It’s a strange time of year, early October. The sky was overcast and the ground was damp with rain as Sam walked into the country club. Her cousin’s wedding was taking place at a venue that was about 45 minutes from campus, and she was wearing a green dress that she had borrowed from her roommate, paired with some white strappy high heels.
The wedding ceremony was pleasant; Sam was excited to see her cousin get married. The cocktail hour followed with the appropriate mingling, people milling around the damp balcony and hovering beside the bar. After about an hour, the party migrated into the banquet hall. The room was decently lit with round tables situated around the dance floor.
Sam was sitting at a table with her brother, her sister and her fiancé, Uncle Chris, cousin Paige and her husband, Aunt Jen and Uncle Bob. Sam would have felt more comfortable sitting with her cousins who were her own age. Most of the people at this table were over the age of fifty with her younger cousins seated on the other side of the room, away from the center, by the bar. “Even though my cousin and brother and all of them were there it was still kind of uncomfortable to be seated with the adults, so close to the actual wedding table.”
Having ordered the steak in advance, Sam was feeling fine about the impending meal. That changed, however, when somehow, she ended up with the chicken. “Whatever the topping was on the chicken I was really concerned about, like I wasn’t sure what it was, and I didn’t know if I liked it because I didn’t know what it was.” Being seated at a table with all adults comes with its challenges as a picky eater. “I did not want to try it, but I did because my family was sitting at the table with me and they were saying it was good.” Sam decided to try the chicken, but the topping ended up being crab meat. Both of Sam’s siblings have shellfish allergies, so she felt that she shouldn’t eat it just in case she did too. Sam began to feel a wave of panic overcome her as she frantically began to scrape the crab meat off of the chicken, feeling the eyes of the others at the table on her and her plate, hoping the family of the bride and groom weren’t looking in her direction. Even so, just the eyes of her aunts and uncles were enough to make her eyes sting with tears. “It just felt very embarrassing to be in such a formal setting of a wedding and have to scrape things off my plate at 20 years old.”
Sam made a hasty exit, saying that she had to go to the bathroom. She crossed the ballroom and went through the entrance, wishing the bathroom had been closer to her table at the back of the ballroom. It wasn’t close enough for a quick escape.
Sam escaped to the privacy of the bathroom stall, feeling the panic set in. Tears began to well up in her eyes and then splatter down her cheeks. The meal was supposed to be a non-issue. She had ordered the steak after all, something she knew she liked. The comfort of the familiarity of the meal she had ordered was ripped out from under her when she sat down at that table. One of her cousins her own age entered the bathroom and asked her what happened. “I explained everything to her and we were talking about just how adults can be really not understanding about being a picky eater.” The glances of her family members made Sam feel judged. What could they be thinking?
For some, simply eating a meal brings about a wide range of complicated emotions. The dinner table can be a formative experience, a culmination of a person’s fears and anxieties conveniently compacted into one location. Eating is an essential part of life, something that is vital to a person’s well-being, but it is also an inherently social activity. If you go to an event and there is food, that could be exciting and fun for some people. For others, however, it is not a source of enjoyment, but a source of discomfort and subsequent ‘I’m just not hungrys’ and I already ate’s’. In a survey I conducted with 175 respondents, a resounding 30% said that they would classify themselves as picky eaters. Eating is something everyone must do, but for picky eaters there are countless factors such as texture, smell, taste and color that contribute to a slim selection of foods. If a picky eater is in a situation where they don’t have control over their food, it can cause extensive emotional stress and pain. Going to a restaurant and not having something they like on the menu is the worst nightmare of a picky eater. So many questions run through their heads: ‘Should I even bother ordering something?’ ‘Can the kitchen make me something that’s not on the menu?’ ‘What will the people I’m at this meal with think when I don’t order anything?’
Sam remarks on how difficult it can be to try a new food and how picky eating can be written off as being childish by adults. “It’s really hard to imagine a setting where I would feel completely comfortable to try things because I can imagine that would only be in my own home or at my own pace with maybe one other person. Sometimes I get really anxious about trying something because I’m worried about how they will react.” The eyes of peers and family members have real ramifications for picky eaters.
“It’s so invalidating to have such a weird relationship with food in that way and to have people question it,” Sam continued. “Obviously no one likes their eating habits questioned, but I get really sensitive about it.” Because eating is an incredibly social activity in our society, people often feel compelled to comment on the content of other people’s plates. The wandering eyes of a stranger on a picky eater’s plate leads to all sorts of anxieties. A judgemental glance in their direction is enough to send a picky eater down a rabbit hole of anxious thinking. Even worse is when someone asks them about what they are eating, offering their two cents from a supposed place of nutritional expertise.
Many individuals have specific sensory issues guiding their food choices. “My friend Aryeh says that I am overly critical of food if the flavor isn’t exactly what I want it to be,” says Ryan Dratler ’24. “He also believes that the presentation of food bothers me, as apparently, I make faces when it doesn’t look as appetizing even though it is perfectly fine. I’m also, allegedly, quick to say that a meal is bad.” Ryan also remarked that it is difficult for him to observe his eating habits on his own, so he looked to a friend to get a perspective on his eating.
William Frankle, a first-year student at NYU, discussed his picky eating stating that he is put off by food “if the foods are a certain color, texture of smell. Especially smell. I don’t like green foods or anything mushy or smelly, like mashed potatoes or fish. Foods also can’t touch. Sandwiches are a no because it is made of wet and cold lettuce or cheese, which is touching a dry bun, which is touching hot meat.” Britney Bonhomme ’24 admits that she is picky about everything. “I eat maybe 20 different things. I don’t eat sandwiches, tacos, burritos, bread, burgers, most vegetables, and most fruits.” Sam states that “I don’t like grainy textures or something that has multiple textures, like yogurt with fruit or something in it really just sets me off. I don’t know how else to describe it, it just feels really gross.”
People who classify themselves as picky eaters tend to have safe foods, and they are most likely foods with which they are familiar, as trying new foods can be incredibly daunting. “Safe foods for me would be chicken tenders or pizza or pasta,” says Britney. William classifies his safe foods as chicken nuggets, fries, plain pasta, chips, and popcorn.
Being a picky eater is inconvenient, but there are also a range of complicated emotions that come with being a picky eater. “Being a picky eater is hard because when I go to some restaurants, they don’t have what I like to eat which forces me to eat something I’ve never tried,” says Britney. “I always tell myself I’d like to try new foods but I always get afraid I won’t like it and will end up wasting the food.” William said that he “exists like everybody else except I eat less.”
There are also serious social implications regarding food, as eating is an inherently social activity. “People definitely don’t understand why I’m a picky eater especially because my diet is extremely limited to the point that it looks like doctor’s orders, but it’s just by choice,” says Britney. “It feels like being a burden existing as a picky eater. People just don’t understand why I won’t eat what I don’t eat.”
I understand the plight of picky eaters, because I too am extremely particular about the food that I eat, to the point where I was diagnosed with an eating disorder called Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder, or ARFID. This disorder is characterized by extreme picky eating that is often prompted by stomach pain and sensory issues.
Before I was diagnosed, I had always known that my relationship with food was not normal. I was obsessed with pasta and chicken nuggets, and I would go through phases where I would eat a single food religiously. It wasn’t until December of 2019 that I reached a breaking point.
I was sitting in the parking lot of a Dunkin’ Donuts with my best friend at the time. We had driven down the road to get some donuts and coffee during our high school lunch period. I was staring at the plain bagel with cream cheese in my lap, wondering why I couldn’t bring myself to take a bite. Bagels had been one of my safe foods for my whole life, so I really couldn’t figure out why I was struggling so much with lunch on that cold December day. I was struggling with stomach pain, meaning that I would eat something that resulted in my stomach hurting, and then subsequently cut it out of my diet completely. After doing this for most of my life, I was left with only a few foods that I could put on my plate. During my senior year of high school, I was basically eating bread, pasta, and potatoes.
Sitting in that parking lot that day, though, I realized that it had gone too far. I knew that there must be a better way to live – this couldn’t possibly be what my life was supposed to be like. I called my mom with tears welling up in my eyes, my best friend holding my hand as the phone was rested on the center console of my car. When my mom answered the phone, my voice broke, my eyes darting back to the bagel that was still sitting in my lap.
“Mom?” I asked helplessly. “I think I have an eating disorder.”
By the next evening I was sitting in a dark office of an eating disorder clinic. A kind-faced woman was speaking to me about the programs they offer there, and how I would be pulled out of school to get treatment. She asked me a series of questions about my eating habits, and by the end of our conversation she told me that she thinks I have ARFID.
I sat in a daze as my parents came back into the room. They discussed logistics and insurance, while I sat there, wishing my parents would look at my face. On the drive home I cried hysterically. I knew I had something wrong, but was it really this bad? I wasn’t quite sure what was going to happen the next day when I returned to that treatment center. Were they going to force food down my throat?
While not every picky eater has a specific eating disorder that explains their picky eating, the social, emotional and physical ramifications of being particular about food are very real. Whether a person’s eating is characterized by simply being picky or a diagnosable disorder, there is a universal emotional experience that results from having a complicated relationship with food. Being faced with a plate full of food that they don’t like isn’t just uncomfortable for a picky eater, it is distressing. “It’s so hard to exist in the world as a picky eater,” says Sam. “It’s one of the things that you can’t control in life.”