Medically Reviewed by Christine Mikstas, RD, LD on June 01, 2020
What Is Picky Eating?
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You probably picture a stubborn toddler refusing to eat broccoli. But adults can struggle with it, too. They usually have a very limited set of favorite foods, made a certain way. They don't like to try new foods and might even pass on something familiar if it looks, smells, or tastes different than usual.
The Worst Offenders
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A survey of nearly 500 picky-eating adults found that bitter and sour foods are especially unpopular. So are slippery or slimy foods, like eggs. Picky eaters tend to skip vegetables. They're also not fans of foods with "lumps," like stew. And they don't like it when foods get mixed together (peas and carrots, for example) or even touch each other on the plate.
What Do They Eat?
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For the most part, picky eaters stick to bland comfort foods like french fries, grilled cheese, toast, and crackers. They usually do OK with salty and sweet foods.
Picky Kids Become Picky Adults
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In many cases, they grew up with parents who put pressure on eating and made mealtimes stressful. They may have had a negative experience with food, like choking.
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One theory is that picky eaters are oversensitive to the smells, textures, and flavors of food. But we need more research to know for sure.
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Picky eaters can get anxious about meals, especially if it's a social occasion. When they're invited to dinner at someone's home or go out to a restaurant, they worry that there won't be anything for them to eat. They often feel ashamed of their picky eating habits and threatened when you push food on them.
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It's a great place to start. Maybe your eating habits are causing tension in your relationships, or you want to set a better example for your kids. Research has found that when you think about how your behavior affects other people, you're much more likely to make changes that stick.
What Works for You
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There's no one-size-fits-all advice for overcoming picky eating, and there's not much research on it when it comes to adults. Since it's more common in children, you may want to follow some of the advice given to parents of picky eaters, like scaling back on snacks and drinks so you're more hungry at mealtimes and keeping track of your progress.
A Non-Threatening Setting
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A dinner party probably isn't the best time to branch out. Putting pressure on yourself to eat -- or being pressured by someone else -- can make it worse because that makes eating less enjoyable. Keep meals as stress-free and pleasant as possible. Try a new food when you're by yourself or with someone who's supportive and nonjudgmental.
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Don't overwhelm yourself with a plate full of new foods. Instead, serve familiar favorites along with one new food you're ready to try. Commit to just a few bites. Dietitian and feeding specialist Ellyn Satter calls this giving yourself "an out": If you don't like the new food, you'll still have something to eat.
Use Your Comfort Zone
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Make a new food more appetizing by pairing it with something you enjoy. Top new foods with well-liked sauces or seasonings to help them seem less strange and unusual. For example, put breadcrumbs or bacon on Brussels sprouts.
Change How You Prepare It
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Different cooking methods bring out different flavors. If you can't stand raw carrots, you could steam, sauté, or grill them instead. Roasting veggies -- especially squash and roots like beets, parsnips, and onions -- often makes them softer and sweeter.
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If parents keep offering an unfamiliar food, most kids will take a bite ... eventually (it can take eight or more tries). As adults, we're not much different. Studies have shown that the more times we try a food, the more we may like it. Think of new foods as something you don't eat -- yet. Build up familiarity. Watch others eat it first. Cook with it. Place a bite in your mouth and take it out. You don't have to chew or swallow right away.
Ask for Help
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If you're really struggling with certain textures or are prone to gagging, occupational therapy could be a solution. The therapist will help you chew and swallow more effectively and can suggest ways to get more comfortable with different types of food.
When It's Unhealthy
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Run-of-the-mill picky eating doesn't usually cause major health problems. But a more serious form, avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID), is considered a mental disorder. (It used to be called "selective eating disorder.") People with it avoid food to the point that they don't get enough nutrients. They face severe weight loss, vitamin deficiencies, and other issues.
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IMAGES PROVIDED BY:
Journal of Eating Disorders: "Adult picky eaters with symptoms of avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder: comparable distress and comorbidity but different eating behaviors compared to those with disordered eating symptoms."
Appetite: "Adult picky eating: Phenomenology, taste sensitivity, and psychological correlates," "A multidimensional approach to understanding the potential risk factors and covariates of adult picky eating," "The Effects of Mere Exposure on Liking for Edible Substances."
McGuire, M. and Beerman, K. Nutritional Sciences: From Fundamentals to Food, enhanced edition, Brooks Cole, 2017.
Washington Post: "How a picky eater became a foodie."
ABC News: "Picky Eaters: When Waffles and Fries Are All You Eat."
International Journal of Eating Disorders: "Picky Eating in Adults: Results of a Web-Based Survey."
New York Times: "When the Picky Eater is a Grown-Up."
National Eating Disorders Association: "Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID)."
Perspectives on Psychological Science: "Hale and Hearty Policies: How Psychological Science Can Create and Maintain Healthy Habits."
Current Opinion in Psychiatry: "Picky eating: the current state of research."
Remmer, S. Turning the Tables on Picky Eating, 2016.
American Heart Association: "Top 10 Tips for Dealing With a Picky Eater."
Ellyn Satter Institute: "The Adult Picky Eater," "You Can Learn to Enjoy Vegetables."
EatRight: "Kitchen Basics: Cooking Methods."
Carucci, L. Cooking School Secrets for Real World Cooks, 2nd edition, AuthorHouse, 2016.
Better Homes & Gardens: "How to Roast Vegetables."
Nutrients: "Early Taste Experiences and Later Food Choices."
American Occupational Therapy Association: "Specialty Certification in Feeding, Eating and Swallowing."
The Star: "Daubs: Occupational therapy for the seriously picky eater."