A five-step plan for overcoming picky eating (a.k.a. an open letter to Anderson Cooper)
July 2nd, 2012
04:00 PM ET
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Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic is a Bay Area writer and editor. Her first book Suffering Succotash: A Picky Eater's Quest to Understand Why We Hate the Foods We Hate, a humorous non-fiction narrative and exposé on the lives of picky eaters, will be released by Perigee Books on July 3.

My Dearest Anderson Cooper,

You need to be rewired, neurologically speaking.

Let’s back up. First, I watched with sympathetic awe as you took to your talk show and admitted that you are an adult picky eater who really isn't too jazzed about the whole eating thing. Next, I got a little teary as you brought on other adult picky eaters who have long lived with the undeserved shame of their limited diets. However, when I got to the part where you attempted to eat spinach live on television, I dropped to my knees, tore my hair, rent my garments and wailed, "WHAT ARE YOU DOING ANDERSON COOPER?"

Because having to fork up a pile of nasty, seeping spinach that had probably already gone cold by the time you got to it? NO. I'm a recovering picky eater turned full-time foodie, and I still wouldn't eat spinach like that! Anderson, you need my help.

Here's the deal: you absolutely do not have to like foods (especially spinach) just any old way, and people who tell you otherwise are flat-out wrong. When attempting to change your mind about the foods you hate, it is vital that you give yourself the opportunity to have those foods prepared in the best, tastiest way possible. A few months ago Kat gave you some excellent recipe ideas. However, making sure you eat broccoli roasted rather than steamed is just the first, albeit crucial, step toward rewiring your neural pathways.

When you are faced with a food you dislike, your brain reacts to that food as if it's a threat to you. Say the texture or flavor of broccoli made you gag once. Maybe it happened when you were a baby and you don't even remember the event - all you know is that you don't like it.

Guess what? Your brain remembers the event and is carrying a grudge, so from that time forward whenever you encounter broccoli, it says, "Yep, that there broccoli tried to kill us. Never again, Brassica oleracea, never again. Set neural pathway to HATE." Once that pathway is set in the brain, your entire body will do its collective best to protect you from broccoli's nefarious plans to improve your health if you try to eat it. Your tongue might reject the flavor, your gag reflex is often triggered, and you could even throw up - the body's final defense against an unwanted intruder.

Here are five simple steps that will help get those neural pathways rewired.

Step 1: First Foods

Now don't worry, I'm not going to start you with kale, which is so aggressively good for your entire body, you can actually feel it toilet brushing your internals all the way down. Kale may make your skin look amazing and fight cancer while also expunging the dregs of last night's cocktail from your liver, but it’s also one of the more difficult greens to love, and my advice to you is to work up to it. (Personally, I think kale’s so good for you because when toxins and diseases get one taste of its rough bitterness, they run screaming for the nearest exit.)

No, you have to start with an attainable food, maybe cauliflower, broccoli, or gentle greens (beet greens, spinach, tender chard) and get a recipe - a good recipe, mind you - from someone who understands picky eating and understands food. Hell, if you can't find anyone else, I'll cook for you. I'm a former picky eater and I’ve already converted several people to my way of making broccoli, beet greens, okra, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower.

Step 2: Picky Say Relax

Getting yourself mentally prepared to calmly accept a food that would otherwise freak you out or disgust you is key. If you aren't relaxed, the mere idea of the hated food bullies your body into an instinctual fight or flight mode, which leads to a clenched or churning stomach, and can really do a number on your digestive system. Do what you can to override your body's natural instincts. Deep breathing, meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, a glass or two of wine...whatever it takes to chill you out before facing down a hated food, do it.

Step 3: Force Dispersal

If you object to either a food's flavor or texture, minimize the effects of the food's collateral damage in your mouth by combining it with a neutral medium. Even with all my picky eating progress, I'm still not the biggest fan of big piles of cooked greens, so I spread the greens out in cooked pasta or farro. That way, I'm not faced with a mouthful of unchewable greens that pisses off my gag reflex, but I’m still eating them and growing accustomed to their flavor.

Step 4: The Piggyback Effect

Based solely on the results of the taste test you took on your show, I think you're an undertaster, which means food carries less of a flavor impact for you and, consequently, doesn't hit your pleasure centers. In other words, food is bland for you, so it's no wonder you don't enjoy it! This is where you can benefit from the Piggyback Effect.

You know how some kids like to douse everything they eat in ketchup and how other people might eat anything as long as it's deep-fried? This is something I've taken to calling the Piggyback Effect. Allowing liked flavors to piggyback on a hated flavor helps dial down the intensity of that hated flavor until it becomes background noise.

I dealt with my dislike of butternut squash by adding curry powder, scallions, garlic, and even blue cheese. Maybe I completely drowned out the actual flavor of the squash, but because my brain realized that I was able to eat squash without it killing me, my pathways were rewired to the point where I no longer need those other ingredients to piggyback on the squash. I weaned myself.

Step 5: Crowd Sourcing

Don't attempt to eat hated foods under pressure. You know, like on national TV with everyone watching? Doing that just turns the entire experience into something extremely stressful and very not fun. Instead, take a stab at these foods when you're among friends, family, or anyone else with whom you really enjoy spending time. Not only does it aid in changing your association with that hated food from something negative to something positive, which is key to rewiring those adorably protective neural pathways, but if your attention is focused on your dining companions and how much fun you're having and not what you're eating, your entire system is relaxes and isn't snapping into fight or flight mode.

Go out to dinner with Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert - I'm sure either of them could keep you laughing hard enough that you'd eat an entire serving of broccoli without even realizing it.

Dude, it’s not easy to do all of this, so treat yourself gently. You're probably not going to like the hated food on the first, second, or third tries, but if you keep chipping away, it will happen. It took me a long time to go from despise to tolerate to like to love to crave. I'm not asking you to love food, I’m just asking you to try this. Try this for me, for yourself, for everyone who loves you and wants you to live a good long life wearing tight black tee shirts on TV and kicking parents off your talk show because they give their kids vouchers for boob jobs!

And why am I so personally bent on helping you? Because you did what I’m trying to do: you put a face on picky eating that people had to respect. No one in their right mind could call you wimpy, whiny, or annoying. You allowed yourself to be recognized as an adult picky eater and helped to make other picky eaters feel less alone and less ashamed of something they can't biologically control and something they didn't choose to be.

Now I know this is a lot to digest, but it's really quite simple. Come on over and let me show you just how simple it can be.

I remain ever your most humble servant and picky eating cook,

Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic

Previously - The psychology of food aversions and Food aversions: Your questions answered and Anderson Cooper, eat your vegetables!

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