“Food memories are very powerful memories,” wrote Psychologist Nancy Zucker—and they’re words that couldn’t be more accurate. 10 years ago I was having lunch at a restaurant. I couldn’t tell you the name of the place, but I’ll never forget what I ordered: a goat cheese salad with beets, chicken and, to my dismay, walnuts. My allergy to tree nuts sent me straight home and to the bathroom, where I stayed for the majority of the day.
For years after, I avoided ordering anything with goat cheese, despising the poor ingredient for reminding me of this miserable day (though, I’m not really sure why I gave the beets and the chicken a break). Until recently, the mere thought of goat cheese made my mouth dry and my stomach do backflips. Whenever the ingredient appeared in salad and pasta dishes, I tried to tell myself that if I just tried it again, I’d see that I wouldn’t get sick.
But I couldn’t do it, and it wasn’t that simple. That 11 year-old experience was one that marked the beginning of my journey with pickiness, and according to the science, I share this behavior with a significant amount of the world. My particular disliking to goat cheese was caused by a neurobiological response—even though the goat cheese didn’t directly cause my sickness, the association was still so strong that I’m able to make my brain believe that it’s still the cause, hence the nausea at the thought or sight of it. And when it comes to breaking this mentality, according to NPR, “you can get rid of it, but it’s not that easy.”
In her book, “Suffering Succotash: A Picky Eater’s Quest to Understand Why We Hate The Foods We Hate,” Stephanie Lucianovic shares her challenge of having to address her pickiness once she fell in love with a man with a food-loving family. I can relate to this. As someone who’s become increasingly passionate about food, I’ve been forced to confront this picky mentality that has seemed to follow me into adulthood, with goat cheese and beyond.
“I don’t know what causes picky eating because there are lots of potential reasons for it but no definite cause,” Lucianovic told me. “It could be based in psychology, genetics, food access, food prep, parenting choices, etc. Based on my research, I’d say most picky eaters have a combination of ‘causes,’ but it’s impossible to generalize.
It’s no surprise that everyone’s pickiness stems from something different. While my own brain and prior experience is to blame for my pickiness, a common cause is also genetics that can alter and affect the taste of food. How strongly someone takes bitter flavors, for example, can be attributed to specific genes that control the taste receptors in their taste buds. There’s also such a thing called a superstar, a term for someone who has an excessive amount of taste buds, and can be turned off of foods strong in flavor like rich desserts or spicy dishes.
“It’s not easy and there’s no silver bullet because everyone is so very different and also any single picky eater will fall on a huge spectrum of picky eaters,” says Lucianovic.
But for Lucianovic, there has been progress in alleviating her picky lifestyle. Some effective methods include cooking the foods she’s hated for years in an effort to control how they are prepared.
“I hated steamed Brussels sprouts and broccoli and it was the only way I ever had them but when I roasted them, they were amazing,” says Lucianovic (I have to say I strongly second this belief).
She also finds success in combining foods she hates with other flavors she actually likes.
“Having small amounts of sautéed greens with garlic, Parmesan cheese, and pasta made the greens much easier to tolerate, get used to, and eventually enjoy.”
As a fellow picky eater, I asked Lucianovic for advice for those (like me) aspiring to become more adventurous and accepting eaters as adults.
“Treat yourself gently and patiently,” she said. “And start slowly with one food at a time.”