“What’s the first thing you think of when you hear ‘Alicia’ and ‘food?’” I casually asked my friend, Caroline, in the car. “PICKY!” she exclaimed, laughing. I rolled my eyes and looked out the window, smiling as I considered this. We and five of our other friends were en route to a quick weekend getaway in Maine filled with some much-needed swimming, canoeing, paddle boarding, relaxing—and most importantly for my friend group, cooking.
Despite the short duration of our vacation, we had packed the bed of a big black Toyota Tundra with enough groceries to last a week. Oat milk, gluten-free pasta, clarified butter, almond butter—you know, the essentials. When a nutrition major, a person with celiac, a vegetarian, two Paleo-enthusiasts, and a self-proclaimed “picky-eater” get together, the menu for group dinners has a restriction or two. Our meals are often gluten-free, dairy-free, and added-sugar free, but surprisingly, they are anything but bland.
Each morning, we ate avocado toast with Everything But the Bagel seasoning, or coconut milk yogurt with strawberries, blueberries, and granola. For lunch, we made kale salads with seasoned shrimp, fresh off the grill. Dinners took the most preparation and were always my favorite part of the day. The first night, we had a Spain-themed dinner, complete with a vegetable paella and a variety of tapas—bruschetta, serrano ham, brie, and oven-roasted brussel sprouts. All of us have spent some time in Spain at some point, and paella and tapas hold a special place in our hearts. On night two, we made a rice pasta dish with peppers, tomatoes, onions, and Rao’s tomato sauce, which more than justifies its price with the absence of added sugars.
Although I ate almost all of this, my friends still call me picky. It is definitely true that as an opinionated, particular child, I declared early on that I would not eat cheese, sandwiches, soda, eggs, and other common foods. In fact, when I was younger, it was easier to list the things I wouldn’t eat than the things I would. To this day I still don’t like any of the foods on that list, but my palette and willingness to try new foods have drastically improved. While there are a lot of factors at play in this widening of my culinary horizons, the biggest one is the strong influence of my friends.
Due to allergies, intolerances, and just general preferences, the vast majority of my hometown friends eat an objectively healthy, clean diet of whole foods. However, most of them did not always eat this way. As kids who grew up on sugary cereals for breakfast, the switch to avocado toast as adults was a big one. On one of our cloudy Maine mornings, I sat down with my friend Caroline, the nutrition major, to unpack the reasons for her personal health-food transformation.
“Food is medicine,” she told me, in reference to the time her doctor told her she could be on the path to diabetes if she kept eating the way she had been. With the switch to a healthier lifestyle (which included changes in her activity level in addition to modifying her eating habits), she noticed a reduction in joint pain and a better sense of overall well-being. This did not entail diets, which she called “unsustainable,” criticizing the role of targeted marketing and the promise of quick weight loss with too much restriction and rigidity. “It’s about finding the alternatives,” she said, “Eating as much as you want, but of the right, whole foods.”
Last summer, my friends and I decided to embark on a health-food expedition. Grocery shopping, meal-prepping, and cooking became exciting hobbies to fill the precious gaps in our otherwise overlapping schedules. Due to a mix of advice we’d heard and articles we’d read, we decided to try “food combining.” When preparing our group dinners during this time, we tried something completely new to me — steering away from pairing starches and proteins and instead placing vegetables at the center of the meal. Picky eaters tend to cling onto the things we do like, and we are often afraid to switch up our daily diets. I have always liked most meats, and my previous vision of a meal typically included meat, starch, and vegetables. I quickly learned I do not always need meat to feel full, and healthy pasta dishes with veggies are just as satisfying as pasta with chicken or meat sauce, for example.
With a (more than a few) “gentle” pushes from my friends, I tried things I’d never dream of putting in my mouth before: zucchini noodles, kale chips, chickpea pasta, kombucha, the list goes on. Most notably, the discovery of gluten-free toast with almond butter and fruit, or with avocado and tomatoes, has opened my eyes to a whole new world of breakfast foods and snacks. Following the summer, the specific guidelines of the “food combining” cleanse didn’t necessarily stick, but my new-found zest for finding healthy alternatives revolutionized the way I think about food, and transformed my eating habits in a sustainable way.
Everytime I cook now, I ask myself “what is the healthiest and tastiest way I can make this dish?” For example, when I stir-fry chicken, I tend to use liquid aminos rather than soy sauce for a lower sodium option. Each time I bake, I use recipes with almond flour and coconut sugar (I swear paleo brownies are better than the regular ones!). With the help and support of my friends, I expanded my ingredient repertoire. I discovered if I cooked my own food, I could pick the ingredients I wanted to pick, enjoying the taste more and feeling better both physically and emotionally as a result. I fell in love with the healthier alternatives, loving them both for the way they made my body feel and their clean, fresh tastes.
Today, I don’t focus too much on the “rules.” If I feel like having ice cream, I don’t criticize myself for breaking the goal of eating mostly dairy-free. I am not fully “free” of any food group, but rather, I am conscious of my overall food choices and find healthier and tastier alternatives when available. While I’m sure many people would still call me “picky,” I don’t completely agree with that anymore. Sure, I’m never going to like cheese, but my palette has expanded dramatically, and in an absolutely positive direction—much of which can be attributed to the strong role models I have in my friends. As we sat around the camping table filled with colorful, well-balanced plates in Maine, I felt so much gratitude for my friends’ beneficial influence on my eating habits. I’m still picky, but at least now I’m picking the things that feel right to me!