Food and Consent

I love this post from the Fat Nutritionist about a couple where one is a picky eater and the other is a foodie and keeps pressuring her to try new things.

People have to come around to food in their own time. If they aren’t allowed to, if they are pressured or forced or coerced into trying something that they find intimidating, there is a very good chance they will not suddenly love that food, will not have the Foodie Switch in their brain flipped to the On position.

More likely, they will associate more anxiety with that food, not less, and it will probably taint the memory of the delicious thing you were hoping they’d enjoy.

So what do you do instead? I’m going to sound like a broken record, but: follow a Division of Responsibility.

Not the one for parents and children. The one that exists between adults.

As an adult, you are responsible for your own eating. The other adult is responsible for what, when, where, how much, and whether they eat. You can negotiate certain things — where and when are sometimes necessary to coordinate, and if you’re deciding on a restaurant or a recipe, some negotiation around what will also be useful. But you need to remember that any negotiations around what end at offering. Not ingestion.

What this means is, you can both decide on a place to eat, or a recipe to try, and you can put the food on the table and both sit down.

After that? You must chill.

No one has to put anything in their mouth or their stomach that they don’t want. To insist that they do is a serious boundary violation, and a breach of their bodily agency. There is a spectrum of not-okayness that starts with coaxing, wheedling, and pressuring someone to try something they don’t want, and ends with force-feeding. Don’t be that guy.

One of the many (many, many) ways our culture is screwed up around food is the idea that consent isn’t as important as getting someone to eat the “right” things. This shows up a lot in the idea that it’s healthy and normal to pressure someone to eat :healthy” or try to lose weight, but it’s also depressingly common in the pressure to try new foods, or to eat a wide range of things. There’s the assumption that a diet that includes sushi and Brussels sprouts and kimchee is both healthier and more grown up than one that doesn’t, and that it’s the more enlightened foodie’s job to show their picky partner the light. Oh, and the classism. Let’s not forget the classism. Fancy restaurants, exotic ingredients, even the ability to waste food if you ruin a recipe or end up not liking something—those are all privileges.

Also, I love the idea of applying the Division of Responsibility to adults, with each person having total control over what they eat. I think Michelle is absolutely right that wanting to control what someone is eating, even if it’s by “gentle” pressure, is not treating them as a competent adult. I like the extension of the Division of Responsibility as applied to adults. For kids, it’s pretty easy to make that distinction. The adults choose when, where, and what to offer, while the kid gets to decide if and how much they’ll eat. With adults, as Michele says, there can be negotiation around when and where for a shared meal, and even some negotiation around what, as long as it stops when the food goes on the table.

This got me thinking about how this gets worked out in relationships where one person does most or all of the cooking and one partner is very picky or has food restrictions. (These can be related—a lot of severe childhood pickiness results from choking incidents, and the pickiest person I know also has a long list of foods that will make her sick. When food can and has hurt you, it’s pretty understandable that you’d be wary about it from then on.)

If you’re splitting the cooking 50/50 (or thereabouts), this is pretty easy. When the picky/restricted person makes dinner, they know they’ll get food they like. And the more adventurous person has the option to include foods they like when they cook dinner, as long as they make sure there are also things the other person will eat.

If one person is doing the majority of the cooking, though, it gets more complex. Especially in situations where that division of labor is due to work/school schedules, illness or disability, or other things that make it harder for one person to cook. In general, I think the cook gets final say on what they serve. One of the trade-offs of not doing the work of cooking is giving up a certain amount of control over what gets made. (With the obvious caveat that making someone a meal that doesn’t include things you know they can/will eat is a jerk move.) But at the same time, if you’re preparing most of the meals that your partner eats, and they have food sensitivities or restrictions, I think you owe it to them to provide foods they can/will eat that meet their basic nutritional needs. I’d go beyond including one thing you know they’ll eat and say that at most meals, you should include carbs, proteins, and fats that you know they’ll eat. For example, let’s say the only protein they’ll generally eat is chicken, while you’d much rather have steak, or pork, or wild game. If you do breakfast and lunch on your own and split dinner 50/50, that’s only three meals out of twenty-one where they might miss a protein. Probably not a big deal, especially if some of those meals include other sources of protein like beans or dairy. But if you’re cooking every single meal, and a large portion of those don’t include a protein they’ll eat, that’s really not great. And would probably contribute to a stronger sense of insecurity around food and even less desire to try that awesome quail recipe you found.

The same goes for vegetables, although they tend to be higher on the pyramid of Satter’s Hierarchy of Food Needs, probably hanging out anywhere between “good-tasting,” “novel,” and “instrumental.” So, a meal with a veggie that you can’t eat is less of a big deal than a meal where you don’t get enough of the macronutrients to get you through to the next meal. Still, I think you should meet the person you’re cooking for halfway on veggies. If you don’t do veggies at all, and they need vegetables to feel like a meal is complete, then have a side salad or a simply cooked vegetable at most meals. Likewise, if they will only eat corn, peas, or carrots, you should offer one of those three at most meals if you’re doing the majority of the cooking.


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