Picky eating for many adolescents isn’t something they “just grow out of”; unless actively addressed and worked on, it can continue through teenage-hood and well into adulthood.
Picky eating is a problem when it interferes with your adolescent or teen’s social life (for example, not wanting to be with friends if they’re eating), emotional wellbeing, or they’re not eating from all food groups or avoid particular textures. If your adolescent or teen doesn’t enjoy specific proteins, for example, or doesn’t eat most vegetables, that’s not necessarily a problem, though it can feel frustrating and stressful. Adolescents and teens are developmentally drawn to easy to prepare and enjoy foods and need time and modeling to expand their food intake. It’s important to create an environment that supports their learning and exploration.
If you believe picky eating is interfering with your adolescent or teen’s social life, emotional or physical wellbeing, or they are not eating from all food groups, your adolescent may require professional intervention and can benefit from working with a dietitian or therapist.
Here are six tips you can implement right now to help start your adolescent eating more.
Avoid guilting and shaming your adolescent
Eating and enjoying a variety of food takes time. Adolescents are drawn to high calorie and high carbohydrate foods to fuel their growth and development. They also may be more sensitive to and aware of tastes and textures, making it difficult to enjoy unfamiliar food. This won’t change with you shaming, guilting, or bribing your adolescent into eating new food.
Showing acceptance and giving your adolescent room to experiment is a much more effective way of supporting them to expand their diet.
Don’t label your adolescent “picky”
No one wants to be spoken about or given a label – it’s embarrassing! It also creates an expectation to live up to and solidifies “picky eating” as her identity. She will live up to this label! Instead, avoid commenting on her eating habits. If you must call it something, say she’s “learning”. This creates room for her to try new food and explore tastes and textures, without fear of commitment and being locked into changing out of comforting behaviours and patterns.
Create a positive eating environment
When adolescents feel anxious, their body’s stress response is heightened. They are primed to fight or flight with increased adrenaline and cortisol. Both these hormones suppress appetite. So if your table or environment is one of conflict or creates stress, by commenting on your adolescent’s eating, bribing, coercing etc., this will likely cause your adolescent to eat even less than usual.
By creating a stress-free environment- by allowing each person to serve themselves and decide how much of any food they want, avoiding pressure around eating new food or more food, and keeping conversation away from the food, your adolescent is more likely to experience success with eating.
Serve accepted foods at each meals and snacks
Including familiar or accepted foods that your adolescent generally eats and enjoys, calms the stress reaction mentioned above. Adolescents know there is food available for them to eat and enough to fill up on, and their fight or flight response is not activated. Once they are in a state of relaxation and feeling safe, they can be more likely to try other food.
Involve your teen with food prep and food exposure
This isn’t just for little kids! Adolescents too need to see a food and experience it slowly in order to get comfortable with it. Exposure can be looking at pictures on Pinterest or in cookbooks, watching YouTubes of animals eating food, or cooking shows or competitions. Growing a garden, grocery shopping, visiting a farm or farmer’s market, and even hanging out with you in the kitchen, are hands-on or off activities that can expose your adolescent to new or not-yet-liked food.
Build on the food your adolescent already eats.
Adolescents may be hesitant to try new food because they don’t know what it tastes like. Building on accepted food can help with this, as a form of bridging. This can look like trying a plant-based chicken nugget, fish stick, or breaded chicken if they’re comfortable eating chicken nuggets.
If they like roasted sweet potatoes, try roasting butternut squash, microwaving a sweet potato, or adding a bit of a new spice to the roasted sweet potato.
Dips are also a useful way of serving a new food. Allowing your adolescent to smother something in their dip of choice can make it less threatening, improve the taste experience, and be a stepping stone towards accepting that food.
While your adolescent is learning to eat and enjoy new food, they may not be eating much variety. That’s okay as long as they are eating enough to calorically meet their needs. Monitor their growth on their growth chart to ensure they are stable on their trajectory. If they are faltering, a supplement may be necessary as they gradually increase their intake.
Remember, we’re working on the long-term goal of improving your adolescent’s relationship with food, which can in turn lead to increasing variety.