This is a guest post, from my husband, Casey (a self-proclaimed formerly picky eater). It’s kind of funny that one of my first memories of him was him standing in front of me in the lunch line at school (both seniors in high school). I noticed his school lunch consisted of PB&J on white bread, chocolate milk, and a huge cookie. We both laugh about this now, but I’m completely amazed by the changes he has made in his diet. Because of the way he has embraced healthy eating and drastically changed his eating habits, I asked him to share with my readers his journey to a healthier diet.
Whether at work or with friends and family, people often comment on what I’m eating. The reactions vary, but most people fall into two camps: intrigue or disgust. People who eat a relatively healthy diet or have broad palettes want to know the recipe. Those who tend to be picky eaters want to know how I could eat such a thing. Maybe it’s just part of being a dietitian’s husband, or maybe it has something to do with all the kale and quinoa. Either way, it still catches me off guard, because I’ve never considered myself a “healthy eater”. In fact, for most of my life I was an extremely picky eater.
A Day in the Life of a Picky Eater
Imagine for a moment that this is your typical daily diet. First, you get up and fix a bowl of Captain Crunch cereal, or maybe Lucky Charms. You might even have chocolate milk in your cereal, unless your milk would already turn chocolate from something like Cocoa Puffs. After breakfast you likely won’t eat again until lunch, where your meal usually consists of PB&J on white bread, several pints of chocolate milk, a giant cookie, and possible some potato chips (to get in your veggies). As a midday snack you would have a bag of M&M’s and a Mountain Dew or Dr. Pepper. By the time you get home, you are famished from eating nothing but sugar and empty carbs all day. So, you refuel with not one but two Little Debbie’s oatmeal creme pies, and probably a Vanilla Coke. This holds you over until dinner, which is likely frozen pizza, Hamburger Helper, or Burger King. Last but not least, you finish the day off with a whole sleeve of Oreos and a glass of milk.
This would surprise most people I’ve met in the past six or seven years, but this is precisely how I ate on a daily basis throughout most of high school and into college. My diet had very little variation. However, I did usually eat across the color spectrum if you count Sour Patch Kids and Skittles. Most of you probably agree that this diet is a recipe (no pun intended) for obesity, heart disease, rotting teeth, and dozens of other poor health outcomes. The question is, how did I get from extremely unhealthy and picky eater to where I am today?
A Ten Year Journey
Many people, even family and friends, assume that these changes came about because I happened to marry a dietitian. And it’s true that she has been a huge help and encouragement in the process. But even she is baffled by how drastically I changed my habits. To be honest, I didn’t change my habits overnight or through some sudden epiphany. In fact, at first I actively resisted many of the changes I now take for granted. So, to chart a course for how I went from picky eater to whole foodie, we need to look back at my journey over the last ten years.
How to Stop Soda Pop
I made what I would consider my first real step towards a healthy lifestyle when I cut back on my soda consumption. In high school I typically drank 2 to 3 canned sodas every day, more on the weekends. Most of my friends and family drank soda, so it never seemed like a big deal. Not only did I drink a ton of soda, I did NOT drink water. I would drink orange juice and chocolate milk before track practice in 90 degree weather before I would drink water. And I know from experience that combination never ends well.
Things started to change near the end high school when I started dating the girl who would one day become my wife. She convinced me not to stop drinking soda altogether, but to simply cut back to one per day. That was a big deal to me, and I still vividly remember arguing with her at my parent’s house. But gradually, I started cutting back, and I realized over time that I hardly missed it. In fact, I actually felt better.
The final nail in the coffin came in college. The three guys who would eventually become my housemates all ate healthier than me, and they rarely had soda in their rooms. I didn’t feel any different hanging out with them than I did with my high school friends, despite not having it. Then it clicked: my soda habit was just that, a habit. I only drank out of convention, even though it had virtually no effect on my mood, appetite, or energy levels. From that point on, I stopped buying soda by the case, and only consumed it on rare occasions. It wasn’t long before my beverage of choice was water, just like Happy Gilmore.
Kale Me Now
Any picky eater would understand why I was resistant to eating salad. It basically encapsulates everything a picky eater tries to avoid: a variety of aversive textures, a discomforting mixture of colors and tastes, and it takes a while to chew so you can’t wash it down quickly. I am basically the target market for the divided plate industry; for a long time I believed strongly in food segregation. Foods of different origin should never touch, much less be mixed together. Once as a child I regurgitated chili soup (which contained ketchup and tomato sauce) because I found a diced tomato in it. So, it may come as a surprise that I changed my tastes to the point where I now not only tolerate but actually enjoy salad.
Josten unknowingly changed my aversion to salad through techniques commonly used with children on the autism spectrum. (It wasn’t until years later in occupational therapy school that I learned about this and realized what she had done.) One strategy parents often use with food averse children is to introduce foods gradually in nonthreatening ways. This method allows children with sensory issues to adjust to different textures, tastes, and colors. The first time I had dinner with Josten’s family, it included a side salad. I politely declined, but Josten asked that I try a few lettuce leaves with my meal. The next time we had salad together she added a few more leaves. As I got more comfortable I began adding more ingredients: carrots, onion, tomatoes, cucumber. Eventually, I was eating as much salad with my meal as everyone else.
The lesson I learned through this process was simple: gradual change is more sustainable than rapid change. I don’t think I would’ve persistently ate my greens if I was eating Panera sized bowls with every meal. Each time I tried salad it was in manageable portions that increased as my tastes adjusted.
One of the most significant dietary changes I have made is to switch from refined wheat to whole grains. This process in particular evolved over time, and started in my first years of college. Similar to my aversion to salad, I was hesitant to try whole grains because of the texture. So, like I did with salad, I changed gradually. One of the easiest changes was to switch to all whole grain pastas, because the taste and texture were about the same. I also switched to a whole grain bread that didn’t have a bunch of seeds and such. That way, there was a limited change in texture.
As I adapted to different varieties of whole grain bread, I started searching for brands with relatively simple ingredient lists. Josten suggested we try Ezekiel sprouted grain bread, because it was the only kind we could find that didn’t have sugar, corn syrup, or preservatives. Not to mention, my dietitian was continually touting the benefits of sprouted grains. I was pretty proud of myself for having made the change to whole grain bread, so I was a little resistant at first. The first time I tried Ezekiel bread, I was struck by how dry it was. You can’t make PBJs on dry bread, am I right?
Needless to say, Josten quickly developed a taste for Ezekiel bread, but I took some time. For a while we even bought our own breads. Eventually, I decided I didn’t want to keep buying breads with sugar in them, so I went back to the Ezekiel bread. This time, I decided to eat it toasted, which made it much better. Over time, I did develop a taste for it (even with PBJs) and I now appreciate it for its simplicity. I’ve found that sometimes, if you change your standards for quality, your tastes will follow.
Finally, these days I have cut back on my grains overall. I try to eat more vegetables, fruits, beans, and proteins. My meals that were previously sugar and grain heavy are now well balanced and provide me with sustained energy.
Still a Picky Eater?
These are just a few of the more significant changes I’ve made to my eating habits over the past ten years. Some of my habits are such a part of my life that I don’t even think about them. Every morning I have oatmeal for breakfast. However, everything about this simple meal is different than it would’ve been ten or even five years ago. I used to eat instant oats with artificial ingredients, sugar, and fillers. Now, I eat old fashioned or steel-cut oats, add in my own honey or maple syrup, and throw in some peanut butter and frozen unsweetened blueberries. Even the peanut butter and syrup is different now.
I’ve gone weeks without milk. I’ve ate vegetarian one month. I drank plain unsweetened kefir that I strained myself. I literally drink my vegetables through a straw. I’ve even baked muffins out of chickpeas, and liked them! All this from a picky eater who didn’t like the texture of mashed potatoes.
These changes didn’t occur simultaneously, or through detached reflection on how to create the perfect diet. There wasn’t one single book or conversation that changed my whole worldview. My eating habits are made up of thousands of individual decisions, most of which aren’t even rationally connected. These habits are constantly changing and evolving, fluctuating with my mood and life circumstances. The difference between where I am today and where I was ten years ago is all about intention. I intended to make positive changes in my life, no matter how small, and I intend to continue making changes for the rest of my life, one picky habit at a time.