When we think of picky eaters, we most likely think of a child who refuses to eat their brussel sprouts. However, being picky about certain foods is a “grown-up” issue too.
“Picky eating habits are usually developed in childhood by parents who would punish, reward, or bribe with food,” Allison Sizemore, a certified sports nutritionist, tells SheKnows. “However, adults can become ‘picky’ by trying to avoid certain foods they deem as ‘bad’ or unhealthy,”
Everyone has a food or two that they avoid whether it’s due to its taste or texture or smell or all of the above. For me, I avoid most fruits (I know, weird). Avoiding a dreaded brussels sprout (or in my case, an orange) isn’t typically harmful but it can be when picky eating interferes with daily nutrition or when it’s leading to a negative or disordered attitude towards food and someone avoids types of food altogether in fear of gaining weight.
“I work with a lot of women who have tried multiple diet fads—everything from radical juice cleanses, fasting, and calorie restriction,” Maritza Worthington, functional nutritionist & hormone specialist, FDN-P, CHNC, tells SheKnows. “Many of these trendy interventions can really take a psychological toll over time, as all of these methods revolve around restriction.”
So how do you navigate a picky eater in a healthy way?
“When it comes to picky eating the first thing I do is question them about what foods they don’t like and why,” Brenda Peralta, a registered dietician. “I always make sure to do it in a non-judgmental way but as a way of understanding if they have a problem with textures, certain flavors, or because they are afraid to try something new. “
From there, Peralta will make a list of the possible foods that her client wants to try, guiding them on which foods might be beneficial for them considering their nutritional goal but giving them the freedom to choose.
Once they decide on which food they are going to include they find different recipes and ways of having it. For example, smoothies, baked, cooked, soup, or air fried. “It is essential to try it in different ways and flavors to ensure which ones they can accept,” says Peralta.
Sizemore uses a flexible dieting approach, such as tracking macros, when it comes to nutrition for her picky eater clients.
“We tell our ‘picky’ eaters that they should still focus on whole, non-processed foods 80 percent of the time (just like we tell all of our clients),” she says. “Even picky eaters can usually find things they love while sticking to things like meats, eggs, fish, veggies, fruits, whole grains, and dairy.”
According to Sizemore, giving a “picky” eater a meal plan is much less likely to be a successful approach for them since they may not like the foods traditionally suggested by coaches and will then feel like they aren’t being compliant.
“When we have clients who come to us and say they are ‘picky” eaters, they tend to love the flexibility this approach affords them because they can still feel like they are being successful and meeting their goals while filling their diet with foods they love.”
What to flag when dealing with disordered eating
According to Worthington, a red flag to look out for when it comes to “picky eaters” are diets that restrict one of the three essential macronutrient groups whether it’s fats, carbs, or proteins.
“It’s important to note that macronutrients are considered ‘macro’ for a reason, and we do need a healthy balance of all macronutrients to empower our metabolism, support hormones, fuel energy levels, and avoid mineral and nutrient depletions.”
For those who struggle with disordered or restricted eating, Worthington recommends to avoid fixating on the scale or apps that are centered around calorie quantity, and “instead focus on bringing in more quality, nutritious foods” and work with a nutritionist to assist you in the process.
Sizemore says she tells her clients that, as long as they are meeting their calorie and macronutrient goals, it doesn’t matter how they are filled as long as they are aiming for whole, unprocessed foods most of the time. She says this approach can help “avoid disordered eating patterns, such as cutting out certain foods or food groups. It helps picky eaters feel like they can be successful with sticking to a healthy diet because they are in control and aren’t made to feel bad for not liking certain foods.”