A life without schwarma (National Post, March 15, 2006)

My husband Ronny waves a Wall Street Journal clipping at me, exhibiting the smug expression that can mean only one thing: Somebody in authority has proven me wrong on one of his alleged shortcomings.

"Read this!" he gloats, pointing to an article called Fear of Food: The New Science of Picky Eating, and a highlighted statement: "Scientists have long theorized that picky eating may be an evolutionary adaptation that kept children from snacking on poisonous leaves and berries."

Some background: My husband was an only child, and was thus spoiled by a doting mother who would routinely cook an entirely different meal from scratch if he showed the slightest displeasure with the dinner she'd laboured a whole day over a hot stove to produce -- thus creating a monster whose eating habits have rendered mutually satisfactory meal planning a hassle for his wife for 40-odd years.

I scrutinized the article carefully. Left undebunked, it would give my husband licence to cast his anti-social habit as proof of superior evolutionary fitness.

"It says here it's just a theory," I said.

"A very good one, in my opinion," Ronny responds.

I peruse the clipping for more on this new "science." It seems that in a study of the eating habits of 3,000 children aged four to 24 months, half of all parents described their toddlers as picky. Many go on to normal eating habits later, but a good proportion do not. The study notes that parents usually stop introducing the same new food when it is rejected after a few tries, while it can take 10 or more tries before a child accepts something new.

Ten or more tries? Wow, that's nine jars of baby food discarded after a few spoonfuls. It's expensive ensuring your kid isn't a picky eater. Good thing this study was conducted by totally disinterested "scientists" from, er, Gerber products ...

But there's more credible material and misery-loves-company examples of irrational adult Picky Eaters to follow. The Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia studied 50 of them. Some ate fewer than 10 foods. That doesn't surprise me, considering my husband's long list of no-eats -- onion, mayonnaise, garlic, vinegar, sauces, to name a few. One woman had eaten nothing but Kraft Dinner for years (which would be my single food for eternity if I had to choose).

Picky Eating is very tough on the culinarily adventurous spouse. Take my case. Although I am no candidate for Fear Factor, and didn't order the ram's testicles I once saw on special at a Yemenite restaurant in Israel, I am game to try most unfamiliar dishes found in the normal course of life in a multicultural metropolis. I love ethnic restaurants, for example, but scary words like schwarma and dolmadakia cause Ronny too much distress. His idea of ethnic is Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and Chinese food kiosks in malls.

Of course it isn't just men who are finicky. I have two women friends virtually living on candy; one confessed she isn't above drinking a bottle of maple syrup when she runs out of lollipops. There's a fine line between super-finicky and kinky.

There are now all kinds of workshops and CDs to help parents deal with finicky children. In my day, we simply surrendered to the force majeure of a determined hunger striker. One of my children, whose allergies to peanuts and peas made him super-cautious, lived on yogourt, carrot sticks and white-bread Kraft cheese sandwiches for his entire childhood -- the palatable peel-off slices, not the horrid plastic singles.

One day the peel-offs disappeared from Quebec shelves in response to marketing research showing Quebecers preferred singles. Aghast, I wrote a passionate letter to the president of Kraft, begging for reinstatement of the peel-offs on the grounds that my child might otherwise starve. A month later, they were back! Was it my letter? Dunno, just sayin' ...

And thus was I launched on a career in advocacy writing. If Big Cheese can't stop me, nothing can.

© National Post 2006