4 strategies to deal with picky eaters — even if the picky eater is you

I only eat non-fat Paleo gluten-free turkey!

Do you have any carbs-free, zero calorie appetizers?

I don’t like anything green or yellow.

Ever heard anything like that at family gatherings? Perhaps you were the one who said it. Picky eating has become a fact of life these days. Whenever people gather, especially during the holidays, picky eating just seems to pop up everywhere — especially at the adults table!

Why is picky eating becoming so prevalent? And is it really picky eating when someone is following a specific diet, such as Paleo, Keto, gluten-free or something like that?


A badge of honor

Dieting mentality justifies and even encourages being picky. Many of my clients and friends often point out with pride that they only eat fat-free, gluten-free, sugar-free or whatever. Some clients instead realize that they should eat new foods but they just don’t like them and don’t want to be forced — and this causes worries and anxieties for everyone.

Cooking for families of picky eaters can feel like walking on a minefield. It can be quite discouraging for the person who does the cooking and has to try to incorporate endless variations to satisfy everyone. Between those who feel pride in their picky eating, those who feel worries, and those who cook, family gatherings end up resembling more a war room than a happy party.

Here’s 4 strategies to deal with picky eating, whether the picky eater is yourself or someone else.

1. Bring only medical and ethical issues to the table

If you’re the picky eater, you might be proud of only eating a fully vegan, Paleo, gluten-free, or sugar-free diet — and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, when families come together, it’s important to care for loved ones as much as you care for yourself. That might mean having to add some flexibility to picky eating that is not related to medical or ethical issues.

Do you have to eat a gluten-free diet because you have Celiac Disease? Explain the issue and your aunt will be happy to make a special plate for you so you can enjoy food without stomachaches. Are you vegan out of animal concerns? Talk about your concerns with your family without pushing or convincing and everyone will be happy to help meet your needs.

If breaking your pickiness won’t cause you medical issues or break your believes, then consider joining in with everyone else. Remember that food is about celebration and communion and sharing and caring for each other — do what you can to honor these values first.

2. Go for a positive attitude

Picky eating can be a great source of anxiety and self-shame. You might sincerely worry that you will offend your loved ones by refusing to eat what everyone else seems to enjoy so much and so easily. But remember: you have a right to not like a food and to refuse having to eat it. This doesn’t make you a bad person or an ungrateful family member.

Learn to refuse food politely but firmly. “No, thank you” is a full sentence and you are not required to provide any justification for not liking a food. You also have a right to not want to try new, unfamiliar foods at the holiday table — and there’s nothing wrong with that.

3. Explore beforehand

A holiday gathering is not the right moment for you to experiment with new foods — but you can work on it beforehand, if you want. A positive attitude helps you realize that you’re not obligated to eat novel foods. Once this attitude is well established, you might find yourself curious to explore these foods on your own.

Begin by exploring the foods you don’t like that you will find at the holiday table. Learn about them, how they’re made, what makes them taste the way they do. This neutral exposure will allow you over time to “sneak up” on these new foods and start eating them whenever you feel ready. And if you want some guidance, I’d love to help you with this 🙂

4. More compassion in the kitchen

If you’re the one who cooks for picky eaters, you might feel a great deal of frustration toward all the nitpicking and rules and limitations that others seem to impose on you. “What’s wrong with them for not wanting to eat something so delicious? They probably wouldn’t bother to complain so much if they knew what real starvation is!”, right?

Your frustration is justified — however, it belongs only to you. Try to not reverse your frustration on the picky eaters with shaming and ridiculing — it will only backfire. Instead, address compassion toward your frustration and your picky loved ones.

Try to open a conversation about picky eating that is not medical or ethical and advise that perhaps these picky eaters might want to bring their own food and you won’t be offended. Be compassionate toward the picky eaters who genuinely do not like novel foods and talk with them about it. Listen with an open heart to their struggle and then come up together with a plan for them to not eat the food in peace while everyone else enjoys it.

Embrace the imperfections

These strategies might not work perfectly all the time, of course. But family gatherings are not about perfection — they’re about love and coming together, and sharing struggles and victories and finding compassion in loved ones, and sometimes fighting and misunderstanding each other. Imperfection and variety are the stuff of a happy life! 🙂

What struggles with food do you face when the holidays arrive? Are you a picky eater or do you deal with picky eaters? Share your experiences in the comments or over email at valentina@valiantnutriton.com

Photo by Chelsea Francis on Unsplash

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