I have a problem that seems simple, but is really very difficult. My boyfriend of two and a half years is a picky eater. He's from New York and I'm from Ohio but we both live in Southern California. Growing up in Ohio, I used to eat a lot of grilled cheese sandwiches and fast food. But when I moved to California my eyes were opened to the spicy delicacy of chana masala and samosa, the satisfying texture of albacore tuna sushi, the flavor of a Cubano sandwich, the vinegary sweetness of a spinach salad with pears. I am a lover of food who will try anything, and I've never had a weight problem, which I feel is a result of liking so many different, and often healthy, foods.
My boyfriend doesn't like food. There are five foods that he will eat -- pizza, scrambled eggs, cheeseburgers, quesadillas and lasagna. I have tried to encourage him to try some different things but he'll complain that he doesn't like the texture (say, of red peppers or noodles) or the spiciness (anything Asian or Indian) or the sauces or salsas (anything with chunks of vegetables is too scary for him).
I think that this is something that developed in him when he was a child. His mom worked for an airline and they traveled to some exotic places. His mom would have to pack a suitcase of bagels and peanut butter to keep him happy. And it seems like he wasn't really coerced into eating things that were good for him. One time when I was eating a plate of broccoli and rice he said it looked like I was being punished. He is not overweight either, but he does worry about gaining too much weight when he's spending time with me. I think I eat more than he does, which isn't surprising, given how little he seems to enjoy eating.
I can deal with his limited tastes because I like cheeseburgers and pizzas too. And we go out to dinner less often than I have in the past, but that doesn't bother me too much either. I can always go out with a friend. And I like to cook for him so I try to make things he'll like.
But the problem is that I worry about his health. He told me that his doctor has already warned him about high blood pressure. Sometimes when I rest my head on his chest I can hear his heartbeat, and it feels like it's going too fast. At that point, I feel like I may be overreacting.
But I want to marry him and part of me feels like as a wife I want to give him a home and meals that he'll enjoy -- I want to introduce him to new things and have him like them. I want him to love food the way that I do, and learn to eat a variety of things. I can't see cooking him pizza and lasagna every week and then having him keel over from a heart attack at the age of 50. Do you have any suggestions?
In Love With a Picky Eater
Dear Picky's Girlfriend,
As you may know, I had quite a scare last year when, at the age of 51, I thought I was having a heart attack. I knew I had high cholesterol and I was not strictly following dietary recommendations for a man of my age with a history of heart disease in his family. I ended up in the hospital. Luckily, my heart is OK. But what you say about not wanting him to have a heart attack at age 50 sounds like a very real concern.
Right now, your boyfriend is on the great American suicide diet. That's going to have to change. But "diet" is too small a word. We're talking about a complex of historical, cultural, chemical, medical, religious, sexual, biological, legal and economic factors. It's not just diet. It's culture. It's how we live.
We have to change the way we live. That means we have to change what we do when we are hungry. We have to change who goes into the kitchen to cook and who sits in front of the TV waiting to eat. So here's what I suggest as a starting point:
Next time you cook, say, lasagna, get him in the kitchen and ask him to boil the water for the pasta. Have him put the pasta in the water and dish the pieces out with tongs and lay them in the lasagna pan. Have him slice cheese and mushrooms, so he becomes familiar with the foods themselves, what they look and taste like. Don't cook for him, cook with him. Close the labor gap in the kitchen. Give him clear instructions and easy tasks, so he does not become overwhelmed.
As you cook, feed him slices of fruit and pieces of raw vegetables. Observe what he can tolerate and not tolerate. He may have certain extreme sensitivities, as well as phobias and unpleasant food associations. Food may have been used to achieve various emotional goals in his childhood -- as punishment, as protection against novelty, as reassurance. If so -- as the broccoli incident suggests -- then he may perceive any suggestion that he change what he eats as a threat. So try to avoid the appearance of coercion. Present foods as opportunities to nibble things.
It's also possible that he is a super-taster -- that it's not all in his head. So observe his reactions to various foods, and keep in mind recipes that might be made with those foods. For instance, if he likes crackers, he may like crackers crumbled over an arugula soup -- who knows. If he likes macaroni and cheese (since salt, cheese and starch are his three main food groups, he's got to like it), there is a great recipe for four-cheese pasta in the Christopher Kimball book "Cover and Bake." I'm not saying this is a heart-healthy dish. I'm saying you've got to start where he's at and expand from there. If you made that four-cheese pasta, he might never be the same again. It might be like the first time one hears John Coltrane. He might want to see what other dishes can be made to perfection -- like, say, lentil soup. So use his taste buds as they are now, and expand.
Gradually try making substitutions in recipes -- make tofu lasagna, for instance, and veggie cheeseburgers. Begin adding vegetables to the dishes you make.
I'm not saying this is the one solution to your problem. It's very complex. If he already has high blood pressure, that's a serious matter. But cooking together is the foundation of a healthy relationship with food. It can also serve as a laboratory for observing his attitudes toward food.
The sad thing about the American suicide diet is not only that it kills us but that it alienates us from our own bodies and from nature. It is psychologically deadening. There is a political dimension to this deadening, of course. The ideal consumer is an open mouth and an open wallet, without passion, without critical reasoning, infinitely programmable. And there is some connection between passivity before corporate America and passivity as a child. Somehow, in his bland food choices, he may be reliving the childhood dependence on the mother, and seeking security in the face of strangeness and travel. So anxiety about the other, about novelty and difference, may play a part in his food psychology as well.
All this should make for some interesting dinners.
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