I wouldn’t call our three year old grandson, Oliver, a picky eater, although from year one it was clear he didn’t want other people to feed him. Even now he wants to maintain control over things. When we recently went to the movies, he was determined to supervise the popcorn. He would share, but insisted on giving me one kernel at a time and he had to thoroughly examine each one before he would let loose with it. Perhaps that comes from having two bossy big sisters.
When she was a little girl, Oliver’s mother was, at times, too good of an eater. To our mortification she would literally lick her plate clean when we ate out in restaurants.
But I, believe it or not, had the reputation in my family as being an incredibly fussy eater. I rejected almost everything. For a while I would only eat the yellow part of eggs. Later I switched and would only eat the white part. Comedian George Carlin says that “fussy eater” is just a euphemism for “Big Pain in the Ass”. As I grew older I would rarely eat anything but hamburgers and chocolate milkshakes. Dr. Berman, my jolly, rotund, cigar-smoking pediatrician, told my mother not to worry. He said that I could get along just fine on this diet, which I now suspect was pretty much the same things he ate.
About 20% of children are fussy eaters. Two factors contribute to this rejection of foods: “food neophobia” and picky eating. “Food neophobia” is the reluctance to eat unfamiliar foods. New foods are often rejected by children solely on the basis of their names. George Carlin says he would never eat food with names like squash, wheat germ, or horse radish when he was a kid. Picky eaters are children who eat a very limited variety, because they reject both familiar and unfamiliar foods. On average, picky eaters are lighter and shorter than their peers, but still within the normal range for their age.
In some instances picky eating is matter of imitating parents or older siblings. For example, my brother Norman disliked cucumbers. Once when we all went out to dinner, he and his two daughters acted liked they had been poisoned when they discovered cucumbers in the salad. In other cases it is some characteristic of the food, itself, that leads to its rejection, such as taste, color, or consistency. For instance foods that are hard, mushy, gooey, or chunky are often summarily rejected.
In the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, Calvin asks his mother if he has to eat the “slimy” asparagus. Calvin hates mushy vegetables, but when his mother tells him that they’re really monkey brains, his weakness for grossness overcomes his resistance and he’s happy to eat them. Picky eating is seen throughout popular culture. Who can forget Dr. Suess’ classic Green Eggs and Ham. There is also the episode of Leave it to Beaver, in which the Beaver’s refusal to eat Brussels sprouts almost causes him to miss the trip to Mayfield to see the big game.
Cultural factors also play a role in food rejection. In Japan kids tend to hate carrots and green peppers. In one episode of Pokemon, the Misty character says the three things she hates most in life are “bugs, carrots, and bell peppers”.
Picky eating is not confined to children. You might remember that President George H.W. Bush created quite a stir when he announced that he didn’t like broccoli. University of Pennsylvania anthropologist Jane Kauer surveyed over 500 adults regarding their eating habits. She found that one-third of them described themselves as “unusually picky eaters ” and about 20% had an extremely narrow range of acceptable foods.
Kauer also discovered that about 60% of adults clean their plates at mealtime and about half eat the same breakfast nearly every day. Many of us won’t drink while we eat or eat food that has any sort of filling (ravioli, pirogues, blintzes, etc.). About 20% of us abhor the jellied consistency of raw tomatoes and routinely avoid unfamiliar foods. One of our kids always ate things sequentially and made a big fuss whenever foods touched each other on his plate. To desensitize him, my wife Diane would always serve him his hamburger with one baked bean on top of the bun.
Kauer and others have found that fried chicken, chicken fingers, French fries, chocolate chip cookies, plain cheese pizza, and Kraft macaroni and cheese are among the small number of food items that are almost universally accepted. These comfort foods are familiar, bland, and obvious in regard to their make-up. At times picky eaters are almost paranoid about what is in the food they eat. There is a lack of trust about ingredients, and in more extreme cases, preparation. I once had a boss who flatly refused to eat ethnic foods, fearing they were tainted in some way. Kauer says, “We all know what’s in fried chicken… …even if we get it from some place we’ve never been before.” And George Carlin neatly summarizes the issue saying, “I only eat things I can immediately recognize. I came to eat, not to make inquiries.”
Extremely picky eaters displayed more obsessive-compulsive and depressive tendencies, expressions of disgust, and avoidance of unfamiliar foods than non-picky eaters. In taste tests, they also subjectively rated sweet and bitter flavors as being more intense. As a group they weren’t food-haters, they just saw themselves as “highly selective”. Never-the-less, mental health experts are considering adding a classification called “selective eating disorder ” to the American Psychiatric Association’s new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.
So the next time I won’t eat a salmon croquette with that yellow stuff on it, remember, I’m not being “picky”– just “highly selective”.
Originally published in the Tribune & Evening News (http://newsandtribune.com/)