How to Help an Adolescent who is a Picky Eater

Everyone has preferences on what foods they enjoy and what foods they don’t like. Children are no different! The American Academy of Pediatrics (2018) suggests that parents should offer a variety of foods to their children when they start introducing solids. (Information on introducing solids can be found here!)

But, parents of adolescents, who are well beyond the introduction to solid foods, may be wondering what they can do if their child is a picky eater?! Maybe your adolescent has issues with or concerns about trying different foods, or, maybe, they only want to eat their favorite foods. The good news is that there are strategies available to help you, the parent, encourage your older child to be more adventurous with food and to move towards eating a more balanced diet! Each tip, listed below, includes an example of how you can use the strategy presented and work with your adolescent to improve their food choices and eating habits.

Be Positive

Mealtimes can be a time for sharing and connecting. Try to stay positive and avoid becoming frustrated when your choosy eater insists on only eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or pasta with butter night after night. Instead, concentrate on the conversation, so your child can see that mealtimes are pleasant and positive times that do not need to be stressful or full of conflict. Keep your conversation engaging, and focus on topics that your child is interested in. Don’t mention worries or struggles around eating, just allow mealtime to be an engaging social time that encourages connection.

Consider trying the strategy outlined below:
Sit down in a specific place (e.g., kitchen table) that is away from screens for your family meals. Ask for each member to share one positive experience they had that day. Try to focus on how that experience made each person feel, and allow the conversation to flow.  Doing this allows everyone to focus on the social interaction they are experiencing, and bonding that can come as a result, and to shift their attention away from any negative thoughts about food.

Talk About It

Have conversations about food with your child at times when you are not eating. Talk to them about what they like and why they like it. Have them describe the different textures, smells, and tastes that they enjoy. Have them describe the feeling or taste with words other than “yucky” or “gross” (Cleveland Clinic, 2022), so you both understand what they like and why they like it. Knowing this can help you find new foods that may be similar to what they already enjoy and find pleasant to eat (AAP, 2018).

Consider trying one of the strategies listed below:
Identify your child’s favorite foods. What do they like about those foods? Try offering descriptive words like salty, crunchy, smooth, sweet, and warm. Mention other foods that fit their descriptions, and make a plan to try a few of these new foods in a taste-testing experiment and include the whole family.  For example, your child may tell you they like how crunchy chips or pretzels are. So, try offering vegetable or fruit chips to match the crunchiness that they like.

Identify a food your child says they do not like. Have they actually tried it? If they have, what about it did they not like? Maybe they didn’t like how lumpy it was, or, maybe, the texture was strange to them. If they have not tried the food, ask them why. What is it about the food item that makes them not want to try it? Can you find any foods that they do like that are similar? For example, your child may not want to try broccoli, but they do like cauliflower. You can show them how they look and feel similar!

Let Them Help

Look through kid friendly cookbooks with your adolescent for recipes (make sure there are pictures to go with the recipe), and find something that your child wants to make with you. Remind them that you both will, at least, try a bite. When you go to the grocery store, ask your child to help pick out the ingredients for the recipe they’ve chosen. This allows them to feel some control over what they eat and can make them excited about the food they are willing to try (AAP, 2018). Make sure that you are willing to try new food recipes and food items with them (McCarthy, 2020).

Consider trying the strategy outlined below:
With your child, prepare a recipe that includes one of your child’s favorite foods with a food that your child wants to try. For example, if your child likes alfredo sauce with pasta, consider adding in a vegetable they are willing to try, like broccoli. Or, if your child really enjoys pizza, have them pick out a new vegetable that they can add to their favorite toppings. Allow them to have some control over what they eat, but still limit their choices to ensure that they are making healthier decisions

If you feel like your child is not receiving the correct nutrients or may be underweight due to their picky eating behaviors, contact your child’s pediatrician.

Experimenting with new foods can help encourage children to become more adventurous eaters and can add some fun and family connection to help make mealtimes enjoyable for the entire family. Your child will not like every food they try; you don’t like all foods either. But, keep exploring ways to offer new choices so your child can see that new foods don’t have to be scary, and that you respect their choices and boundaries along the way!

References

American Academy of Pediatrics. (2018, April 26). 10 tips for parents of picky eaters. Healthy Children. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/toddler/nutrition/Pages/Picky-Eaters.aspx

American Academy of Pediatrics. (2018), September 10). Tips for feeding picky eaters. Healthy Children. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/healthy-living/nutrition/Pages/Picky-Eaters.aspx

American Academy of Pediatrics. (n.d.) Recipes. Healthy Children. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/healthy-living/nutrition/chop-chop-magazine/Pages/default.aspx

Cleveland Clinic. (2022, May 9). How to deal with a picky eater toddler. Health Essentials. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/how-to-overcome-your-childs-picky-eating-habits/

McCarthy, C. (2020, June 23). Study gives insight – and advice – on picky eating in children. Harvard Health Blog. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/study-gives-insight-and-advice-on-picky-eating-in-children-2020060920004

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