College is often considered a time of self-discovery, independence and new experiences! However, for some students, it can also be a period of unique challenges, especially when it comes to food. Picky eaters often find themselves struggling with various issues related to their eating challenges, and picky eating in college is not as uncommon as you may think.
Challenges Faced by Picky Eaters in College
Limited Food Options
Many adult picky eaters have self-identified that they consume a decreased variety of foods, including fewer fruits and vegetables (Zickgraf & Schepps, 2016), and are more likely to reject foods with specific textures, with sauces, or specific flavor profiles (Kauer et al., 2015). While college dining halls typically offer a variety of dishes, food is often pre-prepared (and there are limited options when it comes to cooking yourself sometimes!). Picky eaters may find themselves limited to a small selection of foods they are comfortable with and many picky eaters in college have self-reported having fewer options available to them, leading to a lack of variety in their diet and potential nutritional concerns (Dial et al., 2021).
College is a time for social interaction and forming connections, and these interactions are often centered around meals. According to Dial et al. (2021), picky eating behaviors are positively associated with social phobia and distress. Although there was no data to measure whether or not their social phobia is specific to eating or if it pours into other social situations, picky eaters self-reported “difficulties during mealtimes and situations like selecting restaurants and preparing food for holidays” (Dial et al., 2021).
Picky eaters may feel isolated or excluded from social gatherings because they are hesitant to join their peers at the cafeteria, at restaurants, or at friend’s houses for social events. The fear of judgment or the awkwardness of explaining their dietary challenges can lead to a sense of loneliness.
Restrictive diets due to picky eating can sometimes lead to nutritional deficiencies. Picky eaters may miss out on essential nutrients, affecting their overall health and well-being.
Regardless of how the individual’s eating affects the person, here are a few tips I recommend to young adults who experience picky eating:
- Work with your parent(s) to set up a food stock of “easy” and “prepackaged” foods. Maintaining a well-stocked pantry will help to ensure you have food options readily available in the event that the dining hall isn’t serving anything you like. This is especially valuable as access to grocery stores and transportation options can be limited in college.
- Gradually expose yourself to dining out by visiting restaurants near your home when you can be accompanied by a parent or close friend. Most college towns have similar restaurants – Chipotle, Subway, Jimmy Johns, etc. Finding at least one item you can comfortably eat at a few restaurants and practicing eating in a restaurant setting with familiar individuals can help alleviate anxiety when dining out in new locations or with new people.
- Practice eating your preferred foods in new environments before you leave. It’s likely that you will need to eat in many different environments once going to college; eating exclusively in your room may not always be feasible, which is why it’s important to practice!
- Try to establish a consistent eating schedule. In college, your parents won’t be available to remind you to eat, and therefore it’s up to you. Alarms on your phone are an easy and convenient method for establishing and maintaining an eating schedule! This can be helpful for individuals who don’t experience hunger cues to let them know they need to eat a snack or meal.
Support Is Available
If you are a picky eater in college struggling with limited food options and nutritional concerns or social phobia, it’s important to recognize that help and support are available. Being a picky eater in college can be a challenging journey. It’s important to remember that you are not alone and that there are resources and strategies available to help you overcome these obstacles. By seeking support and gradually expanding your food repertoire (or finding small successes that are not necessarily food related!), you can navigate college with confidence and find a healthy balance between your dietary challenges and social interactions. College is already about growth, and with the right mindset and support, you can also find success in navigating picky eating.
Kelly is a Speech Language Pathologist in Lake Nona who specializes in providing therapy and coaching to teens and young adults with feeding challenges. She prides herself on individualizing therapy sessions so that you meet your goals, regardless of the focus of your goals. That may be expanding your food repertoire, ordering something off a restaurant’s menu, or just appreciating your food preferences so that you can be present at social events. Find us on Facebook and Instagram to learn more about Kelly’s services and hypnosis at www.pickyeatersonline.com.