I have a confession to make. Until very recently, I had no sympathy for fussy eaters.
As an ex-waitress, as a friend of fussy eaters (well, acquaintance would probably be a better term, ‘cause ain’t nobody got time for that), as an older cousin to fussy eaters and as a full-time judge of people I don’t know, I have always thought fussy eaters should just grow up and stop acting like immature brats.
When I was growing up, my mum would always brag that her children never had a problem eating their vegetables. Perhaps it was Mum’s superior cooking skills, or the fact that growing up in a Malaysian-Chinese household meant we had a huge variety of dishes to explore and were bound to find something we liked. Whatever the reason, I have never been a fussy eater.
This makes it extremely hard for me to be empathetic towards people above the age of three who “don’t like tomatoes” or “don’t like fruit” or “can’t eat curry because it’s all brown”.
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that parents LOVE having other people tell them how to raise their children. Especially if that bystander is someone like me who doesn’t have children. If ever I came across a fussy eater at a restaurant or social event, I would tut-tut and smugly say to myself, “If that were my kid, I would just make them eat it," unable to comprehend the stubbornness and vehemence of the average toddler.
Whenever I talk to family and friends whose children are fussy eaters, they tell me how they must “choose their battles” and if giving their kids chicken nuggets means they will actually eat something, then that’s what they have to do. This leads to a slippery slope of nutritional downfall, as one can imagine.
Over the years, I felt like I became more progressive in my understanding of fussy eaters, even acknowledging that there is a genetic disorder (and not the cool X-Men kind) that prevents a large majority of people from enjoying coriander. I reserved judgement towards these poor mutants, as the inability to enjoy a fresh banh mi (Vietnamese pork roll) without fearing that “soapy taste” is punishment enough. However, on the whole, I would still pronounce that fussy eaters needed to get over themselves.
That was until I watched The Truth About Fussy Eaters, a fascinating documentary on the reasons and psychology that make a fussy eater. Fellow food lovers will watch enthralled as the program explores the lives of several adults and teenagers who gag at the very thought of eating steak, fruit or fresh vegetables, and who live on a diet of “soft white foods” such as chicken nuggets, potato chips and white bread.
The documentary introduces viewers to ARFID (Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder), which some might say is the technical term for “fussy eating”. It gives insights as to why people suffer from this – whether it be their heightened ability to taste bitterness in foods, their resistance to “slimy textures” or their fear of choking which prevents them from eating certain food groups.
It also makes some very helpful suggestions on how to overcome this disorder and provides practical tips on how to address these anxiety triggers. My favourite was to get people hooked into the “higher value” of the benefits when you are not a fussy eater. (In other words, not being a social outcast who never gets invited to DIY dumpling nights.)
For me, this motivation seems the most promising. Sure, as a parent, you could argue with your kids about the nutritional benefits of eating all their vegetables. But what you really need to be doing is showing them their future 20 years down the line when they’ll never be able to blend in with the cool hipsters if they can’t take sriracha or gag at the thought of a matcha turmeric latte.
After all, who wants to see Instagram picture upon Instagram picture of white bread?
For further insights and coping mechanisms, watch the captivating The Truth About Fussy Eaters on SBS this Thursday 19 April at 8:30pm on SBS, or afterwards at SBS On Demand.