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. Strong aversions to foods or preferences can make mealtime a daily struggle.
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. These nutritional deficiencies can lead to reduced cognitive functioning, lower energy levels and increased fatigue, lower sleep quality, and more, which can negatively impact their academic performance during college.
Social Phobia & Tips to Help
Social phobia, also known as social anxiety disorder, can exacerbate the challenges faced by picky eaters. This mental health condition is characterized by an intense fear of social situations and a strong desire to avoid them. When applied to food choices, social phobia can manifest in several ways:
Regardless of how the individual’s social phobia manifests itself, here are a few tips I recommend to young adults who experience picky eating:
I highly recommend using books as resources for young adults who are picky eaters. Books, in addition to therapy and/or coaching, can provide practical guidance and strategies to help you expand your palate and take control of your feeding journey. Here are just a couple I often recommend: Conquering Picky Eating for Teens and Adults: Activities and Strategies for Selective Eaters and Picky Eater: 32 Insights, Lessons, and Guidelines When They Haven’t “Grown Out of It”.
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 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. Contact Kelly at Picky Eaters Online to get your questions answered and to take the first step towards your journey, You can contact Kelly and Picky Eaters Online at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out her website at https://pickyeatersonline.com/ to book a free consultation.
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Zickgraf HF, Schepps K. Fruit and vegetable intake and dietary variety in adult picky eaters. Food Qual Prefer. 2016; 54:39–50.
Kauer J, Pelchat ML, Rozin P, Zickgraf, HF. Adult picky eating. Phenomenology, taste sensitivity, and psychological correlates. Appetite. 2015; 90:219–228.
Dial, LA, Jordan, A, Emley, E, Angoff, HD, Varga, AV, Musher-Eizenman, DR. Consequences of picky eating in college students. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. 2021; 53:822-831.