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A spirited defense of picky eaters

I'm no fussier about what I eat than my health-conscious friends.

(Paul J. Richards/AFP via Getty Images)

Along with red, white and blue decor, the summer BBQ scene is dominated by the sweet charred smell of grilled meat and the sight of glistening fresh fruit. There’s a cadence to the grill: Sausages fall into buns, ketchup squirts and a slop of coleslaw finishes it off. Punch bowls of watermelon and guacamole nestle next to veggie skewers, stacks of burgers and a giant jar of pickles on the table.

And I don’t eat any of it. As a vegetarian with particular tastes, I eat only the bun, occasionally with a lone pepper garnish. I knew in advance what my meal would look like. Summer BBQs tend to be meat fests, and I’m okay chilling with a bread roll as long as I get a glass of wine to go with it and no one force-feeds me a portabello. But my friends aren’t. They call me “picky,” “fussy” and “awkward” when all I do is accommodate their food choices.

Sometimes it comes from a misplaced sense of concern. “Have you eaten enough?” one friend says solicitously. “We have salads and things” — she waves to a small table in the corner sporting wilted lettuce, a quinoa something and crudites and dip. I beam back, “I’m fine, really. This is a great night.”

She eyed my slim roll sympathetically. “You could have another bun,” she says, and I shake my head. I might not be 100 percent full, but I’m not starving enough to consume another tepid roll. If there was a table full of hot vegetarian options, I’d be digging in, but that’s usually not the case at such events.

Friends and strangers seem to take an unusual delight in quizzing me on what I will and will not eat. As well as being vegetarian, I also have a number of foods I abstain from. I don’t like mushrooms (too soft), olives (too bitter), tomatoes, strawberries, bananas, kiwis, oranges, mangoes, asparagus — the list goes on.

It’s not easy to be so particular. In 2015, the American Academy of Pediatrics published a report by Duke University in which researchers analyzed the impact of picky eating on the psychological welfare of 917 children. “Both moderate and severe levels of Selective Eating were associated with psychopathological symptoms (anxiety, depression, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) both concurrently and prospectively,” they wrote. You can see how this might extrapolate to adults, and why it’s important that people suffering from extreme eating apathy get looked after.

I like to be accommodating — I don’t think people should have to miss out on their fun just because I won’t partake in everything. But I don’t call other people “picky” if they choose to forgo a night of moonlight kayaking in Oakland, Calif., or prefer to stay in and watch “Game of Thrones” instead of going to a slam poetry night with me. I accept their response and respect their wishes. But I don’t get that in return.

And I’m sick of defending myself. Vegetarianism is hardly a new concept. Sure, I’m particular, but so what? A full 26 percent of Americans identify as picky eaters. Why should I have to list everything I do eat to appease some bizarre concern that I’m nutritionally deficit? Honestly, I’m not that different from a “regular” eater — and I have the data to prove it. To make my point, I analyzed the dinner menu from the popular chain restaurant Ruby Tuesday.

Ruby Tuesday lists 84 options on its dinner menu, not counting salads. Twenty of the menu items are vegetarian: five mains and 15 sides. This gives me 23.8 percent of the menu to pick from. However, my friend Thad, a hard-core carnivore, approached the menu with 100 percent of it at his disposal. But he’s watching his weight, so he discounts everything breaded, and he has been feeling a little gassy, so he cuts anything spicy out as well. Once that’s factored in, Thad is left with 69 dishes — 82.1 percent of everything on the menu. But now Thad realizes that a lot of things that aren’t breaded are still fried, and he decides to cut those out, too. This drops him to 55 dishes, 65.5 percent of what’s available. And Thad hasn’t been picky or odd; he’s just being health-conscious.

Back to me: I have 20 dishes and 23.8 percent. Let’s factor in my stipulations. I don’t like mushrooms, and I’m trying to stay away from cheese and fries. So this leaves me with 10 items, total. That’s 11.9 percent overall — but what’s more telling is that it’s 50 percent of what was available for vegetarians. Consider Thad, the “non-picky” eater. He discarded 29 dishes as they didn’t fit his diet, leaving him with 65.4 percent overall — only a little higher than my 50 percent, and he had a lot more choices to begin with.

So why am I a picky eater and Thad isn’t? I’d argue I’m not — it just seems that way as I’m working with a smaller subset of choices. Overall, I cut 10 meals, and he cut 29 — which seems to put him on the picky side, if we’re going to label here. But I don’t want to label. I think that giving people titles isn’t helpful and just causes angst.

And though people’s comments are often qualified as concern, how does a friend’s or stranger’s diet really affect you? Sure, paleo or gluten-free diets might be difficult to cater for at a dinner party, but if they’re abstaining from dairy, that just means more icy-cold goodness for you.

Forget fastidiously monitoring people’s plates and focus on their conversation — which is the reason you’re hanging out with them after all.