A picky eater's guide to surviving Thanksgiving
For the first two decades of my life, if I could have physically and nutritionally sustained myself on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches alone, I would have.
PB&Js, though, are not a Thanksgiving food. And so, every fourth Thursday in November, I found myself getting stress-induced stomach aches when the turkey was put in the oven, dreading the eventual side-eye, the uninvited helpings scooped onto my plate, and the host's inevitable concerned queries of "don't you like it? Aren't you hungry?"
But don't worry, picky eaters: If I could get through it — the mashed potatoes of uncertain textures, casseroles harboring who-knows-what beneath their crusts, suspicious stuffings, Brussels sprouts — so can you. And if you're hosting a picky eater this year, think twice before you goad, "just try it."
Being an adult picky eater is a unique struggle, because it is a trait unfairly associated with underdevelopment and a lack of sophistication. Children are at least tolerated when they're fussy, but adults are supposed to have grown out of selective palettes; this, admittedly, is what eventually happened to me.
Still, I'm sympathetic to the millions of adult picky eaters out there because I can vividly remember the self-loathing, guilt, and humiliation that was exacerbated on Thanksgiving, the one secular holiday a year that revolves around consuming specific dishes. "It's a really scary thing to overcome," Stephanie Lucianovic, the author of Suffering Succotash: A Picky Eater's Quest to Understand Why We Hate the Foods We Hate, told The New York Times. "People aren't choosing to dislike food. There's a lot of shame involved. There's not a lot of empathy for picky eaters." Yet some 26 percent of adults self-identified as being "picky eaters" in a 2015 survey; even Anderson Cooper has outed himself as a Picky Eating Adult, or PEA.
But day-to-day coping strategies are useless on Thanksgiving, when there is a specific menu and intense pressure to eat some turkey, no seriously, just one bite, you'll like it. What's more, because most Thanksgiving dinners are homemade and lovingly prepared, there can be a risk of offending somebody you care about by refusing to eat their cooking.
Understandable, but there are ways to work around it! Here is what to keep in mind to help you get through the big day.
Don't expect your host to accommodate your hyper-specific tastes
Unless you're the one making Thanksgiving dinner (always a great option!), don't expect the host to have memorized your list of culinary dos and don'ts. Making a meal for a large group of people is stressful enough without having to factor in every cousins' preferences for that year. If you anticipate the dinner table being a minefield, prearrange with the host to bring a dish that you know you'll be able to fill up on. They'll probably be grateful for the help, as well as having one less mouth to worry about.
Scope out your safe foods
For many people, this would be the mashed potatoes. It wasn't for me; I'm a butter-and-roll girl, myself. Whatever your comfort level may be, make your "safe" food the object of your attention before and during dinner. You can relax knowing there is something on the table you can happily eat (and even get second helpings for!), and so long as everyone else sees you chewing they probably won't pay any attention to what, exactly, it is.
This way, you also always have the excuse ready when someone wants to foist their nasty-looking green beans on you: "Oh, they look and smell fantastic, but I don't want them to go to waste and I'm already so full." Another classic, "I'm saving room for dessert," also works, assuming you eat pumpkin pie.
Be prepared for the comments
Family tends to be particularly, uh, generous when it comes to offering unsolicited opinions. Often it seems as if every aunt, uncle, and grandmother-you-only-see-once-a-year needs to weigh in on what, and how much, you should be eating. Sometimes there is no avoiding it, so don't be blindsided by a snide remark. A redirect to what Thanksgiving ought to actually be about — "as you know, I've never been a big foodie, but I am really grateful to get to spend this time with all of you" — always seems to steer the conversation back in the right direction. You can quickly segue with another question directed at someone else: "Now I'm dying to know, how is writing your personal memoirs going, Aunt Martha?"
The big gulp strategy
When in doubt, have a drink at the ready. You can take polite nibbles and wash your mouth of the offending flavor with a swig of milk, wine, juice, or water afterward. Obviously making a big show of how disgusted you are is even more offensive than refusing a dish entirely, so do be subtle.
Move at your own pace, and seek help if you need it
I will never admit this in the presence of a lifelong foodie, but sometimes they have a point. Your taste buds do change over time; the food that used to make you gag could be your new favorite dish. If you're feeling adventurous, there is no better meal than Thanksgiving for branching out of your comfort zone. It's not a question of being brave or not brave, though; it's as simple as doing things on your own terms.
Most important of all, be honest with yourself about your situation. At a certain point, picky eating can be severe enough to become a medical disorder called Avoidant-Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID), which can result in weight loss and even the failure of the body to maintain its normal functions. It is important to be clear: Do you just hate casseroles, or are your eating habits inhibiting other parts of your life and making you feel unwell? Or are you avoiding food for an entirely different reason?
Whatever your answer may be, there is help available: You can always reach out to the National Eating Disorders Association helpline, and use the text message or online chat functions if you're unable to make a call.
Don't let anyone make you feel bad about what you eat
At the end of the day, nobody gets to choose the foods they like and don't like. Nevertheless, the intense feelings of guilt and shame experienced by picky eaters come from really, really wishing you could simply enjoy the meal like everyone else. "[T]he older I get, the more I'm realizing that the worst part of being a picky eater isn't really the fact that everyone else hates it — it's the fact that I hate this part of myself," writes Julie Bogen for Refinery29, adding: "I know I'm not going to change what I eat overnight. But ... I deserve to try new things or avoid them without feeling any embarrassment ... What I choose to put on my plate should only matter to me."
Exactly. Be kind to yourself; as Lucianovic puts it in her book, "Stand picky, stand proud." You are far from alone.
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