It amazes some people these days to find out that I used to be a fussy eater, but it’s true. And not just “she doesn’t like broccoli” – as a child, I would only eat white food, eschewing all sauces, vegetables, anything that wasn’t plain chicken, chips, pasta with butter.
I can see that a lot of people won’t understand why this is relevant to a wellness blog, but unless you’ve been a fussy eater, you won’t understand how much anxiety being picky about food can cause. Visiting friends, eating out, even just being offered a slice of cake in your office can cause spasms of panic. And the important thing to understand is that fussy eating is not like having preferences about which movie to watch or certain tastes in clothing. In a lot of cases, it has far more in common with a genuine phobia, a completely irrational fear about what might happen if you were to ingest certain foods.
I read, a while ago, a fantastic article in The Times by Child Psychologist Professor Tanya Byron, answering a letter from an 18 year old who has always been a fussy eater and wanted to do something about it. As that link is behind a paywall, I’ll explain the jist of the technique she outlines. Draw out three columns – a red, yellow and green column. In the green column list foods you love, in the red column, foods you won’t touch. The yellow column is for foods you don’t mind. Now, instead of trying to move foods from the red column to the green, you have to focus on moving food from yellow to green. Instead of spending time forcing yourself to eat foods you hate, try and incorporate foods you don’t mind into more of your meals – try and always have some “yellow foods” on the plate.
In practice, it works like this: I went to university unable to eat any vegetable except potatoes. I sort of didn’t mind onions, in bolognese sauce. So I do more cooking with onions, and others in their family, such as spring onions and leeks. I tried to put one of these into every pasta dish I made, would always fry chicken with some other onion in the pan. Egg fried rice with spring onion and bacon was another favourite. Soon, other vegetables don’t seem as threatening – I buy other, non-green vegetables, such as peppers, which I use in stir-fries, and carrots, which I slice into my bolognese or chicken stews. I begin to eat green vegetables – peas, spinach… now, the only thing I struggle with still is broccoli.
The article also suggests examining what foods you already like, breaking them down into their constituent parts and eating them – for example, if you eat burgers, then you eat meat and bread; if you eat chips, you eat potatoes. List some potential foods out that relate to these in the order you find least threatening, so for potatoes it might be: chips, crisps (ready salted), crisps (other flavours), potato wedges, roast potatoes, mashed potato, baked potato with cheese.
If you treat fussy eating as any other phobia, you realise its cure is less about forcing yourself to eat, and more about slowly acclimatising yourself to food. If you’re anxious about eating, you’re likely to avoid social situations where you might have to eat – going to restaurants with friends or ordering takeaway. Even if you struggle to find things you like in these situations, the value of watching other people eat and enjoy food that you don’t like is vital in teaching your brain that food isn’t the enemy. A lot of the fussy eaters I know grew up in houses where no one enjoyed food, and though this wasn’t the case for me, you can easily see how that can create a mindset where food is a cause of misery and fear.
Similarly, watching cookery shows improved my comfort around food no end. It helped teach me links between foods I might not have tried and foods that I had tried and liked. It also showed me how certain flavours that I didn’t like on their own might be more palatable when combined with others – I’d never dip my chips in tomato ketchup but I wouldn’t mind if my burger came with it on. Trying, as much as possible, to eat meals in restaurants as they come will really help acclimatise your palate to new flavours and teach you to eat foods you might not cook for yourself at home.
Having said that, nothing is more valuable to a food journey than feeling in control, and you are far more likely to eat food if you’ve cooked it yourself and can see exactly what went into it, and that it isn’t anything scary. Buy yourself new foods and cook with them – in the comfort of your own home, where no one’s going to notice if you find you can’t clear your plate. And, as I said before, don’t focus on foods that are too far out of your comfort zone; remember to move foods from yellow to green, and as your repertoire expands, there will be more and more you can imagine eating.
May you be well,