I vaguely remember being around 12 years old at sleepaway camp in rural Connecticut. I was walking through the dining hall, watching my friends eat their sloppy joes while I approached the “alternative option” line to order a PB&J. When I returned to the table, I don’t think anyone said anything to me directly, but I remember their laughter and my shame at being the only one who needed something different. Only a few years earlier, my preference for simple food wasn’t considered weird. It was just part of being a child. I remember coming home from kindergarten and eating Kraft Mac & Cheese while watching Blues Clues in my grandparents’ kitchen. At sleepovers, I would request plain pancakes instead of eggs. At family dinners, while my sisters would ask for Greek food, I demanded buttered pasta. Annoying for my parents? Maybe. But pretty normal kid stuff.
As I grew a bit older, avoiding new foods naturally fit into a larger personality that I worked hard to cultivate. I idolized pop culture figures like Rory Gilmore, Lizzie McGuire, and Joey Potter — high-strung perfectionists whose elevated standards and careful decisions led them to success. And since I was trying to emulate their poise and complete sense of control, eating foods I might not like just seemed out of the question. It was a gamble I wasn’t willing to take. Never getting food poisoning was just an added bonus. Then, around my junior year at college, my world began to change. Being uptight stopped being cool. I was encouraged to travel and experience new things, beginning with my Birthright trip and continuing through my study abroad experience. I learned to like red wine but otherwise lived on Spanish tortillas (omelets), and I’ll never forget the struggle of avoiding falafel while navigating the streets of Israel. Throughout senior year, it was the idea of taking professional risks to embrace your uncertain future. Then I moved to New York and started working in media, so it was all about keeping up with trends, being spontaneous and flexible, and making the most of the city by trying new foods. It’s reached the point where I actively hide any eating habits that could be interpreted as less than adventurous or accommodating. Anything less feels embarrassingly uncultured. I’ve ended up as the default restaurant-chooser in my friend group so that I can make sure the place will have options I can eat. To my companions, it looks like I’m innocently and excitedly scouting new spots. How cultured am I?! How organized! How proactive! How adventurous! But in reality, it’s time-consuming and a nuisance, and I’m only doing it to guarantee we don’t eat anywhere I’d have to admit that I don’t like anything on the menu. When situations arise and the choice isn’t mine to make, I’ll eat in advance so nobody has to know about my deep, dark, picky-eater secret. Often when people find out, they don’t even try to hide their disdain. I’ve become very familiar with resigned frustration about me not being interested in trying something that’s “only a little bit spicy” or described in a foreign language. Unfortunately, it’s gone so far as to affect my relationships, since coworkers and friends alike notice meal choices day after day. They tease — affectionately — but I just feel singled out and embarrassed.
I’m realizing that the worst part of being a Picky Eater isn’t really the fact that everyone hates it — it’s the fact that I hate this part of myself.
Of course, as I write this, I also remember the people who are non-judgmentally accommodating. My boyfriend’s parents, for example, always make two bowls of guacamole: one with jalapeños and one without so that I don’t have to eat the spicy stuff. They don’t mind at all since it means more guac for everyone, and I appreciate that they know and accept the quirks of my likes and dislikes. In fact, the older I get, the more I’m realizing that the worst part of being a picky eater isn’t really the fact that everyone else hates it — it’s the fact that I hate this part of myself. I am so focused on my shame, irritated and stubborn and eager to please everyone else, that I continue to compromise my own experiences for better or worse. I am allowing my fear of being judged by others to dictate my behavior. And is that really a way to live? No, I think not. I know I’m not going to change what I eat overnight. But I would like to push myself to have more of an open mind when it comes to food. I deserve to try new things or avoid them without feeling any embarrassment. I recently had a friend describe me as “selective” instead of just dismissing me as a picky eater. It was a small change in word choice, but a powerful one. It reaffirmed what I already know: What I choose to put on my plate should only matter to me.