Living with and loving a picky eater

Guest post by AJisaokay
diy dalek plate art

My husband Eric is a picky eater. I often joke with him that he doesn’t like anything good except me. I think this might be karma repaying me for all the grief I gave my mother as a picky eating child. However, I outgrew that and Eric, while he has made strides, hasn’t completely outgrown that phase.

I really value being able to plan meals and cook at home with and for each other. It saves money, it’s healthier, and I feel like it strengthens our connection. However, it can be frustrating trying to figure out dinner each week with a picky eater. Have you ever tried Googling recipes for picky eaters? I have, and basically went through recipes saying “nope, nope, no way, nope, WHAT KIND OF PICKY EATERS ARE THESE PEOPLE FEEDING THAT THEY THINK THEY CAN GET AWAY WITH SHRIMP AND SQUASH ORZO?!”

So, here are some tips and tricks I’ve learned on living with and loving a picky eater. (Note, this is primarily for adult picky eaters. I’ve never had to feed a child picky eater… yet!)

1. Make a list of things you know work

When you live with a picky eater, you might feel like you eat the same things over and over and over. I was starting to feel that way, and so I made a list of all the recipes I know Eric loves. There were a lot more than I was expecting! I came up with about 18 recipes I know we can make that we both enjoy. This may not seem like a lot, but we cook on average three times a week (and eat lots of leftovers). That means if we planned well, we have about six weeks of recipes.

2. Find the common threads in those recipes and expand from there

When you look at our recipe list, you see lots of pork, lots of chicken, lots of potatoes, and lots of bread. Throw in some pizza and I’m pretty sure Eric would be completely happy with nothing but those things for the rest of his days. When I look for new recipes, I look for stuff that includes at least two of those, and maybe one new element.

3. Try new things, but not too often

I try a new recipe probably once or twice a month. Probably one in four is a hit with both of us. If I was trying new recipes every week (which I have done in the past) I would get frustrated, fed up, and stop trying. If it’s a smashing success, it gets added to the rotation. If it gets anything less than a rave review first time around, I usually don’t bother trying that recipe again.

4. Ask for help

Generally speaking, I am the planner and the grocery shopper, and Eric and I split cooking duties. However, sometimes I don’t feel like dealing with his eating habits and I say “You are planning dinner this week.” Sometimes I don’t have the time to grocery shop, and I turn the list over. This is not the easiest thing in the world for me. I have had some fairly incapable roommates before, who could not be trusted with those tasks (to be honest, I think they failed on purpose so as not to be tasked with those tasks again, but that’s another story). Eric is capable and I need to let him help me when I need it. The world did not end when he got the wrong butter.

5. Some stuff, you have to let go

I definitely worry about Eric’s fruit and vegetable intake. However I am his wife, not his mother, and he is a grown-ass man. He seems healthy. He is capable of taking care of himself. He doesn’t need me to make him eat his vegetables.

6. Sometimes, you gotta treat yo self

I love biscuits and gravy. I love fruit. I love macaroni and cheese. I love steak. I love mashed potatoes. I love soup. These are all things Eric does not like, and most are difficult to make in small portions. Whenever Eric goes out-of-town, some of my friends and I get together for what I call “stuff Eric won’t eat” night. For my birthday this year, I told him I was cooking whatever I wanted to eat all week, and he could fend for himself. Every now and then I cook for myself and our roommate and don’t consider Eric. I eat lots of fruits and veggies for lunch. I consider him when meal planning probably 90% of the time, but I would go crazy without the other 10% of thinking only about what I want to eat.

I am lucky that Eric is usually willing to try new things even when he is fairly certain he won’t like them. He generally doesn’t like pasta. I made some sausage pasta with curly noodles the other night; he ate it and loved it! Another recipe goes into rotation. Slowly but surely, we are working together to find things we both love and can enjoy together, without me getting bored of eating the same stuff over and over.

What are your picky eater hacks?

Comments on Living with and loving a picky eater

  1. My suggestions for understanding and living with picky eaters:

    1. I have a family member who always points out to the whole dinner table, “It’s supposed to have such-and-such but I left it out because N doesn’t like it.” Great. If you’re happy to do so, I appreciate it! But don’t put me on display: if it’s bothersome to you, don’t change anything! I’ll pick around it and keep my mouth shut. If you ask me whether I like [X] in advance, I’ll tell you, but I will *always* keep my mouth shut and be polite about what’s on my plate. Similarly, don’t force people to try stuff at a restaurant. If someone says “no thank you” to your offer of a bite, drop it. Otherwise, you’re the one causing the scene about it, not them.

    2. Don’t be condescending or rude (like some of the commenters here). It’s not “childish” or “obnoxious” to dislike a food. Don’t you think I wish I liked it all? Don’t you think my life would be easier if I could buy a premade sandwich without gagging and dryheaving when I find the butter on it? Don’t you think I’d *love* to go to someone’s house for dinner and not be paralyzed when I realize they’re serving fish and I need to come up with a non-offensive reason I’m not eating it (and also go hungry/take more than my share of side dishes in compensation)?

    3. Never say “you can’t even taste [X] in this”. You can. You really can. It’s just that if [X] is something you like, and it’s not the primary flavor, you’re less likely to think of it as an obvious taste. But it’s there. Trust me. If you know I hate it, believe me when I tell you I’ll be able to taste it.

    4. I have some absolutely non-negotiable dislikes (e.g. seafood). I also have a lot of things that I would prefer never to eat, but I’ll happily take a “no thank you bite” of to be polite. Those “no thank you” foods occasionally open the door to acceptable different forms: turns out, I don’t hate peas! I just hate FROZEN peas. (Caveat: We’re adults. We know tastes change. Let us be the ones to control this, because no matter how many times you tell me I might have learned to like fish, it will never be true.)

    5. Compromises are great! My SO often cooks things I don’t like. I have no problem making myself a one-person dinner if he wants salmon one night– just because I don’t like it doesn’t mean he can’t eat it, and if I want my veggies raw, it doesn’t hurt anyone to only cook half of them.

    6. Strong dislikes =/= lack of adventure. I love trying new cuisines! Some of my favorite foods have big, bold, foreign flavors. They just don’t have fish or mushrooms (or raw meat, or excesses of butter). Refusal to eat certain foods doesn’t mean every picky eater is destined to a life of rice crackers and ramen.

    Found this the other day — haven’t used it, but it could be a great option for picky couples!

  2. AMAZING article! I am a picky eater, and I would love to like healthier foods. Your idea for writing out a list of all things I already know I like, particularly recipes, is ingenious, and I can’t believe I haven’t already done it – but I will be now.

    I do wish that I had more healthy foods in my “like” bin. I love fruit and veggies for the most part, but my major food aversion is unpredictability. I love chocolate bars usually because they always taste exactly the same. On the other hand, grapes, they normally taste great but then you get one that is disgusting. After that, I am done with grapes for months. The same thing happened with a mandarin orange the other day. It is a total bummer!

    • Yes yes yes to the unpredictability thing! Totally that. I like most fruit and vegetables, but a dodgy one has a way of putting me off the whole type for a while, one that if I ignore, and force myself to eat the variety, can lead to a permanent aversion (see: bananas).

      It’s also meant that that whole “have an apple instead of a chocolate bar” health advice always missed the point completely for me; part of the reason that chocolate is a nice thing to eat in the first place is that I know how it’s going to taste. It’s not going to taste horrible because I ate it a day later than I was planning to.

      ETA: For me personally I believe that this is a control issue; I do have huge problems with needing to feel in control particularly of anything involving my body. I am aware of them, but having lived with them for decades I know that fighting them only makes them worse; indulging my impulse to reassert control over things like this is the only way of stopping the need growing to disturbing levels.

  3. I was a mildly picky eater as a child and grew into a more-or-less normal adult with a handful of won’t-eat ingredients, a few dislikes that I could nevertheless make myself choke down, and a couple of minor texture issues. Nothing to produce serious social anxiety or much in the way of difficulties. I think there are a lot of people like me who don’t understand the truly picky eaters because we think we know what it is to dislike something, but we’d still try the tiniest piece to appease a loved one or choke some down to avoid making a scene or if there was literally no other food for days. We don’t understand a food dislike orders of magnitude stronger. We can’t understand the idea of preferring to literally starve rather than eat a disliked food, or avoiding a lifetime of social gatherings and dating because of food. I admit, I have a very hard time imagining being literally unable to try carrot for an entire lifetime, even in cake.

    When I got pregnant, however, I got a little glimpse of what I didn’t understand previously (not saying I understand it now in any real sense, just that I’m a bit less ignorant). I had only minor morning sickness but I did get some very strong food aversions out of nowhere. One day I came home from work to find my husband had made his homemade chicken and rice. This was a healthy, from scratch, lovingly made dish from a husband to the wife bearing his child, and it was something that I had always enjoyed before. I walked in the door and could not stand to be in the same room as it. I felt terrible! He had, on his own initiative, gone out of his way to make something nice for me and I couldn’t even force myself to take a step towards it, much less bring a bite near my mouth. It was like a magnetic repulsion. He was very understanding when told him I was having a food aversion and that was very normal in pregnancy and I just wanted an apple, but I still to this day feel dreadful about it.

    I was blown away by the strength of some of my food aversions in pregnancy, and not only did I only have them for a few foods, but I only had to put up with them for a few months. I can only dimly imagine what it would be like to have aversions so strong to the vast majority of foods for an entire lifetime.

    I really could understand it being a type of eating disorder. I mean, if pica (desiring and eating non-food items) is a recognized eating disorder, then it seems like its opposite, having the same aversion to the idea of eating some or most food items as you would to dirt or chalk or toilet paper would be too.

    • Interestingly, they have done a few studies and have discovered that a lot of adult “picky eaters” are actually “super tasters, ” meaning they taste things more strongly than the average person. So while a bitter flavor to a normal person might be tolerable or even enjoyable, to a super taster its unbearable.

  4. I just moved in with my SO, and I’m trying to figure out what we both like. I’m Newfie and vegan, he’s Californian, and it’s kinda weird how different our ethnic foods are. It’s a little frustrating for me because what is common in grocery stores in Canada isn’t necessarily common down here, and by the time I get home and cook with what I was able to find and he rejects it, I get even more frustrated and do not want to cook anymore. He also doesn’t eat leftovers, which makes me want to pull out my hair when it comes time to throw away all the food that went bad. Like he’ll bug me about making chili, and then it sits there in the fridge for a week. And when we order out he usually orders a lot for leftovers, and then just doesn’t eat it.

    So I’m going to have to start freezing leftovers, and I think I’ll make more bowls and bento box type meals instead of labouring over one dish. That way he can add what he likes, I can add what I like, and nobody is upset.

  5. I grew up in a household where you ate what was on the table. That being said, my Mom made things we all liked and if there was something we didn’t like, we had to try one bite. I still try a bite of rutabegas every now and then and nope, still don’t like them. I brought up my girls the same way. Money was tight and I had to budget carefully. Yes, they ate what I served, but over the years they’ve let some foods fall off the “will eat” list. I’m so thankful my Sweet Husband will eat anything I put on the table. Yes, I’m so lucky!!

  6. I’m the picky eater in my house, but I think that a lot of the references in the comments to “eating like a toddler” are a bit patronising! There are many foods I don’t like, some of which I’ve tried, others I haven’t because I *know* I won’t like them (and please don’t tell me I won’t know unless I try.There are some things that you just know about yourself!) but I’m a grown woman and don’t appreciate being treated like a child just because I don’t like the same foods as you! A comment further up-thread about not pointing out the picky eater at the table resonated with me, too – there’s just no need for it, and it won’t help anything (unless you’re hoping to shame the fussy one out of their fussiness, but – shock – that probably won’t work, either). My tastes have naturally expanded over the last decade or so (I’m early 30s now) but it definitely wasn’t a result of anyone trying to make me try new things – that just leads to a stubborn stand-off! My husband will eat almost anything, so when I’m cooking I try to make things that will appeal to his spicier tastes but will also suit me; I can cook chicken breasts for both of us with no seasoning on mine and a shed-load on his, for instance. There are also regular nights where we just don’t eat the same thing – he can indulge his love of a good curry, while I can have a nice safe jacket potato. If you’re the one cooking for a picky eater, I’d say the best thing you can do is find out the things they *do* enjoy, and find out why they don’t like certain other things (for me, I’m not a fan of spicy food or anything with a slimy or odd texture) so that you can look to new recipes involving tried and tested ingredients that won’t freak out the other person by containing something that is completely off-putting to them. How to deal with a fussy toddler, though, is a whole new ball game. I have one, and it’s so frustrating because I’ve tried hard not to “pass on” my pickiness to him, but he’s naturally inclined to be like me. He lives on pasta, beef and plain chicken, and he’ll go days without eating a “proper” meal. But he’s healthy, so I’m choosing not to make it into a battle. My parents used to try to hide foods I didn’t like in foods that I did (cauliflower hidden in mashed potatoes, etc) and it never worked. Neither did the “you’re not leaving the table until you’ve cleared your plate” tactic, or the “if you don’t eat this, you won’t have any dinner at all”. They just make for an unhappy, hungry child, in my opinion.

  7. Also, the whole “No Thank You Bite” thing is absolutely NOT a winner for me. I wouldn’t expect a vegetarian to eat one bite of chicken just to appease me, and nor would I expect someone with a nut allergy to eat the peanut cookies I’d so lovingly made, so why would someone expect the same of a “picky” eater? It just furthers the assumption that the picky eater is being deliberately difficult. I have, in the past, gone to a friend’s house for a meal, not realising that the friend was cooking something I didn’t like, and I have explained the situation to them as nicely as possible, and made it clear to them that it’s nothing to do with them as a cook. I’ve never experienced any antagonism from my friends when this has happened, and I’ve gone out of my way to make sure they don’t feel bad over it. Most of my friends know what I can/can’t eat, just as I know which of my friends are vegetarian, vegan, have dairy or gluten intolerances, and so we all cook accordingly for the others because that’s what friends do. I don’t force my pasta-loving agenda onto my gluten-free friends, and I expect the same respect in return.

  8. I appreciate seeing an article addressing this. In my relationship I’m the “picky” eater (though it is due to texture sensitives from Asperger’s). My husband has been very supportive but I sometimes get really frustrated with myself when I can’t eat something.

    I often feel shamed about it and embarrassed to be an adult picky eater.

    I also have a friend who likes to do the “you have to take just one bite” thing and I told him that he needs to knock that shit off. He is not my mother.

    • I think the “not your mother” thing is super important. It is never anyone’s job to force someone to eat something they are not comfortable with (unless you are their mother & you are trying to expand your child’s palette & it’s been proven your child does not have the conditions discussed above & will try something eventually without starving themselves. And your child is pretty young.) My article is about finding stuff that we can both agree is enjoyable. It is not about forcing Eric to eat stuff he doesn’t want to. I encourage him to try things & he is agreeable to that, but if he doesn’t want something or doesn’t like something I do my very best to respect that. Forcing something on someone will only breed resentment, both for the person insisting “just try it! DO IT!” & the food. I think with all picky eaters, regardless of age, encouragement & respect are the key. I certainly wouldn’t appreciate someone trying to force me into a situation I was uncomfortable with & I try to keep that in mind in regards to food. I’m not saying I’m always successful, but that is the goal. The comments have really cemented the importance of that in my mind.

  9. Picky eating could also be a sign of having a medical condition as well. My husband was a VERY picky eater, but found that it was related to the fact that when he ate he had physical pain because of a medical condition. After medication, he was suddenly relieved from that pain he’d experienced his whole life and ate much more variety and was able to try lots of different foods without issue. He said that he didn’t even realize it was painful until it stopped.

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