I’ve been thinking: are picky eaters picky because of the way they are used to certain foods being prepared in a particular way?
While growing up, I always wondered from where the dislike of certain foods stemmed. For example—my brother doesn’t like tomatoes. This friend doesn’t like chocolate. That one doesn’t eat mushrooms. Hubby can’t stand salmon (sometimes). To me, disliking just a few “normal” foods is understandable. But what about people that never want to try anything? Where does that come from?
A younger cousin of mine came over to our house for gumbo a few years back. My mom used to make a giant pot of gumbo every year for Christmas (pictured above). She’s now passed the torch to my eldest brother, who cooks a mean, meticulously prepared gumbo while she supervises him. For our family, it’s about two days of hard work—chopping and dicing veggies, stirring the roux for almost an hour, peeling large shrimp, chopping the big crab legs, baking the chicken, and so on. There are so many steps to take before the contents of the pot transform into what ultimately becomes the best gumbo you’ve ever had. My mom lightheartedly jokes that she hosts our parties in “secret” so that guests don’t surprise us and pop up at the house. She loves hosting though, and over the years, has sent many to their homes, lighthearted, full and happy while smiling and carrying steaming tupperware full of fresh gumbo out into the sub-zero Chicago winter cold air.
Anyway, this cousin tried the gumbo:
“Ooh, this is good!”
“You like your gumbo?” I replied.
He asks, “This is gumbo? This looks different.
My mom makes gumbo, and I don’t like hers. Hers is red.”
His critique tickled me. I remember trying a (now closed) Cajun restaurant here in New York City near Penn Station. There was gumbo on the appetizer menu, and one of my really good friends was raving about it. So I ordered it. It was red. Now—not to offend any tomato-based-gumbo-lovers out there—but gumbo is just not the same without a beautiful, deep golden roux. I found this to be more similar to a conventional stew, not my Mom’s gumbo, not made with love or with seafood. Just boneless chicken breast. I didn’t eat much of it. Does this make me a picky eater? No. I don’t think so. Admittedly, I don’t like beets, but I’m certainly not one to glance at a menu and settle the chicken tenders (although I do love a good chicken tender). I appreciate a menu full of thoughtful, varied food choices and unique, flavor-filled dishes.
Anyway, when my cousin said that, my own experience at the not-so-authentic Cajun restaurant came to mind. I imagined him at home, being coaxed into eating dinner but just not wanting to eat it. His mother, gently asking him to finish his food before it gets cold, or worse, so that he wouldn’t go to bed on an empty stomach. And here he is, at my mom’s house licking his bowl. I don’t have children, but I can easily see a kid pushing a plate full of healthy, but bland looking, bright green steamed broccoli away, but then going over to a friend’s house and eating broccoli that was smothered in garlic sauce over steamed rice. It seems like something even I might have done growing up, especially because I disliked spinach for a long time until I tasted my grandmother’s, which she prepared by sauteing it in a bit of cream and mushroom soup.
I wonder, do picky eaters assume something will taste the way they remember it tasting when they first tried it? Were their parents obliging their requests to eat only processed, salty, or buttery foods? To eat boxed macaroni and cheese nightly? I remember having to eat what was prepared, not what I wanted. Granted, I could decide to pick over one portion of a 3 dish meal, but in general, the nightly menu was not decided by me. And I think I dislike boxed mac-and-cheese to this day not because I don’t like cheese, or elbow noodles, but becuase I just like my mom’s real mac and cheese; made with eggs, milk, butter, and layers and mounds of sharp cheese. I read a few articles on the “picky eating” topic, as well as explanations from picky eaters themselves. There is a theory suggests that the texture of the food is what turns picky eaters off, or that parents are likely to give into a child’s request for unhealthy food choices when they seem to literally starve themselves in protest of a food they don’t like. A mom described a night when she let her daughter eat a sugary yogurt for dinner instead of the chicken salad she prepared so that her daughter would not go to bed without eating anything.
I’ve got to say, there are many foods my husband refused to eat until we met. There are still some he won’t, but it’s great to see him enjoy so many foods later in life now that he enjoys the way I prepare them. I would argue that, if at all possible, opening a child up to the beauty of an expanded palate and exposing them to a various array of tastes and textures would allow for some pretty enriching experiences around food as an adult. Food is, after all, one of the most basic needs on Maslow’s Hierachy, and as such can be woven into some of the higher needs that subconsciously enhance our quality of life. There are so many restaurants here in New York that you’d think the industry would be over-saturated, but really, New Yorkers can’t get enough. And most of the restaurants aren’t chains. Maybe us New Yorkers love eating all kinds of exotic cuisine here because it is notoriously prepared well, and simply, tastes good?
Just food for thought.