Picky eaters: the terror of being invited to dinner

What’s the worst fear for some people? It’s not standing before a crowd and giving a major speech. Nor is it the apprehension of being crushed in a crowded elevator, or flying. It’s the terror of having no control of what’s in food. Now, British researchers report there is a way for parents to prevent children from becoming picky eaters.

So how picky can you get? The next time you’re at a dinner party do a little detective work and see if you can spot which guest suffers from this phobia.

You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to spot picky eaters. One clue is to keep your eye on the guest’s dinner plate. For instance, some picky eaters cannot stand mixing foods together. Rather, they will eat peas first, then the meat, the potatoes and so on. And some refuse to eat anything with their hands even if it’s a sandwich, peanuts or pizza.

You may discover that some diners will not eat carrots if they have touched the beans on the plate. One picky eater explained, “I don’t think of it as a disorder, just kind of curious.”

Maybe so, but the rest of us would consider it more than just a bit odd.

There’s another picky eater you can’t miss detecting out of the corner of your eye. The one who is offered a chicken pie as the main course. Just watch that person pick out the peas or the onions, trying to be discreet while doing so.

Other picky eaters face a nightmare when it’s impossible to pick out what they don’t like. A person I know hates olives with a passion. He has the option of picking olives out of a salad. But I recently saw horror in his eyes at a party. The olives were ground up in the salad!

Even a CIA agent might find it hard to know why some people avoid certain foods. Picky eaters will tell friends they avoid oysters because of the smell. But the real reason is that they are too slimy.

But the ultimate devastating nightmare for a picky eater is to be invited to dinner at a friend’s home where there is no control over the food. The anguish starts early when the host passes finger food and they wonder, “What’s in it?” Then fear sets in of what the host will serve for the main meal.

How many people are picky eaters? Experts say their numbers are increasing due to public awareness of Obsessive Compulsory Disease (OCD). They claim that picky eating is normally not considered a disease, such as the compulsive symptom of having to wash hands 100 times a day. But some picky eaters can become depressed when this disorder affects their quality of life. So can parents save children from dinner nightmares later on in life?

Helen Coulthard, a psychology researcher at De Montford University in Leicester, England, reports an experiment that may cure picky eaters. Seventy children, age two to five, were asked to play with slimy, mushy food and to find a buried toy at the bottom of mashed potatoes or jelly. Children were then rated on a score of one to five on how they reacted to getting their hands dirty.

Researchers concluded that those children who were happy to get their hands dirty were less likely to suffer from food neophobia, a fear of tasting new food. So the moral is, don’t force children to eat foods they don’t like. Rather, design games or fun with different foods and there will be fewer adult picky eaters.

I wondered while researching this column how I would rate on the picky scale. My wife would say, “Not very good.”

I admit I’m a rare meat and mashed potatoes guy. I too hate olives and onions that appear in everything! But I never refuse dinner at a friend’s home.

For others who feel depressed about their pickiness, there’s a web site to share their problems, www.pickyeatingadults.com.

See the web site, www.docgiff.com. For comments, go to info@docgiff.com.

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