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adult picky eater unhappily looking at meal

A 25-Year-Old With a 5-Year-Old Palate

Jun 28, 2022
  • Can picky eating persist into adulthood?

  • What might a child say, if they could find their adult voice to talk about their feeding challenges?

This blog aims to provide some answers, by offering an adult perspective on what it feels like to live with picky eating or selective eating patterns.

My colleague, Karen Mak, is a wonderful Speech-Language Pathologist who supports children with feeding issues. Karen recently contacted me to share a fantastic interview that she conducted with her friend, a 25-year-old who has struggled with picky eating since childhood. Karen generously allowed me share her interview as a feature story. Thank you to both Karen and her friend for offering a lens into some of the life experiences of a picky eater.

Written by Karen Mak, Speech-Language Pathologist

I interviewed a 25-year-old who has eaten a limited selection of foods from early childhood and that persisted into his adult life. Here’s what he had to say!

1. How do you describe/label your selective eating to others?

"If it comes up, casually I just say, “Yeah I eat like a 5-year-old,” and then they’ll say, “I have a friend who eats like that.” Then I’ll usually try and quickly go into things that I like to eat, tell a funny story about how my roommate had me fill out a chart for what foods I was averse to, and then the conversation topic will change. With actual friends I’ll go into more detail about how it’s an aversion to trying new foods in general and less about the foods themselves. I’ll talk about how/why it is a struggle and my alleviation efforts."

2. At this point in your life, do you have a positive, neutral, or negative relationship with food?

"Definitely negative. I feel like it limits me socially and even on rare occasion, professionally. So much of culture is around going out to eat, and restaurants stress me out. It’s just an extra hurdle to clear. I’ve faked illness and made other excuses to get out of those situations. Professionally, not drinking coffee/tea limits interactions with others, and I get stressed at dinners which probably leads to awkwardness (not that I’m attending many professional food events anymore)."

3. Do you know of any medical conditions that might have caused your issues with food? For example, reflux or digestion in infancy, or other?

"Not that I’m aware of.  Actually, I think I could have current issues with food (e.g., maybe celiac or allergies) that I don’t want to really address because the idea of changing my diet to combat the issues seems impossible anyway."

4. What did your family or you do to compensate for your challenges?

"My family didn’t really cook at all growing up. We had pasta, pizza most days of the week, chicken as well. If they were having something else (e.g., Chinese food, seafood) they would just also make pasta. If they were having fish, I’d eat in another room because I didn’t like the smell. Now, before I go out to eat with people, I’ll eat something beforehand, so I won’t be starving the whole night in case I don’t like anything on the menu. When I was younger, I wouldn’t really eat ever at school lunches, I’d just get a pretzel and fries or something. Lots of pop tarts."

5. Has your selection of foods increased or decreased over time?

"Very slight increase. Mostly just to now being comfortable with close to all meats. Prior, it was just chicken and steak. Now I feel like I can at least try everything meat-wise with ease. Next step would probably be seafoods."

6. How does your selective eating affect you as an adult in different settings? For example, with family, at work, in social situations?

"Right now, there are small things like when work buys us lunch; I won’t partake usually. I had an incident recently where I went out to eat with friends and was hardcore judged by someone for my palate and that felt bad. Thinking about that in retrospect is really upsetting. Anyway, I mostly just feel guilty when people have to plan around me or to sacrifice their experience to accommodate me. With family and close friends, my food preference isn’t really a big deal though, because they know about it, and I don’t feel any need to bring it up."

7. Did you receive any medical intervention at any point to manage your eating? If not, did you know it was an option? Are you glad you didn't, or do you wish you had?

"No intervention ever. I wasn’t aware it existed, and I definitely wish it was tackled early. Because the result wouldn’t be anything but positive, right? Now I just live with extra hurdles that others don’t have to deal with, and I hate hate hate feeling limited in any aspect of my life. I want all options available at all times, as a principle."

8. What strategies have you used to learn about new or less familiar foods?

"I think if I’m able to draw a parallel (or see a similarity) of a food to another food I know I can have, it makes it easier. Which is why it’s easier to explore within food groups. If I’m at a restaurant and I have to eat something I’m less familiar with, I’ll try and get a strongly flavored drink in order to have that as a crutch I can casually use."

9. What advice would you give to children or teenagers with feeding challenges? What advice would you give to parents?

"To kids and teenagers, I’d want them to want to change. I think I’m finally making progress a bit now because I have the independence, and it comes from intrinsic motivation. Before, I was having challenges in social situations constantly and I was always just looking for the easy escape route. So, I guess the advice is to look for ways that you can explore food for yourself in which you feel comfortable. Kids who are coming to a feeding therapist, I would imagine have some sort of support system.

But then with the parents, I think that’s a hard balance to strike. I’d say my parents enabled me way too much (as a general trend, but with this in particular). Provide the kid’s familiar/safe foods, but then also separately provide another option, and don’t be mad if the other option is or isn’t taken. Simple things like alternative sauces or sides are probably good ways to explore. But fixing it all at once is probably overwhelming and will cause strife."

I found Karen's interview so fascinating and I had a few additional questions for her friend:

10. How would you describe why you are not able to try new foods? What stops you?

"I find that most of the time, my sense of taste rejects anything unfamiliar. There’s a sense of disgust with it. As such, since there’s such a low success rate in trying unfamiliar foods, it’s not worth it to try and be adventurous in social settings and risk having to talk around not liking something, and also be seen as wasteful. I don’t really have the intrinsic motivation to work on it if I’m able to get by without it, though I’m obviously somewhat aware of the struggles that come with it."

11. What’s the physical and/or emotional experience like for you when you feel that you are able to try a new food?

"I guess this depends on the result. Usually, it is unsuccessful and I just kind of retreat, and then feel a bit upset. When I order something at a restaurant that I am slightly unsure about and end up liking it, it’s mostly relief. Now I can go to this restaurant again and have something I can order, and maybe that applies to similar places."

12. Would you consider feeding therapy now, as an adult?

"Sure, but it’s so low on my priority list. I have so many other issues that I feel I need to figure out that I question if it’s worth the time and resources? There’s no shame attached to it, more that I have to pick and choose my battles."

My utmost appreciation to Karen for sharing her insightful interview on my blog. My heartfelt thanks to her friend for his candid and thoughtful responses and most of all his willingness to share his story to provide a voice to those little ones that are not yet able to articulate their feeding journey.

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