Family Meals Focus
The Ellyn Satter Institute Newsletter
Picky eating in adults: How to help
by Ellyn Satter, Family Therapist and Registered Dietitian
Everybody is more or less picky: we eat what we eat. We also have our ways of sneaking up on new food and learning to eat it. However, we go beyond picky, and get stuck, when we are uncomfortable around unfamiliar food and feel bad about it. If you want to address your picky eating, start first with your attitudes and feelings. Give yourself permission to eat food you enjoy and pay attention while you eat. Learn to defend yourself against others’ pressure on your eating, and wait until you get ready to experiment with unfamiliar food. It could take a long time.
How do you help the anxious eater
Correspondent on Facebook: How do you suggest getting an anxious eater who reacts to the repulsive sight of food [e.g. finds certain foods repulsive and reacts negatively] to see that food as ‘safe’ to eat?’ (The desire to try is there – in an older child, teen, adult).
“The anxious eater who reacts strongly to certain food” is stuck. From the eating competence perspective, being stuck with picky eating isn’t so much about what we do or don’t eat as it is about the feelings and attitudes that surround eating. We are stuck when we:
- Get upset when we see unfamiliar food.
- Only, ever eat a short list of certain acceptable foods.
- Are not at all interested in exploring unfamiliar food.
- Worry whether we will be able to eat when we aren’t in control of food selection.
Consider the attitudes and feelings that accompany finickiness
Being eating competent doesn’t mean that you have to eat everything specified by someone else’s expectations. You don’t even have to eat fruits and vegetables!
The Facebook correspondent parent talks about “getting . . . the anxious eater to eat.” Get is a control word, a word that reveals an agenda for what should be eaten, whether that agenda is for yourself or for somebody else. Shame enters: The person can’t do and be what is expected, either as a child or as an adult. No matter how angrily, vociferously, rudely, or self-righteously that person refuses food, on some level s/he feels ashamed. The source of the problem is pressure. For the child, the pressure comes, at least initially, from the outside. For the adult, the pressure is internalized. Our parents’ expectations morph into self expectations. The upshot of it all is that finicky eaters don’t have a “desire to try,” as the correspondent assumes. Rather desire wanting to try. They want to want to, and think they should want to.
For children, it is relatively straightforward: The parent establishes a division of responsibility, lays off the pressure, and the child’s eating attitudes and feelings recover. But how does the adult finicky eater go about doing the same for him or herself?
Take time to eat and enjoy food you enjoy at regular meals and snacks
Eat what you enjoy. Pay attention when you eat. Say to yourself, “It’s all right to eat that, I just need to pay attention and enjoy it.” In order to cope with your conflicting feelings about eating, you may be in the habit of putting yourself on automatic pilot when you eat: You ingest food without connecting with either the food or the process of eating. In order to reconnect, give yourself strong permission to eat, and, better still, get strong permission from an authority figure. This helps to relieve your internal pressure to eat, neutralize your shame about food acceptance, and support your tolerating the mishmash of feelings that accompany eating. Eventually, your feelings will moderate.
Learn socially acceptable ways to defend yourself against unwanted food
First off, you don’t have to eat in front of others if you don’t want to. But when you are ready to eat in public, consider this: Your life experience has been that your food refusal is the focus of attention and that others will try to “get” (there is that control word again) you to – well – eat. Because it is so familiar and because you feel ashamed, you are likely to defend poorly against such intrusiveness. In fact, you may inadvertently or defiantly cultivate intrusiveness with your own poor social skills around eating. You need to know what is and isn’t okay.
What is okay:
- Pick and choose from what is on the table. Ignore the rest.
- Decline to be served.
- Eat only one or two food items.
- Leave unwanted food on your plate. Ignore it.
- Take modest helpings, and more of one food when you haven’t finished another.
What is not okay:
- Draw attention to your food refusal.
- Ask for food that is not on the menu.
- Eat someone else’s share.
Recognize your own eating competence
When you have mastered steps one and two, you are eating competent and you can stop working on this, if you wish. Being eating competent doesn’t mean that you have to eat everything specified by someone else’s expectations. You don’t even have to eat fruits and vegetables! Instead, it means:
- You feel good about eating: You enjoy food and enjoy the times you get to eat.
- You behave well at mealtime: You know the rules, you enjoy being included, you can defend yourself against food interference, and you can relax and enjoy the sociability.
- You can pick and choose from what is available. This might be tricky if there is nothing you enjoy. In that case, plan to eat before you go and learn to take a small amount of food and push it around on your plate. If you are relaxed and sociable, others are unlikely to notice.
- You eat as much or as little as you need. Even if you eat a bizarre and limited assortment of food, you body can “count the calories” and regulate food intake. Pay attention to your hunger and fullness in determining how much to eat.
Experiment gradually with unfamiliar food but only if you really want to
Plan to take years. After all, you have been finicky for years. Decide to not experiment at all and just stand pat, as they say in poker. You are, of course, missing out on a whole world of delicious food, but given your history, missing out may be the price you are willing to pay for getting the food monkey off your back. On the other hand, you may find that having resolved your conflict and anxiety about food acceptance frees you up to learn and grow. You might find yourself becoming interested in unfamiliar food, and inclined to ever-so-gradually sneak up on a few foods and learn to eat them. Take it slow, trust your feelings, don’t get pushy, and move along at your own speed.
- Look, but don’t buy.
- Watch others eat.
- Prepare (a very little) but don’t eat.
- Taste but don’t swallow.
- Swallow but don’t eat more.
- Keep doing it. It will take dozens—years—of tries.
A message to therapists
Given the recent emphasis on ARFID,1 you are likely seeing more children and adults with established picky eating. Learn before you proceed, and be careful not to apply the same pressuring approaches that have created these problems in the first place. I have pointed you toward having a trust-based plan for addressing adults and children who are stuck with respect to learning to eat unfamiliar food. This plan will only be successful, however, if you are firmly grounded in the Satter Eating Competence Model (ecSatter) and the Satter Feeding Dynamics Model (fdSatter). While people can work through this process on their own, they will also benefit greatly from your permission, guidance, and support. Because this process is so different from what you have likely done before, you may also benefit from mentoring by an ESI faculty member.
Related issues of Family Meals Focus
- ARFID: What is it? What does it have to do with feeding dynamics and eating competence?
- Does the division of responsibility in feeding work in clinical care?
- American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) position statement, ”Lipid screening and cardiovascular disease in children”
- Picky eating: Born or made?
- Picky eating in adults: How to help