When I was a kid, I ate very few non-dessert foods. I'd have cereal, fries, fruit, carrots (but no other vegetables), eggs (only cooked a very specific way), and a glass of milk (but only when sweetened with maple syrup and vanilla). For meals, I ate a plate of assorted toasted breads (plain, with no butter or jam). I ate a plain hot dog each night, masking its taste by eating it boiling hot in barely chewed bites. I didn't eat any of the classic meals like pizza, pasta, rice, soup, salad, or PB+J sandwiches.
The idea of trying a new food, of putting something new and unfamiliar in my mouth, was so terrifying to me. My mom respected the autonomy and opinions of kids more than almost any other adult I encountered, and while she encouraged me to try new foods, she never forced me to eat anything. While being picky created challenges in my life, I'm forever grateful to her for teaching me to honour my feelings.
I've been recently thinking back on the experience of being a picky eater as a kid, and reflecting on how I reached the point where I now eat in a way that would be considered much more "normal". Here's what I remember:
At lunch time in elementary school, I'd take my meal out of my lunchbox, which would always just be some bread in a tupperware container. Sometimes it was a blueberry bagel, sometimes it was a croissant. My teachers would notice and ask "is that really all you have for lunch?" and "where's the four food groups?" and I would feel embarrassed and ashamed. But never ashamed enough to want to try to eat a "real" lunch.
There were other awkward moments. In fifth grade we were assigned a project to create a restaurant menu, and I didn't know what to put on it. I put "toast, lightly buttered" as an entree and got a confused comment from my teacher. I was 10 - I was having crushes and starting to compete in math competitions, but I didn't know what people ate at restaurants? What was wrong with me? As I entered middle school, I became more afraid that my picky eating would create problems - how would I attend banquets or go on dinner dates? It's socially acceptable for a kid to be picky, but I was dreading the possibility of being an adult who would only eat bread for meals.
(aside: Some time around then, my mom realized that encouraging me to eat hot dogs as a source of protein was probably not as good of an idea as she originally thought. Once I stopped eating hot dogs, I technically became a vegetarian, but I didn't really identify this way for a while. I was simply a picky eater whose set of acceptable foods didn't include meat anymore.)
The summer before grade 11, I spent most evenings with a group of close friends. Each night my friend's mom cooked dinner for us, and each night I brought a pack of instant oatmeal to prepare in the microwave. Eventually, one night I eyed some plain green beans on the dining room table. Maybe I was tired of eating oatmeal, maybe I was tired of feeling so awkward during meals, or maybe I was finally in a situation where I felt awkward but also cared about and comfortable. But I ate some green beans!! I don't think I even liked them that much, but just feeling like I could try a new food was an incredible victory.
In my final years of high school, I continued to try many things. When a group of friends went to a restaurant, I sometimes went along and tried to pick something on the menu I thought I might like. I often didn't like the foods I tried, but the more I tried, the more I eventually stumbled upon something actually tasty. When I ate dinner at another friend's house after graduation, I mentioned how I hadn't enjoyed salad yet, and she taught me that the salad dressing was an important ingredient. I had previously been avoiding adding extra flavour to things, but started experimenting with that as well. I also got more comfortable eating things I didn't particularly like, for the sake of avoiding awkwardness, and decided I would be open to trying any new food that was vegetarian.
In my first year of university, I ate buffet-style cafeteria food that was included in the price of residence, and then interned at a large tech company with dozens of free restaurants on their campus. It became easier to try new foods at minimal cost and in small quantities. When I was later interning in New York City, I followed my coworkers to some of their favourite lunch spots and found myself eating meals that unlocked whole new categories of food. I ate my first burrito bowl at Chipotle at the age of 22, thinking I didn't enjoy beans or spice and therefore wouldn't like Mexican food, but it was delicious and even helped me increased my spice tolerance. It's moments like these that make it feel worth it to have tried so many things I didn't like.
Why did I wait until I was 16 to try to stop eating bread for meals? If I had tried more foods earlier in my life, would I have avoided years of awkwardness and shame? I don't know. It's hard to understand now why it was such a big deal, but I try to look back on childhood me with the compassion and respect I didn't get from most adults growing up. The idea of eating new foods was so terrifying to me that it felt impossible, and that's a feeling I remember clearly even if I don't understand why I felt that way.
Here's something I wish more people knew: if someone is mostly healthy and safe, and especially if you're not particularly close them, it's likely more hurtful than helpful to comment on their eating habits. Human bodies need food constantly and it's hard to avoid eating in front of people, so just let people eat what they want to eat. And if you really are worried about someone close to you, approach them with curiosity and compassion. This shit is hard, and it takes time.