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When Your Spouse Is a Picky Eater

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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My husband and I were not well matched on paper. When we met, I was a vegan. Meanwhile, if there was such a thing as a meatitarian, Peter would have qualified for Founder’s Circle status. He regarded any vegetable that was not a carrot or a pea with the deepest suspicion, and frankly, he wasn’t all that sure about the peas.

In matters of restaurant meals, we were also deeply at odds. By upbringing and inclination, I have a basically communist approach to ordering: the object is to maximize the available options that are congenial to the whole table, so that you can happily spend the meal spearing things from each other’s plates. Peter was the sort of person who would stab you with his fork if you attempted to filch some of his dinner.

Circumstances conspired to accommodate some of our differences: A few months after we started going out, I realized that the persistent fatigue I was suffering from was related to the large quantities of soy with which I was barraging my already-ailing thyroid, and I began eating meat again. Anyway, he had many other sterling qualities. I decided to keep him.

However. Every married couple quickly discovers the irreconcilable differences that will provide many lively hours of conflict well into their golden years. This was one, and one of the loudest, because one eats so very often. I hate the term “foodie,” but something in its vicinity describes me. I was raised by a woman who made her own croissants, and aside from a congenital aversion to cooked fish, I will eat anything that doesn’t eat me first. Peter disliked almost all vegetables, most sauces, and the very idea of things he hadn’t eaten before. He was fanatically opposed to having vegetables and meat cooked in the same pan, or even letting them touch on the plate. I’m not saying there were tears involved. But I’m not saying there weren’t, either.

I read up on picky eaters. The prognosis was grim. While childhood picky eaters often grow out of it, adult picky eaters apparently don’t. Whether it is habit, anxiety or some kind of genetic ability to taste things that the rest of us don’t in strange foods, something keeps them from opening up their palate to new foods. I was doomed, apparently, to share my marriage and my kitchen with someone who hated all of my favorite foods.

If I didn’t care much about food, that wouldn’t have mattered. But I do care, passionately, and it was hard to imagine either giving up the large share of my life that centered on food, or walling that portion off from the person I’d chosen to share my life with.

For a while, I tried just cooking things I knew he’d like. These things were, to my palate, heavy and boring for everyday eating. I gained 35 pounds, a fact I blamed on my approaching 40th birthday. Then things got busy and we stopped eating dinner together so often, and like magic, the weight fell off.

I tell you all this by way of introducing a conversation we had a year or two back. I made a roast chicken and served it with a chickpea-and-raisin tagine on the side. “I like it, but you don’t have to eat it,” I told him. He looked at me, and took a tiny spoonful, featuring one carrot, three chickpeas and a raisin. A few moments later, he looked up at me and said “You should make this as a main course sometime.”

Those of you who have never lived with a picky eater probably do not appreciate the drama of the statement. Those of you who have will understand the thunderous shock I experienced. I stared. I dropped my fork. I said: “Who are you, and what have you done with my husband?”

Over the following months I kept asking the same question, with increasing concern, as he asked for sautéed mushrooms, sausage ragu, poached-egg-and-arugula salad. Was my husband being well taken care of on the alien spaceship? Did he have access to books, movies, his Xbox? Were they feeding him lots of meat? Because this guy who had replaced him was not a picky eater. To be honest, he’s now less picky than I am, since the taste of cooked fish still triggers my gag reflex.

With columnist drama, I have presented his transformation as a single cinematic moment. In fact, it was the culmination of a long process, one that I wasn’t ever sure was going to work out. And since I know that there are probably other people out there trapped in the tragedy of a foodie-picky relationship, it seems worth sharing how it happened. Some of what we did was fortuitous, but quite a lot of it was deliberate choices that we both made. So without further throat clearing, here’s why I learned about the care and feeding of your picky eater.

  1. Your picky eater has been picky for a long time. They’re not going to stop overnight. Those of us who have been eating asparagus and lemon mousse for years forget what a nervous experience it used to be to try new foods. So we tend to get impatient with apparently competent adults who are made unreasonably anxious by the prospect of a Brussels sprout.

    Well, my husband manfully steps up when I see a big ugly bug and commence to hopping around, shrieking and generally losing my mind. Different things make different people anxious. Just think about something that makes you anxious, and then think about your beloved spouse saying “Come on, get in this big bathtub full of roaches. You’ll like it once you try it.” Then be patient. Introduce new foods slowly, not all at once.

  2. Picky eaters make things worse by deciding they won’t like something before they try it. If you’re married to a picky eater, you know this. You can see it. They eye it suspiciously. They are irritated with you for making them do this. They take one sullen mouthful. Then they grimly confirm that they hate it and never want to see it again.

    If you are a picky eater, that means that you need to acknowledge that you absolutely are contributing to your own pickiness by getting stuck in it. Over years of interacting with parents and significant others, trying new foods has become an adversarial process. The picky eater goes in determined to win that conflict, and by God, they do, by hating every new food they try.

    As soon as my husband relaxed about new foods, he became magically more likely to enjoy them. Of course, that means your spouse has to relax too.

    That doesn’t mean you are going to like every single thing you eat. Peter still doesn’t like fruit-based desserts. I still can’t stand the taste of fish. But I also know that my years of hating fish, and being forced to eat it, also make the experience worse. I’ve been trying to desensitize myself to the taste recently, and when I go in thinking “Oh, God, cooked fish, it’s going to be disgusting, and I’ll have to eat it, and then I’ll have that taste in my mouth, and everything is awful!” things are really, really bad. When I go in thinking “It’s just a flavor, I’m going to take one bite, and I’m going to try to taste things people might like in it, and I have a Diet Coke right here to wash the taste away if it’s too much” then I find it much less unpleasant. I can actually start to taste other flavors than disgusting cooked fish odor. Though I do still resort to the Diet Coke pretty quickly.

  3. Becoming your spouse’s adversary makes things worse, not better. Because we spouses can see our picky eater steeling themselves to hate things even before they know what it tastes like, it’s easy to get irritated. Getting irritated only guarantees that both of you are going to be grumpy, and no one is going to enjoy a new food tonight.

    Instead, try saying: “This is an important part of my life. I’m asking you to try to keep an open mind and try new foods and restaurants even though I know it’s really hard for you, because it would make me happy.” Don’t make this into a test of their reasonableness, or flexibility. Just ask them to do it as a gift to you.

  4. Try tasting menus -- with an option to stop at any time. Because my husband is a generous man who will make heroic sacrifices for his wife, one year he booked us a table at a high-end restaurant called Komi, which has a massive tasting menu. For our third anniversary, he took me to the Inn at Little Washington en route to a vacation in the Kentucky wilds.

    I don’t know that this strategy will work for everyone. But for us, these were milestones. In part because he went in in a generous frame of mind -- he was doing this for me, not him, and it was OK if he didn’t like the food -- Peter was able to relax and try things. He started discovering the joy of complicated flavors and presentations. It’s not like he came home demanding homemade succotash and lobster quenelles, but he got a better sense of what it was I liked about restaurant meals that went beyond a nice juicy steak. And when I tried to replicate the succotash we had at the Inn at Little Washington, he approached it in a much more friendly way than he would have if I’d just slapped it onto his plate at home.

    Even if you’re not going to a restaurant with a fancy tasting menu, you can order something they’ll find strange, and then offer them a bite. If they say they don’t like it, say “OK” and eat it yourself. But if you offer them enough bites, they’ll probably find something new they do like.

  5. Repeated tastings acclimate people. This is a general phenomenon -- if you eat something over and over, chances are, you will at least learn to not mind it. That’s why I’m dutifully feeding myself small doses of smoked salmon, even though I still can’t stand the stuff. If I eat it enough, I’ll probably stop hating it.

    This is something for both you and your picky eater to keep in mind. The picky eater should remember that people can and do learn to like flavors they can’t stand -- my husband went from loathing artichokes to loving them. The non-picky eater should remember that the dose makes the poison. One or two bites of a food you can’t stand is a tolerable inoculation. A large portion of it is sick-making.

    So ask them to take one or two bites of something -- again, not because they “should,” but as a gift to you. Then if they don’t like it say “OK” and go on with your meal.

  6. Ask them what they don’t like. It’s not always the same thing: sometimes it’s flavor, sometimes texture. Often one or the other of these things can be fixed by making the disliked flavor less strong, or presenting it in another format that isn’t mushy, greasy, rubbery or otherwise unpleasant. Artichoke hearts, for example, can be deep fried so that they are appealingly crispy, rather than strange and leafy in texture. Often, after your picky eater has learned to thoroughly enjoy the new texture, you’ll find they like the flavor enough to try it in other, previously hated forms.

    Seriously, don’t be afraid to deep fry. It's not good for you, but you’re not doing it every day. And it makes a lot of foods appealing to people who otherwise wouldn’t like them.

  7. Combine foods they don’t like with ones they do. Brussels sprouts in cream sauce were not a hit in my house. But Brussels sprouts with bacon? Award-winning best-seller. Don’t try to disguise the food as something else -- for one thing, this doesn’t work, and for another, your spouse is not a toddler. But add flavors they like, such as bacon, cheese or soy sauce. Or change the proportions of a dish like a salad so that the things they don’t like are relatively unobtrusive compared to things you know they love.

  8. I cannot emphasize this enough: Don’t try the thing where you serve something they don’t like, and hope they won’t notice. Probably there’s some food you don’t like, and what are the chances you wouldn’t notice if someone slipped it into your dinner? Odd are, your spouse is just as smart as you, so why are you trying this?

  9. Don’t give up just because they didn’t like it the first time. Wait a few months and try again. As they learn to eat more foods, their tastes will change, and previously hated foods can suddenly become appealing.

  10. Dissect your dishes. If you’re a foodie, then part of the joy is talking about the food you’re served. Too much garlic? Too little? How did they manage to deep fry cheese grits so that they’re completely liquid inside? Is the fennel really adding to the dish (almost never, in my opinion, but that’s probably a topic for a different column).

    These are great things to discuss with your picky eater! It takes the focus off of “Oooh, is that gross?” and puts it on all the different things that are happening in a dish, some of which you may like, and some of which you may not. Even when I eat fish, I can tell that there are different flavors underneath the overpowering one I dislike. The more I focus on the things I don’t hate, the less the fish flavor bothers me.

  11. Unleash the power of the side dish. I used to make a rookie mistake: I’d make something without knowing whether Peter would like it, in the hopes that he would. Often he didn’t, and oops, that was all we had for dinner. In fact, by raising the stakes on the tasting, I made it more likely that he wouldn’t like it, because I turned the whole thing into an anxious confrontation with a strange enemy, instead of a casual meet-and-greet.

    So now when I introduce a new food, I make it for myself and give him a bite. That chickpea tagine was originally designed as a main course for vegetarians, but it made a fine side while he checked it out. Nothing new goes on our table as a main course. Peter has always been given the opportunity to vet it in small amounts.

    But what if I’m making something with meat, you ask? Save it for a dinner or cocktail party buffet where there are other options. Or just serve two entrees. Or make it for yourself one night when they’re out, and ask them to take a bite when they get home.

  12. Don’t forget to cater to them, too. If your picky eater is trying to eat new foods, they’re making a pretty big sacrifice. I know it doesn’t feel that way to you -- what’s the big deal? -- but remember the bathtub full of roaches. Imagine that your spouse is voluntarily climbing into that bathtub once or twice a month just because it makes you happy. Then remember to be grateful, and try to enthusiastically embrace their favorite old standards.

  13. Accept goals short of perfection. If your picky eater eats 10 foods, then even adding only five foods means a 50 percent expansion of your options! Every time they add a new food, you both win.

I won’t claim that with patience you’ll end up where I did -- with a husband who enthusiastically orders every strange thing on the menu, to the point where even I am now demurring at some of his choices. But as long as you have a partner who’s willing to at least try to eat a few more foods, there’s a good chance you can end up with a more varied table, and a much happier companion to eat it with.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net