There I was, sitting in the Lobkowicz Palace in Prague waiting for lunch to be served. I should have been enchanted with the idea of eating a meal in a historic palace half way across the world, I mean COME ON who doesn’t want to be served in a palace?! But instead I was filled with dread because they just announced the meal: beef goulash.
I had no idea what it was, but I pictured brown, indistinguishable chunks of meat floating in brown broth, and I felt nauseous. I immediately hated palaces and all who cooked in them. To make it worse, my trusted meal buddy, Cassie, who understands my “particular” eating habits was in a completely different room with a table of friends who wouldn’t push her to try anything new if she didn’t want to. But I made the mistake of admitting I had never tried beef and didn’t want to. My table mates wouldn’t let me off the hook that easy.
For at least five minutes my table mates suggested some interesting psychotherapy of how I could trick myself into actually liking the beef when I tried it. Anything from pretending it’s another food to saying “it’s just food! The worst than can happen is you won’t like it, that’s it.” Well, as noted in my first post, not liking a food I try is one of the worst things that can happen to me.
The food was served and didn’t look anything like the floating mass my fears cooked up in my mind. There were three pieces of (I assume) well-cut beef in a gravy with potatoes. So, finally I gave in and tried it. And guess what? No matter how much I tried to pretend it was chicken or plug my nose (super classy way to eat in a palace, I know) and swallow quickly, I didn’t like it.
Yes I was disappointed that I didn’t like the beef, but I was honestly more relieved that the conversation was over. No one was pressuring me to try the potatoes because I lied and said I liked them but wasn’t too hungry so I was fine not finishing them. In reality I was fighting back the urge to gag from the salty taste left over in my mouth and counting down the seconds until I could sneak out one of my protein bars.
I need to stop here and say I don’t blame my table mates for doing what they did. It’s what most, if not all, people do when they hear about my picky eating. It’s just that I was so over the conversation before it happened because I’ve had that same conversation hundreds of times throughout my life.
Looking back, from the very start of this meal I was set up to fail. I let my imagination get away with me, ultimately making me more anxious and fearful of whatever plate would be set in front of me. I let others press me to try something I was very, very nervous about and had absolutely no desire to try. And I wasn’t even proud of myself for trying to food. That’s the biggest failure in my mind. It probably doesn’t seem like a big deal to most people, but trying something so outside my comfort zone should have been an exciting moment for me. It should have been something I look back at and be happy that I gave it a chance. But I don’t. I look back at the meal and wish none of it had happened. I honestly don’t even remember what we did the rest of the day because that meal stands mars the day as a negative memory.
You see attention, stress, and peer pressure is not the way to convince someone to try a food they’re terrified to eat. It sets them up to fail. The more anxious someone is to eat something the much less likely they are to like it. Parents of picky eaters, how many times have you sat in front of your crying kid at the dinner table, making them stay there until they tried the food on their plate? Of those times, how often did they actually like it?
I’m not telling you to not encourage your kids to try new things, even if they’re adamant about not wanting to try it. I’m saying the approach to convincing someone to try the food they’re terrified of eating has to change. If they’re scared, crying, cringing, or worse, then it’s time to connect with them. Say “Hey, I know this is really scary for you, but I will be so proud of you if you try just a tiny bite of this beef. That’s all you need to try, a tiny bite. If you like it, then great! If not, that’s ok. You don’t need to like it, but you should really give it a chance.” That will make a huge difference in their willingness to try something new.
Now parents, it’s time to get real. I can’t tell you how much I see that common trope of the crying kid at a dinner table with the domineering parent telling them that they can’t go to bed if they don’t eat everything on their plate. If you find yourself in this situation then you need to stop and ask yourself if you want them to try to food because you really want them to like it, or if you want them to eat it because you told them to eat it? Are you trying to help them learn to like more foods and expand their palate, or are you trying to teach them who’s boss? I’m sure once you answer this question your opinion of them trying new foods will change for the better.
How to Create a Positive Space for Trying New Foods
Parents of picky eaters, if there’s anything you get out of this blog I hope this is it. You must create a positive atmosphere to increase the chances of your child liking a new food.
- Don’t put the child on display while trying new foods. As you’ll see later, for me I absolutely hate it when people stare at me when trying new foods. It’s so uncomfortable and makes me want to abort immediately.
- Don’t give them the ultimatum that if they “don’t try the food, then they’ll lose dessert, go to bed early, need to stay at the table”…you name it. That immediately increases the fear they are already experiencing and decreasing any positive vibes they may have had towards the food.
- Don’t say “you’ll never know if you don’t try it!” I hate that saying. Not because I think it’s wrong, but because it’s so overused it has completely lost its power and meaning. I’ve personally heard it thousands of times over my 27 years on this earth and it’s changed nothing for me. Just stop.
- If they don’t like the food, don’t say “well you only tried a little bit” or “really? I thought you’d love it!” That makes the eater feel wrong and guilty, not encouraged to try something else. I have felt wrong for years because I don’t like foods. It is an awful feeling that has literally left me crying on a bathroom floor on a missions trip praying that God would finally take the picky eater out of me (that story is for another day).
- Do give them the option of trying a new food. Yep. The OPTION. This gives them the feeling of control and, hopefully, comfort at the table.
- Do encourage them to play with the food without the expectation that they then must try it. I don’t mean throw it across the room. But move it around with their fork, pick it up with their hands, look at it at all angles. For me personally I don’t like surprises in my food. The more I can examine or investigate it, the more comfortable I become around it.
- Do explain to them what kind of food this is like in relation to what they already like (for instance, pulled pork is like pulled chicken because the texture is the same and the taste isn’t too different, especially if covered in BBQ sauce).
- Do tell them that it’s okay to not like the food. If they try it, that’s good enough.
I truly believe this is essential to trying new foods. If you are the picky eater, don’t let pressure or stress be the driving force behind your decision to try a new food. That only sets you up to fail. Instead, only try foods around people who are patient, understand your picky eating, and aren’t looking to be “the ones” who convince you to try a new food. Those kinds of people aren’t looking out for you and your growth, they’re looking for a win for themselves.
I typically only try new foods with my fiancé, Drew, my former roommates who have seen me eat daily and know my struggle, my immediate family and some close cousins, and Cassie — you’ll hear a lot about Cassie in the future. We bonded over the fact that we are both picky eaters and quickly became each other’s safe place for any and every meal in college. When I try a new food, they all know not to stare at me as I try the food. They do watch me, but it’s different from staring. When watching, it’s the same as if we were in a normal conversation. By staring, I mean no blinking, watching my every move, and waiting for my reaction the moment it happens. That’s soooo disconcerting. I don’t like being the center of attention, especially when I try new foods. So when I feel like I’m being stared at I get nervous and the classic signs of ARFID go overboard. My throat closes up and I get hot and sweaty. This discomfort often translates to my opinion of the food, setting me up for failure.
Please be patient with your picky eater. The best way to encourage trying new foods is being encouraging. This means having a calm, kind attitude and understanding if they don’t like the food the first, second, fifth, or tenth time around. Just because you like it doesn’t mean they will, and that’s okay.