle-class hipster, therefore my child must love vegan food," or conversely, "if my child won't eat Chicken McNuggets like everyone else, that means he or she is a budding snob and somehow threatens me. "

    I feel sorry for your 15th century fisherman self. Working in food services of any kind--today or in the past--is the best way to develop an aversion to a particular food very quickly.