It’s not just toddlers who turn up their noses at healthy meals. Picky partners can frequently display the same symptoms. But fear not — HFG offers strategies for change!
Steve is a man of few words, and even fewer vegetables. Steve’s wife Lisa knows this; she doesn’t bother serving him anything beyond potatoes most days for dinner. “Sometimes he’ll eat carrots,” she says. “But anything green, forget it. He even pulls the lettuce leaf out of burgers.”
Steve is also deeply suspicious of couscous, pasta, rice and many spices. As a result, Lisa prepares a very limited range of simple dishes for their weekly meals, even though she loves spicy and exotic foods.
“With the kids gone and just the two of us, there’s no point in me cooking things Steve won’t eat. I end up just wasting food. It’s just easier to do meat and potatoes most nights,” she says.
Lisa and Steve are typical of many households. Having an unadventurous or fussy eater in the house can affect everyone and make life difficult — and at times even dreary — for cooks.
Nature or nurture
Being fussy about food — or as Lisa likes to describe Steve, ‘stubborn’ — is not the end of the world. For most people who eat this way, it’s either a result of their upbringing or it simply comes down to their individual tastes, which should be respected.
“Children model parents,” dietitian Lea Stening says. “So, if you’ve grown up in a household where Dad disliked vegetables, this could directly affect your tastes at the dinner table too.”
In some cases, unfortunate food memories from childhood — conscious or subconscious — can cause long-term picky eating. For example, a childhood scare caused by choking or vomiting may produce a lingering fear around certain foods.
“Everyone has likes and dislikes, and has times when they will and won’t eat certain foods,” Stening says.
But fussy eating can represent a problem when it tips over into disordered eating. The extreme end of fussy eating is defined as Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder. This is when people of any age start to limit their eating to such a degree that their bodies are affected, or they are affected psychologically. If you suspect this is the case in your family, then it’s time to talk to your doctor.
Variety is key
But when this more extreme behaviour isn’t happening, and you’ve simply got an eater in who is just plain picky, what can you do? And does it really matter if your husband won’t eat any veg but potato?
It can indeed matter, Stening points out. Vegetables are an important source of dietary fibre, antioxidants, polyphenols, vitamins and minerals.
Significantly, the polyphenols in vegetables protect the neurons in our brains and help reduce inflammation, which may then improve memory, learning and cognitive functioning.
“The wider the colour range we eat — red, orange, yellow, green, purple — the better our exposure to a range of nutrients that protect us against diseases like cancer, while also promoting our heart health, reducing blood pressure, preserving our eyesight and protecting our brain health,” according to Lea Stening.
Sometimes a GP’s warning about the risk of developing high cholesterol or high blood pressure can be a wake-up call for fussy eaters, and will have more effect than anything you can say or do at home.
“I often find with adults that they just don’t realise that their dislike of food, or their narrow way of eating, is impacting on their health,” Stening says.
As a dietitian helping people who are fussy eaters, Stening carries out a 7–day nutritional assessment. She then matches the results against the person’s blood tests for cholesterol, blood sugar or iron, along with energy expenditure.
“This can help them see the gap between the energy and nutrients they need, versus what they are eating. Often, seeing this information can really be a catalyst for change. It also helps if these results are matched to personal goals people may have, like fertility, physical performance or work expectations,” she says.
Are you a supertaster?
Not all taste buds are created equal — you might be a supertaster and not even know it! Emerging science has shown that supertasters can taste foods more intensely, so they have less of an appetite for strongly flavoured foods. For example, high-fat, high-sugar foods don’t appeal to them — and supertasters tend to eat less vegetables because of their bitter taste.
Love ‘em or hate ‘em?
Here are some of the most universally polarising foods that are actually very good for you!
Expand their palate
Start with the familiar
“Work with what they will eat and slowly vary that,” Stening suggests. “If someone doesn’t eat pineapple but does like cheese and onion, make a toasted sandwich or pizza with cheese and onion, then add a teaspoon of crushed pineapple.”
Take it slow
If your partner hates fish, add a teaspoon or two to a potato cake. Then, if they’ve accepted it, double the amount next time so that new foods are slowly mixed with those that are familiar.
Use well-loved flavours
If cheese sauce is a favourite on steak, try it with a new vegetable too. Or try adding half a can of lentils to bolognese sauce. It’s not about disguise, but giving a fussy eater an opportunity to access something unfamiliar.
Don’t go to extremes
Don’t start with outrageous flavours or super-hot spices. Go with things that are close to something they like already. If potato is a staple for your fussy eater, try a mix of white potato and sweet potato. If peas are acceptable, try serving them with another sweet vegie such as corn.
Don’t give up!
As with children, an adult fussy eater may need to try a new food several times before it becomes acceptable. Keep offering and be patient.
Relax — it’s just a meal!
Creating a pleasant and relaxing environment around food can make a big difference. Likewise, a fussy eater may be more likely to try a new food in a restaurant environment.
Turn the pressure down
Always respect other people’s limitations and understand that being pressured to eat can be extremely stressful, and that the attempt can sometimes backfire.
Don’t take it personally
Just because your loved one doesn’t like your carefully prepared risotto, it doesn’t mean they don’t love you. It’s only food!