Did you feed your dog Brussels sprouts under the table as a kid? Stage negotiations with your mother – five more peas in exchange for dessert? Maybe as an adult you’ve skirted menu items to avoid mushrooms or suffered chicken salad at a picnic so as not to offend your host. We all have our particular food aversions; some more than others, but what makes a picky eater? Stephanie Lucianovic knows first hand. Now a self-proclaimed foodie, she considers herself a picky eater in recovery. She’s written a book about her conversion called Suffering Succotash: A Picky Eater’s Quest to Understand Why We Hate the Foods We Hate. Ahead of her appearance on WFAE’s Charlotte Talks, we spoke with her about the science of picky eating, how you can broaden your palate and we got some advice for parents of picky eaters.
WFAEats: I hate mayonnaise and I get this look of shock and dismay from people when this fact is uncovered. But we all do this, we’re so skeptical when we hear someone doesn’t love a food we love. What’s with all the judging? Not everyone likes everything.
I get into an almost philosophical discussion about this in the book. Why does it bother us so much what other people don’t like? It doesn’t affect them. Personally, I think if you love somebody and you offer them food because you happen to love that food. ‘This is an amazing ___ and you’ve got to try it!’ They try it and don’t like it and whether you realize it or not, it feels like a rejection because they’re not joining in on your excitement. So you feel a little bit rejected and you start to blame them – like, ‘what’s wrong with you?’ For some reason, food, because it is such a community thing, such a social thing, its more of an area of judgment than music or art, which obviously people have differing opinions on but they certainly don’t break up with people because someone doesn’t like modern art. And yet, I’ve interviewed people who have talked about picky eaters being a major problem in romantic relationships.
WFAEats: Like breaking up with someone over broccoli?
Exactly. It’s usually nothing so obvious like that. If you’ve got an adventurous foodie and a non-adventurous person, it can really affect what they share. I talked to a marriage counselor about it and she said you just have to find other things you enjoy together – don’t make it all about food. If you have an anniversary, don’t have it hinge on some great restaurant, make it something else you both enjoy.
WFAEats: Is picky eating a choice or hard-wired?
It’s definitely not a choice. I believe as a former picky eater and I have it backed up by scientists – it’s hardwired, whether it’s your biology or genetics or what they call your ‘learning history’ because you developed a learned aversion to something. It’s preference.
WFAEats: Do our tastes change over time? Why did I love pickles as a kid but hate them now?
Your preferences change. It’s not that our taste buds change. One of the scientists I spoke with at Monell Center [Chemical Senses Center of Taste and Smell] said its not that our taste buds really die or change because we’re constantly sloughing them off. They have a ferocious cycle, overturning every 14 days. Your taste cells are dying but they’re regenerating. In advanced age, they do start to die and not regenerate.
WFAEats: What advice do you have for parents of picky eaters?
My first word of advice is one that no parent ever wants to hear – relax. And I don’t like hearing that advice by the way, as a parent. If your pediatrician isn’t worried about your child’s health or development, then you shouldn’t be overly worried about it either. You should not listen to other parents who don’t understand or don’t have picky eaters who say ‘you should do this or that.’ It’s not necessarily what you did right or wrong. Sometimes if you don’t have a picky eater, you just got lucky. You could have a parent who does everything right with the breastfeeding, with what you’re eating in utero, how you’re exposing them to food, and you’re still going to have a picky eater. That can happen. I went 27 years barely eating any vegetables and no grains and I was basically Michael Pollan’s worst nightmare, and I’m fine. I didn’t have any health or development problems.
WFAEats: Let’s say you want to like a certain food, how can you work it in, broaden your palate?
Wanting to like something is half the battle. I wanted to like certain things so I found a way to like them. Like the way I started to like sautéed greens. I didn’t like the texture and I didn’t particularly like the taste in large quantities, so I would change both taste and texture. I would suggest start with adding them to dishes in which you like all of the other ingredients. What happens is you can redirect your pathways from dislike to like. Combine it with a texture you like, like maybe pasta. You also then add flavors you like. So when you start to add flavors you like to a flavor you don’t like, your brain starts to accept this other flavor. You kind of tone it down as background noise and then eventually you might be able to ween yourself off of all those other flavors that you’re using to essentially mask that other flavor.I did this with butternut squash too. I added garlic, scallions, curry powder and bleu cheese – all very strong flavors – because for me, butternut squash is so sweet. That really helped me and now I can actually tolerate it and even enjoy it a little more without having to have all those other strong flavors.
WFAEats: Where are you now in your quest? Do you list yourself as a former picky eater?
I consider myself “recovering.” I’m more foodie than I am picky. There’s still a list of things I don’t like to eat but I know that if I’m faced with them, I can eat them if I have to, but I just avoid them. And it doesn’t hurt me, it doesn’t hurt my health, it doesn’t interfere with my social life. Those are the things [doctors] look for when they study adult picky eating. You don’t want to go to dinner at friends and family’s houses; you don’t want to go out to dinner. That’s when it becomes a real problem.
Listen back to Stephanie Lucianovic’s conversation with Mike Collins about picky eating on Charlotte Talks.
[Interview edited for brevity and clarity.]