Soup’s On: Picky Eaters, Part 1

Picky Eaters, Part 1: The Root

Where does picky eating come from? Dealing with picky eaters can be a challenge for the omnivorous or adventurous cook. Let’s explore some of the reasons some folks keep a limited diet – and how we can address those needs and help them expand their tastes!

If you’ve ever used one of these words to describe yourself, your child, or someone you know, you probably know the frustration of trying to feed someone who doesn’t seem to like a wide variety of foods.

Perhaps it’s your screaming toddler, who’s latched onto a diet of grape juice and animal crackers; your nine year old who would eat peanut butter sandwiches for every single meal if she could, or even your spouse, who methodically reads the online menu and identifies what he’s going to order before you hit the restaurant.

Let’s talk about some of the reasons that people get labeled “picky eaters.” 

Too many tastebuds.

Young children not only have taste receptors on their tongues, but also on the insides of their cheeks and the roofs of their mouths. As you can imagine, this means that kids taste things with great intensity, which can help explain why some are very sensitive to strong flavors – or seem to be able to taste things you can’t.

For most people, the number of tastebuds does fade over time, and most adults can no longer taste things anywhere but their tongues.  However, some people do retain a high number of tastebuds, and we call these people supertasters. I call them the superheroes of the cooking world, since they’re able to fine-tune their flavors easily, or can sense what’s missing in a dish.

Genetics.

Yes, it’s true. When folks like me eat a big spoonful of salsa verde, or sprinkle cilantro’s pretty leaves over a salad, others – sometimes even our own families – shudder in disgust. To them, cilantro tastes like soap, and will never change. Unless they learn to like the taste of Ivory Flakes, you’ll find them carefully removing the garnish from every taco and Thai curry.

Experience and context.

Consider this: you have never seen or eaten a sweet potato before, when someone puts a plate of roasted sweet potato chunks in front of you. How might you decide whether or not you might like it? You might experimentally cut into one, consider the color, the smell, and texture. You might decide that it seems similar to a roasted carrot, which you love, and take a big bite. Or you might realize it seems a little too close to the butternut squash you had – and hated – recently, and politely pass.

Now imagine you’re a child without that bank of memories. You learn to recognize some foods quickly by their shape and texture, and realize that these are reliably the same each time. But it’s hard for you to draw comparisons between this sweet potato and your old favorite crackers. Maybe you simply have never tried carrots or butternut squash – or don’t remember having tried them. With your ultra-sensitive mouth, trying new foods can be a huge risk! You’ll need to be very brave in order to try this unfamiliar experience.

For some adults, this fear of the unknown never fully goes away. We learn coping strategies, like reading menus ahead of time and scanning for familiar dishes and ingredients, but dinner parties and foreign countries can be really challenging.

Join us next month here at Soup’s On when we discuss how to combat these barriers to trying and enjoying new foods.

[Photo credits: (cc) David Goehring; (cc) Tonya Staab


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dane Kuttler

Dane writes poems and cooks food in Northampton, MA. When she isn’t engaged in one of her semiannual 30-poems-in-30-days sprints, she teaches people how to feed themselves tasty things at the Julia Poppins School of Cooking. Julia Poppins School of Cooking promotes food literacy through fun, confidence-building, hands-on cooking lessons in the Northampton area.

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