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Family Meals Focus

The Ellyn Satter Institute Newsletter

The adult picky eater

By Ellyn Satter, MS, MSSW, Dietitian and Family Therapist

Let’s face it, for some people picky eating is just the way they are. They are perfectly comfortable with their “don’t bother me” stance with respect to others’ expectations about what they should eat and with ignoring cultural good-food-bad-food thinking. Folks on picky eating websites “come out” and protect themselves from interference by describing in detail their revulsion for particular foods, smells, or textures. But for most people, picky eating is an embarrassing nuisance. They feel ashamed that they eat only a few foods, it bothers them to react so negatively to smells and textures, they feel that if they take it they have to eat it all, and they are adept at faking when they eat with others. Often, their parents both catered to and were critical of their pickiness, and now they cater to and criticize themselves in the same way.

I use the term “picky eater” to describe the adult struggling with food acceptance, but terminology isn’t important. Understanding the dynamics of their struggle is. The adult picky eater is different in degree from the adult suffering from the “extreme food selectivity” that I addressed in FMF 91. The adult picky eater feels bad but not terrible. Their pickiness affects them but doesn’t take over their lives. They don’t know what to do about it, but they can recognize sensible advice, follow directions, and work their way out of their dilemma.

Help by teaching Eating Competence

Do not focus on getting them to eat a greater variety of food. Instead, help them learn to eat with comfort and joy: To be Eating Competent (EC). Even though EC adults don’t try to get themselves to eat certain amounts or types of food, EC adults do better nutritionally and with respect to wellness. People who are EC are organized, positive, and comfortable with eating food they enjoy.

Instead of trying to get them to eat a greater variety of food, help them to be Eating Competent.

Address attitude

Self-criticism puts pressure on eating and creates so much anxiety that it gets in the way of learning and growing. Your being accepting of their food foibles addresses attitude. Since you, the food authority, don’t think what they eat is so bad, perhaps it isn’t so bad after all! You can also help address their shame and self-criticism by addressing their food history. It wasn’t that they were a bad or rebellious child. It was that their well-meaning parents made mistakes: They pressured them to eat certain foods and, when they couldn’t or wouldn’t eat, grudgingly made special food and expected them to eat it all. That feeding pressure combined with parents’ resentment about having to cater to them made them too anxious to learn.

Work on getting the meal habit

Because adult picky eaters are so self-critical about eating their few familiar foods, they often “eat without eating.” They may eat only when hunger drives them to it and then distract themselves by reading a book or watching TV. Encourage them to work toward regular meals and sit-down snacks at the same time as they connect with their eating. Reassure them that their familiar food is good food and encourage them to pay attention while they eat it. Teach them to use permission/awareness self-talk: “It’s all right to eat this. I just have to pay attention.”

Increase food acceptance

After permission/awareness and the meal habit are well in place, the next step is gaining comfort with eating in public, which exposes them to an increased variety of food. To make this exposure neutral, they need to know how to defend against others’ pressuring or guilt-tripping them about their eating at the same time as they avoid calling attention to their eating. It is okay to pick and choose from what is on the table, to decline to be served, to take moderate portions, to eat only one or two food items, to leave unwanted food on the plate, and to take more of one food without finishing another. It is not okay to draw attention to food refusal, to ask for food that is not on the menu, or to take a lot and then not eat it.

Many can respond to education and brief intervention; others can’t  

Adult picky eaters can often bring themselves along after a single session with you. They can work on their own by applying the step-by-step guidelines in Feeding Yourself with Love and Good Sense. They can give themselves an attitude adjustment with respect to food and eating by reading Part 1: “How to Eat” in Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family. Whatever the plan, do occasional followup if you can. You can tell after a few weeks or months if they are progressing toward eating with comfort and joy. If not, you can recommend treatment as I described it in FMF #91.      





To watch Ellyn Satter address adult picky eating and other eating maladies, see the Satter Eating Competence Model Webcast Series on CD.


Ellyn Satter’s Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family says the secret of raising a healthy eater is to love good food, enjoy eating, and share that love and enjoyment with your child. When the joy goes out of eating, nutrition suffers. 

Family Meals Focus ~ No. 19


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