How to Deal with a Teenage Picky Eater

It's important to address your teen's nutritional needs when you're dealing with a picky eater.
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The Internet is rife with advice about how to deal with picky eaters—as long as those picky eaters are toddlers or in elementary school. However, a picky eater doesn’t necessarily change his tune when he’s hit puberty.

In fact, some picky eaters grow worse as they grow older. But there’s not as much advice out there for making sure a teenager gets the nutrients they need if they’re not willing to eat what you put in front of them.

The good news, however, is that a teenager is much more capable than a 4-year-old of feeding himself. This means that the pressure is off of you to make sure he doesn’t starve. But, if you want to ensure that your teen has a semblance of nutritional adequacy in his diet, you might need to take heed of a few pieces of advice when it comes to dealing with picky teenagers.

Rule Out Medical Problems

Just as if you were dealing with a picky child, it’s possible that your teen isn’t trying to be defiant. Sensory disorders can cause problems with textures of certain foods. Therefore, your teen’s refusal to eat cooked vegetables, might not just be due to stubbornness.

Talk to your teen’s pediatrician to rule out any serious disorders—silent reflux or occlusive adenoids and tonsils, to name two possibilities—that might need treatment. If necessary, a specialist can work with your teen to help desensitize textures, smells or tastes and increase the variety of food she will eat.

You should also rule out mental health problems. Eating disorders and body image issues often become apparent during adolescence. Changes in diet or the refusal to eat certain foods can be a red flag.

Eat a Family Meal

If your teen doesn’t have to eat in front of you, then it’s pretty easy for him to get it past you that he’s rarely putting a carrot in his mouth.

If you sit down to dinner as a family, though, then you can much more easily monitor his eating habits. While you still won’t necessarily know if he’s chowing down on candy bars and sports drinks after school, you’ll at least know whether he’s taking an extra helping of roasted broccoli or steamed carrots at dinner.

A family dinner is also the time to try out new foods—served alongside old favorites to create a positive connection—and see if you can “beat” her pickiness. You never know when you’ll discover a new family favorite out of a dish that you thought your teen would turn up her nose to.

Talk about Nutrition

Another benefit of a picky teenager—as opposed to a 5-year-old—is that you can talk to him about why a healthy diet matters. Appeal to your teen based on her interests, such as athletic performance for a winning game or cognitive function for better grades.

If a teen can make a connection between how whole grains and lean protein make her perform better in the area of her life that she truly cares about, then she’s more likely to make an effort to try the foods that she might have tossed away in the past.

Give the Teen Responsibility for Meals

If your teen doesn’t like what you make for meals, assign him the responsibility of preparing dinner once a week. Give him some parameters such as one protein, one green and one starch —in other words, he’s not allowed to order pizza or simply serve spaghetti with jarred sauce and nothing else—and bring him grocery shopping with you.

While you’re there, suggest that he picks out one new vegetable to try that week. It might not appeal to the teen as much as a child gets excited about picking out a new food, but helping him see how you select ingredients and the work you put into preparing meals could mean that he doesn’t turn his nose up to it as easily.

At some point, you have to come to terms with reality. If your teenager doesn’t like beans, it’s likely that he never will—until he becomes an adult, and his palate expands yet again.

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