No recipe today, folks. I’ll probably post again soon, outside of my bi-weekly blog schedule. I had a big week of spring cleaning, including a complete kitchen and pantry overhaul.
I was cleaning all weekend with the windows open and some records playing, thinking about what I wanted to write about. For some reason, I kept coming back to how radically different my approach to food is, compared to when I was younger. Most of the recipes I’ve created I wouldn’t have even considered touching ten years ago. People who have known me a long time tell me constantly how crazy (but cool) it is that I have a food blog now.
Over the past year on The Picky Gourmet, I’ve shared tidbits about my horrendous relationship with food when I was a kid, but today, I want to finally reflect and tell that story as a whole. I need to preface this by saying I am not an expert, I am just a regular person, who grew up this way, sharing what I experienced in the hopes of helping others.
Even when I was a baby, meal time was a production. I had a favorite book, a plushy pop-up about a cartoon chicken going about it’s day. The cover showed her eating breakfast. Somehow, despite me not being able to talk yet, I made it clear I wouldn’t eat unless I had the book nearby and someone was singing “Cereal, cereal, chicken eating cereal” to me. (Sorry, no original recordings of this family tune exist and never will.)
For me, and most other people like me I’ve encountered, it’s hard to give the picky eating a start date. It’s just something that’s in you from the beginning. You learn the word “no” pretty quickly as a toddler and meal time is the perfect place to test it out.
Somewhere in my early years, way before I can even remember, I began to refuse to eat red meat. I honestly think it was when I made the visual connection between what it looked like raw versus cooked. I don’t remember my 3 or 4 year old brain telling me “we are never eating red meat again”. I do know that as a kid, even seeing the raw meat in the grocery store, all red and bloody, made me viscerally sick.
To be honest, it still does a little, because I don’t cook with it and I don’t eat it. I haven’t had red meat since I was a toddler. This is my favorite and least favorite thing to tell others about myself. I’m always surprised by how many people also don’t eat meat, which makes me feel less crazy. Sometimes the reactions are funny, but a lot of times people (mostly men, sorry, it’s true) want to go down the list of meats and make sure I was right.
“You’ve never eaten a hamburger?”
“What about pork, it’s not technically red meat.”
“OK, put it this way. I don’t eat mammals.”
Then they tell me that they could probably get me to eat bacon, or something else I would never consume. Or tell me I’m nuts and I’m missing out on soooo much. I’m sure I am, but I didn’t give up meat, I never ate it in the first place. Friends try to be helpful and suggest the best faux meat products they know, but I’m not looking for veggie patties to substitute a burger or something to taste like beef when it’s made of soy or something. I’ve built my palate and skill set around my picky preferences and that works for me.
Obviously, if you have seen my recipes, I do eat poultry and seafood. It puts me in this weird in-between that has no name. I’m not a vegetarian, I am not a pescatarian. Some call it semi-vegetarian. I don’t know, all I can picture is myself scarfing down a dozen buffalo wings saying “yeah, I’m a semi-vegetarian.” The term still leaves something to be desired.
Growing up, I knew I was weird. People who can eat anything (non-pickies?) have no idea how stressful a day can be. We have to eat so much! And often, in front of others! Three times a day to remind you what a freak you are.
My mom would pack me sandwiches for school, and I would pick pieces off to make it look like I ate some of it. Think about that. At 8 or 9 years old, I had already figured out that just throwing away the sandwich was too obvious. Pretending I tried and ate half of it made it look believable.
I was underweight my whole childhood. Everyone told me I was so lucky that I could eat pizza and fries and all this junk without gaining weight. I had a great metabolism for sure, all kids do, but I think the stress and the lack of good nutrition was an unpleasant factor.
That brought on a whole other issue of people often thinking I was anorexic, which I can’t really blame them. I looked like a bobble head on a stick and hardly ate in front of people. I got made fun of. I had other kids tattle on me for my weird habits. I actually had an aid assigned to me one school year who had to check my lunch bag everyday because there was concern if they didn’t, I wouldn’t eat anything.
For the record, I was never starving. My mom always packed something she knew I would eat along with the failed sandwiches. Vending machines were helpful. The middle school lunch line was a revelation. Crappy, soggy french fries, every damn day? Yes, please. High school was the same, with the bonus of friends with cars and Dunkin Donuts runs before and after school. Needless to say, it was incredibly unhealthy.
Big shoutout and apology to my mom who had to deal with this for years! She did her best, everybody. I was just insanely stubborn. Forcing your kid to eat something and making it a huge ordeal is a bad way to go about it, at least from what I went through. There was someone else in my life who would often attempt to get me to try new foods, but in a way that made me feel even more ashamed and exposed. It was like having a spotlight shined on me, and suddenly everyone at the table was staring, waiting to see what would happen.
Again, not an expert. Maybe some kids out there need to be forced, but I do think there is some correlation between most picky eaters. A huge thing is what I call the “the golden brown rule.” Think about every picky kid you know, what do they like? Chicken fingers. Bread. Potatoes, in all it’s glorious forms. Grilled cheeses. Plain pizza. Buttered noodles. Rice. All safe, comforting foods that fall somewhere on the same color gradient scale.
There’s always exceptions. My one saving grace among all the crap I ate was that I always liked fruits and yogurt. I didn’t eat pasta and rice until I was in college (yes, really) because I thought I hated them. I thought.
I don’t know what I would tell my old self to get me to snap out of it sooner. I can promise, when I was a kid, it wasn’t for attention. I hated the attention. I wanted everyone to leave me and my french fries alone. The idea of having to eat a mushroom or a green bean, or even stupid stuff like ketchup or flavored potato chips or cream cheese (yes, REALLY), felt like walking the plank. Full on panic.
I had a good childhood and in the scope of this whole wide world, I can’t complain about much, but having that dread and fear constantly looming over me at every meal was exhausting. I didn’t even realize how truly bad it was until it was gone.
I somehow got to college. At 17 years old, I still didn’t eat pasta, rice, chicken that wasn’t a nugget or tender, seafood, any snacks that weren’t popcorn or plain potato chips, and literally most vegetables. I actually used to always make the joke that a never-ending salad bar was my worst nightmare.
Writing that out made me really sad, I didn’t really expect that. I wasted so much time torturing myself for nothing. But again, I don’t know what anyone could have said to get me over it any faster. It had to be something I did on my own, so one random day, a couple weeks into school, I went to lunch alone. I’m not sure what made me pick up whatever it was that I tried that day, but it became my secret routine. No one was looking at me, no one cared if I didn’t like it, so I kept trying stuff, and it got exponentially easier each time.
Plenty of people tried to help me over my life and I’ll officially say now, you were right, I was wrong. But on the flip side, that’s not how I used to feel, not at all. I do have to remind myself how different my state of mind was back then, because yes, people were right, but I wasn’t ignoring the advice for kicks. It was real fear, that I remember vividly. I just can’t tell you why anymore.
If you are a picky eater, I know it sucks sometimes. You are always the joke at the dinner table. You always have waiters looking at you sideways. Any social event with food requires a game plan. It sucks, but you’re probably used to it. It’s not the best, but you get by. Some people go their whole lives that way, to each their own. I personally couldn’t handle it anymore.
There’s no easy way out. You have to make to the decision to change. I knew trying new things wouldn’t hurt me, but I didn’t really have the means to buy and cook myself new things in a private setting until I was basically an adult. That’s when I realized trying things alone and not telling anyone about it was what I needed to get over my bad eating habits.
If you know a picky eater, try and have patience and be supportive. Don’t make fun of them, they might be really sensitive about it. Give them the opportunity to try things, without expectations or demanding tones. It’s not going to change overnight and they have to feel comfortable.
I’m still trying new things. I still look up menus of new restaurants to get an idea of what to expect when I go. I still avoid other people offering to cook for me, because I am still a bit picky and that nervous energy starts coming up again. I still have a list of “nope” foods, but it’s getting smaller.
My best advice is go slow and try one thing at a time. If you can mix it into something you already like, that’s a great starting point. For example, I recently took something off my list of foods I told myself hated but didn’t actually know if I did. Mushrooms.
This is kind of exciting for me, because my whole life I’ve said “no mushrooms, I don’t like the texture.” Crazy part is that I don’t know if I ever actually tried one or I just heard enough people say that. One night out to dinner, on a whim I ordered a pizza that had all these ingredients I loved, plus thinly shaved mushrooms. I said, hmm, maybe I can work with that. It was good. A couple months later, I ordered a risotto with mushrooms. Also good. Hmm.
Cut to last week, The Kitchen on Food Network featured a one-pan alfredo pasta meal with peas and mushrooms. So for the first time ever, I bought, cooked and ate mushrooms in my own kitchen. It’s pictured at the beginning of this post, by the way. I’m not running out to go eat a whole portobello now or anything, but it’s one more food I don’t have to be totally freaked out about in a dish.
Remember, I’ve been on this “got to try new things” journey for over a decade now. It’s why I started The Picky Gourmet, to keep pushing myself. It might sound dramatic, but think of something you are truly scared of. Heights, spiders, whatever it may be. That was the feeling I had every night at dinner. Source: I also hate heights and spiders.
Well, that was long-winded and therapeutic. Whether anyone actually reads this or not, it does feel good to write it in a public space. Food was a source of shame for me for so long, like a bad, dirty secret. What I shared is only the tip of the iceberg. 17 years of picky eating with 3 meals a day is over 18,000 chances for calamity, but we don’t need to relive it all. To at least admit how tough it was is a relief.
I’ll end by saying thanks to anyone still reading, especially my real life family and friends who have been so supportive. I promise, I’ll quit being self-indulgent and my next post will actually tell you how to cook something! See you real soon!