When I was a little girl, I was an extremely picky eater. I’m pretty sure there was a phase of my life where all I would willingly eat was hot dogs. Gross, I know. I remember one day a family friend (who also happened to be a vegetarian) gave me a thorough education on hot dogs and I was mortified. After that I promptly switched my preference to grilled cheese sandwiches.
There is not one single widely accepted definition of picky eating. Mostly it tends to be associated with people (primarily children) who have an unwillingness to eat certain foods, to try new foods, and/or who have strong food preferences. Nowadays the label “picky eater” seems to extend even to people who have food intolerances – such as to gluten or lactose. Or to people who make intentional dietary choices like being vegetarian or vegan. Young children can often be very picky eaters. In most cases, they seem to grow out of it over time. And sometimes, they don’t.
I fall into the latter category.
Let me just begin by saying, I hate being a picky eater.
It would make my life SO MUCH easier if I could just eat anything and everything that got set in front of me and genuinely enjoy it. There is a lot of embarrassment and shame involved in feeling picky. And it can be humiliating to be “exposed” as a picky eater as an adult. It is interesting how judgmental people can be about the eating preferences of others. Often without even being aware of it.
I was always frustrated that the things I disliked the most seemed to be super common foods. Onions, tomatoes, mushrooms, olives, basically any condiments. There goes any attempt to order an uncomplicated hamburger or salad anywhere! And try to imagine living in the South while being picky about coleslaw, potato salad, shrimp cocktail, chicken salad, deviled eggs, and green bean casserole with those weird crispy onion things on top.
Basically any potluck bbq or gathering with traditional southern foods was my nightmare.
Now that I’m grown, I believe that most other adults I know have at least something they don’t like to eat or don’t enjoy eating (okra? escargot? eggplant??). As a kid, adults always seemed so mysterious. Invincible. Fearless. Completely undeterred by anything I may have deemed “yucky.” They were happy to shovel in a big bite of whatever I was resisting and tell me how delicious it was and that I was “missing out.”
My step-mother was the first adult I knew that openly didn’t like a food. I remember distinctly – it was lima beans. When I discovered this information it felt strangely validating. While my “yucky” list may have contained a lot of most common foods, you could feed me brussels sprouts or asparagus all day long. Or cottage cheese or quiche or blue cheese. Even lima beans. Surely that counted for something!
For years I carried around a lot of negative energy about being picky.
I didn’t enjoy trying new foods. It was stressful to go blindly into meals that someone else might cook for me for fear I wouldn’t like something they prepared. Usually I would try to be polite, eat what I was served with a smile, and be gracious while doing so. Forcing yourself to eat something you don’t like is hard to explain unless you’ve experienced it. I always worried about hurting someone’s feelings. And I worried about being called out for being “picky.”
It was also incredibly embarrassing to always feel like my order at restaurants was “complicated.” I remember going to Olive Garden one night for dinner with my sisters, dad, and stepmother. I ordered last. We waited an exceptionally long time for our food to come. Finally we discovered that our waitress, who was a new employee, had suddenly quit. Immediately after taking our table’s order. My family teased about how my complicated requests had probably been too much for her. I playfully laughed along. I know none of them intended to hurt my feelings. But deep down, I felt humiliated.
For so many years of my life after childhood, food was really not fun for me. Eating out at restaurants or at other people’s houses gave me anxiety. I wasn’t adventurous. My preference was for simple dishes. I found comfort in knowing I could count on them being palatable for my delicate tastes. Overall I’d say I became pretty boring about food.
Then… Enter Paul.
Finding love led me to loving food.
I credit my relationship with my husband for being the main influence on how much my willingness to try new foods has evolved through the years. Paul was born in Ukraine and moved to the US when he was 16 years old. His unique cultural perspective is the foundation of all of his earliest experiences with food.
He grew up loving traditional Ukrainian food like pelmini and vareniki which his mother lovingly still cooks for him to this day when she visits. He told me that he never had sweet potatoes or avocados in Ukraine. And when the first McDonald’s opened in Kiev in 1997, he and his family waited hours in line a mile long to eat there.
Early into dating Paul, it did not occur to me that he was a “foodie.” I didn’t know that our relationship would broaden my taste palate. I remember specifically that on our first date he ordered pine nut-encrusted sea bass. He offered me a bite. I ate it with fake enthusiasm, fearful he would find out I was so picky. Afraid I would disappoint him. Lucky for me, it wasn’t the worst thing I’d ever tried before.
Little did I know, that was just the beginning of it.
The first dinner party we hosted together was a backyard cookout. Paul happened to have several pounds of ground lamb meat that his parents have given him that had been sitting in his freezer. He thought this would be a perfect opportunity to use it and declared “lamb burgers” as our main course for the party. I recall a desperate call to my mama asking whether I should get “regular ground beef, just in case people think it’s weird.” I thought it was SO weird. I was convinced the party would be a disaster if we served such an unusual food. But it was early enough into our relationship that I still wanted to impress him and I didn’t admit my concerns.
He grilled and served a ton of lamb burgers that evening, much to everyone’s delight, including mine. It was delicious.
It was as though the lamb burgers experience opened my mind to the idea that perhaps I HAD been missing out by being so picky. Before that night I had always felt incredibly anxious about trying new foods. And somehow Paul unknowingly gave me confidence that it could be a fun and rewarding opportunity. I vowed after that night to keep on trying new foods and to even revisit foods that I hadn’t liked in the past.
The next few years held all sorts of “firsts” for me.
I tried tons of new foods I had never imagined I would try. And as I got more brave, I started enjoying things I never imagined I would enjoy.
One evening I was enjoying a pirozhki (a small stuffed pie with ground meat inside it) that Paul’s mom had cooked for us. When she told me it was made of “beef” I didn’t think twice. But I didn’t know she had figured out I was picky and what she didn’t tell me is that it was actually beef TONGUE!! Apparently tongue is a delicacy in Ukraine (among other places around the world). I’m still warming up to the idea of that one.
Another famous Ukrainian dish his mother cooked for us that I found that I love is borscht. It’s a beet and cabbage soup that is usually bright pink. Trust me, the first time I sat down to eat that I was NOT excited about it. But all it took was one bite for me to discover how delicious it is.
When we moved to Chicago, the experiences continued.
Paul never pushed me to try things. He was generally just SO DAMN excited about food and restaurants and trying new things that it became contagious. I learned to trust his instinct about food, and in turn, trust my own curiosity.
Our favorite restaurant remains The Girl & The Goat. Over the course of four years in Chicago and many special events celebrated over dinner there, I enthusiastically checked off all sorts of new (and TOTALLY weird) foods. Kohlrabi salad, duck tongue, goat liver mousse, pig face, raw oysters – the trick there, I discovered, was to focus simply on trying anything placed in front of me. I didn’t want to know what was ordered, I didn’t read the menu in depth, and I tried not to get hung up on my preconceived notions. I adopted a mentality of just bring it on. It was so liberating. AND FUN! The more adventurous I got, the more emboldened I felt.
Several years ago, Paul and I had an incredible opportunity to travel to Greece with his family.
On our first night in Crete, we ate dinner at a small family-owned restaurant. Paul’s father ordered a huge Greek salad for all of us to share. When it arrived to the table, he served me a generous portion. Piled high were onions, tomatoes, and olives. My top three least favorite foods. I found myself, once again, faced with what kind of impression my pickiness would make on others. I dug deep for the motivation to dive in. That first mouthful of dreaded dripping juicy tomato totally got my attention.
My whole life I had hated tomatoes.
And on this particular night, I discovered a love for them. The food in Greece is unparalleled to anything I ever experienced before in the US. Holy moly it was flavorful and delicious. I couldn’t get enough. If I recall correctly, Paul and I both gained about 10lbs on that trip. I think I ate more tomatoes in two weeks than I had in my entire life!
That trip gifted me more than I could have imagined. It was an amazing experience overall. But the fact that it opened my eyes to the possibility that I might like other foods I had previously despised was quite a big win for me as a take-away. And to document it all – my Mama received a barrage of random photos of me taking huge bites of foods I had never enjoyed before (gotta have that proof!). Tomatoes, fish, olives, oh my!
For much of my life, my anxieties about food and my experiences around food have really inhibited me. My inner critic has been shaming my inner child about being a picky eater for as long as I can remember.
Luckily my taste has evolved a lot through the years and I find myself enthusiastic about the idea of trying new foods. The experience is more fun than daunting to me now. I still feel stressed about food occasionally, especially in social settings, but I feel more confident overall.
Last week I ate chirashi tuna and caviar at a friend’s dinner party. Ten years ago, I would have completely balked at the thought of that.
Despite all of my progress with pickiness, I still find myself getting twinges of anxiety over an event like this one. Paul loves raw tuna. I, on the other hand, am still learning to appreciate “cooked” fish and was feeling pretty apprehensive about the main course. I had already decided I could pass most of mine off to Paul and just eat the rice without anybody really noticing. Of course I planned to TRY it, I just didn’t anticipate enjoying it. Imagine my surprise.
While I wasn’t a huge fan of the caviar (Paul was thrilled because he got to finish off my bowl!) – the tuna really blew my mind. It was incredible. I love that this experience adds to the continually growing pile of situations that serve to reinforce my confidence.
The biggest lesson I have learned along this journey is to not underestimate the potential we have for change.
This is not intended to be a simple story about how marrying an adventurous eater transformed me. Finding love inspired me to discover a confidence within myself. By modeling enthusiasm and being supportive as I ventured into unknown food territories beside him, Paul helped to create a safe space for me to explore a new version of myself.
Eliza, the cautious adventurer, not Eliza the picky eater.
Even if you have spent 3/4 of your life carrying around a label or a burden of doubt and insecurity – don’t assume you have to carry it forever.
It’s fair to say my inner child may always be a picky eater. I’m finally learning to be ok with that. I’m completely content with being a cautious adventurer. I enjoy new experiences and am learning to let go of the guilt and embarrassment that I’ve carried for so long. The change is good.
Though I’m not sure I will ever like eating shrimp. And I’ll probably always have a weird thing about condiments.
Black & white photos included in post captured by Kati Mallory