If you listen to their parents, it’s hard to know where all the picky eaters come from. One mother told me that she has happily dined on natto in Japan (that would be stinky fermented soybeans), pastilla in Morocco (a pigeon pastry laced with sugared cinnamon), and incendiary curries in Sri Lanka.
So how did she produce a son who starts to wail whenever he’s urged to eat anything that isn’t fried and smothered in ketchup? It wasn’t an exam-room encounter, but I asked my usual pediatrician questions—is he healthy, is he growing normally—and I found myself wondering what food tastes like to that child, and then thinking about how taste develops—and I don’t just mean taste in the most literal receptors-in- your-tongue sense.
Taste also refers, of course, to our opinions and preferences—our style. In this, the senses seem to have a hierarchy. You may be able to convince yourself to gaze at Kandinsky when you prefer Rembrandt, you can listen with anthropological curiosity to your adolescent’s idea of good music, you can brave quick whiffs of a perfume you would never choose for yourself, and you can stroke a fabric that’s rough to the touch. You can’t, however, chew your way through something you detest with a genuine smile. Taste, when it’s really taste-with-your-tongue, is more profound and visceral than that.
Taste is a frequent topic in pediatric clinics because so many children drive their parents crazy with their finicky eating. There are countless flavors of picky eating, and all seem heartfelt; the children aren’t just jerking their parents around. When my journalism students write personal essays, they often recount food aversions from childhood. No one understood, no one believed, but they abhorred chocolate, or fruit, or some other food widely considered delectable. The more limited their palate, the more clearly they remember the injustice of being misunderstood, pressed into trying a despised morsel, forced into the same defensive conversation over and over.
We pediatricians take it as our business to direct parents on how to start their babies on solid foods. We tend to believe that you should begin by offering children fruit purees and work your way slowly toward anything that’s sharp or spicy or bitter, anything that’s been seasoned or doctored. But not all children have read the playbook. Some snatch barbecued spareribs off a mother’s plate before they have any words (that was my daughter), or beg for spoonfuls of a peppery stew, or lick the deli mustard off a father’s pastrami sandwich.
Other children reject almost everything, according to their own mysterious neuronal code. Refusing anything new and different is normal for toddlers; hence the standard pediatric advice to keep reintroducing the same delicacy. But as toddlers grow into children, some of them just continue to shake their heads, no, no, no. We all know picky-eating archetypes: nothing too hot or too cold, nothing with texture, nothing green. One nine-year-old I know will send back a plate of French fries (his favorite and, at times, only reliable food) if the restaurant, in an upscale excess of enthusiasm, has flecked them with fresh parsley.
And then we have the infamous white diet, the ultimate picky-eater state, more extreme even than the anti-green league. These kids eat white bread, noodles, chicken fingers, French fries (if left unblemished), and, of course, vanilla ice cream. Each acolyte of the white diet, though, seems to invent it anew, cutting his teeth, so to speak, on rice cereal, then moving on to other varieties of pap, whether served hot or cold, loose in a bowl or fried in strips. The true white-diet child even avoids ketchup (how loud, how red, how tangy!).
Picky eaters demand customcrafted meals, force their parents to provide crackers as survival rations at restaurants and birthday parties, and engender a certain moral righteousness in observers. The world is full of people who will assume your picky eater is all your fault. You didn’t set limits, did you? You caved and catered, didn’t you?
Most children outgrow at least some of their finickiness and learn to savor a little more of what the world has to offer. But there certainly are adults who still carefully avoid many of the foods that others relish, scanning the menu for something plain and broiled, requesting sauce on the side, because you never can tell. The sensory input that brings each of us the world doesn’t bring us all the same story when it comes to spicy, pungent, sour, or even sweet.
I have watched parents struggle for years with children who refuse even to sample foods that delight the rest of the family. I have worried about the tension that develops between parent and child, and I have tried my best to help parents avoid turning meals into battles. I have marveled at the apparent ability of a child to develop along a normal growth curve, extracting a full range of nutrients from a diet of macaroni and applesauce—and only one brand of applesauce at that. In extreme cases, I have worried about a child’s growth and health and hematocrit. It’s hard to look at a picky eater and appreciate the rich individualities of taste and preference. And yet, the picky eaters among us, children and adults, do at least assure us that our tongues are our own.
Perri Klass ’86 is a professor of journalism and pediatrics at New York University. A contributor to Food & Wine and a former contributor to Gourmet, she is the mother of three adventurous eaters.