What do children who are picky eaters and staid adults have in common?
If you have any experience with children, then you know getting them to eat properly (if at all) can be a nightmare. Toddlers and small children often fixate on one or two foods that they will accept, vehemently rejecting all others. As good parents and caregivers, we often take up the cause of encouraging our little ones to broaden their dietary range, many times to limited effect. Perhaps because of parental urging, or maybe even in spite of it, most children grow out of their picky eating habits and learn to accept if not enjoy a wider variety of foods.
While most adults are adaptable eaters, they can become “picky” in other areas of their lives. Perhaps they stick with the same friends they’ve had for years, even if the relationship has gone stale or sour. Perhaps they hold on to a dead-end job even though it brings them nothing but misery. Goals and dreams that were once near and dear are pushed to an eternal “someday” that never arrives. If you want to know why “most men lead lives of quiet desperation” as Thoreau suggested, I would submit that they do so because they slowly fall into ruts. They become “picky eaters” at the banquet of life, nibbling the same safe, known dishes no matter how bland and unsatisfying they have become.
Adult picky eaters face an additional challenge: often there is no equivalent of a parental figure with a spoon and an encouraging word about some strange and new dish. That’s why adults can languish for years or decades in the same unsatisfactory rut, doing enough to get by without thriving or enjoying life.
Sometimes there is a change agent. It could be more adventuresome friends, a life change that forces someone out of a worn-out pattern, or even a real, live parent ringing in with their opinion. Or in my case, it’s me, their therapist, asking them if some major aspect of their life is played out and in need of a change. While I don’t like to infantilize my clients, it’s hard to shake the impression that when I ask my clients to look at their troublesome behaviors or consider healthier alternatives, I’m standing with a spoon in my hand and they, the clients, are pursing their lips in protest.
With just a little reflection, It’s not hard for me to understand why clients avoid adding new flavors to their lives. It could have been a very long time since they tried anything new. And the comfort of the familiar is powerfully attractive. Indeed we need a goodly amount of stability, comfort and security in our lives just to stay mentally and physically healthy. Only when comfort rules the roost and leaves no wiggle room for change or growth do we have a serious problem.
If you are considering whether it might be time to break out of a rut, but not sure where to start, let me offer a few suggestions. Beginning, as we did earlier in this article, with food, might not be a bad idea. In most medium-to-large towns or cities, there are the usual chain restaurants that we all know and frequent. But not too far away are dozens of mom-and-pop eateries with unique offerings from distant parts of the world. If you’ve never tried, say, Ethiopian food, now might be a great time to start. Online listings and reviews make finding new restaurants easier than ever before.
Becoming an adult goes hand in hand with the idea of “settling down”: picking a place to live, renting or buying property and becoming established in some job or career. This is good for safety, security and perhaps building up some wealth, but it also means giving up a lot of mobility and potential for adventure. However there are still ways to get out and about without selling the homestead and becoming a bum. Vacations or sabbaticals are obvious starting points. And if, in your travels, you find someplace you like even better than home then relocation may become a credible option. If venturing far from home seems like too much, you have the option of becoming a tourist in your own town. Look up a travel guide and see what sites the tourists see when they travel in your part of the world. You might just discover a hidden gem in your own backyard.
Once you’ve decided on a venue for pushing your comfort zone, you still have to go through with it. No matter how objectively small the change may be, it can take real courage to move beyond a well-worn path. Just as small children will turn up their noses at a spoon full of mystery, we will too, although no one can see us turn away but ourselves. Just knowing and accepting that everything new raises our internal resistance can be key in overcoming it.
So many ultimately enjoyable things in life are acquired tastes. I hated running until my 20s. It took me many months before even the shortest run became pain-free. But once I had the knack, I could run distances at a modest lope in complete comfort and even started enjoying it. When trying new things, it’s important not to put too much stock in first impressions.
In food as in life, there will be lots of disappointments. Recipes don’t turn out. Restaurants fail to impress. New experiences don’t live up to the hype. And yet there’s no way to get to the good stuff except to try and try again. Knowing there will be duds can raise our resolve to keep going, trying new things, and taking one more “bite” out of life.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .on and was last reviewed or updated by