December 16, 2011
Children—though by no means all of them—tend to be fairly picky eaters. Most expand their culinary horizons as they get older, but a few people hold fast to limited diets of safe, familiar things like chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese. My friend and co-worker Niki is one of them.
You know that queasy, I-can’t-bear-to-watch feeling you get watching a show like Bizarre Foods, as host Andrew Zimmern slurps down fried worms or rotten shark meat? Niki feels that way about foods that most of us consider perfectly edible, like eggs or raisins. She has a byzantine list of rules for what she is willing (or, more often, not willing) to eat: No cooked fruit. No “out of context” sweetness (which she defines as anything other than dessert). No cookies with nuts. No soft fruit. No dried fruit. In fact, hardly any fruit other than apples. Cheese only if melted. Tomatoes only in sauce, and then only without chunks. No eggs. No mayonnaise. (Her version of a BLT is a bacon and butter sandwich.)
Everyone has a few popular foods they dislike—the first piece I ever wrote for Food & Think, about my distaste for the ubiquitous herb cilantro, is still one of the blog’s most commented-on—but Niki’s list is so long and inscrutable that she has become a source of fascination to our other co-workers and me.
It turns out scientists are fascinated, too. Researchers at Duke University have been studying picky eating as a bona-fide disorder, with “selective eating” being considered for addition to the next version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, due out in 2013, according to the Wall Street Journal. Although the causes of selective eating aren’t yet known, there appear to be some patterns: smell and texture are often more important than flavor, for instance. A possible link to obsessive-compulsive tendencies is being explored.
With such a limited diet, people with the disorder sometimes find it hinders their social lives or even careers, not to mention the potential for nutritional deficiencies. But if it’s a disorder, is it curable?
Niki is giving it a shot. Although her friends and family have long become accustomed to her quirky preferences, I think the recent attention to her diet at work has caused her to think more about why she feels as she does. A couple of months ago, on the way to lunch to celebrate her 39th birthday, I commented (probably insensitively, in retrospect) that maybe when she was 40 she would start trying new foods.
She decided to do me one better and start that very day. At lunch she ordered her first Bloody Mary—a bacon Bloody Mary, so that there would at least be one ingredient she knew she liked. It didn’t go over well.
But Niki persisted. She resolved to eat a new food every day until her 40th birthday. She started a blog called Picky Niki (with the tagline: Choking Down 365 New Foods) to chart her results. So far many of the foods have bombed, but she has discovered a handful that she can tolerate, and a few she really likes. If she sticks with it for the rest of the year, her repertoire will have expanded considerably.
As for me, I will try to be more understanding of her predicament and stop the teasing. I admire what she’s doing, and truly hope it opens up new possibilities for her. And maybe I’ll even give cilantro another shot. Yecchh.
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.