“Help, my teenager refuses to eat what I cook!” While it can be frustrating to still have a picky eater when your child is a tween or teen, there’s a lot you can do to help them eat new foods. Learn how with these 5 powerful tips…
You’ve been told, and probably hoped, that by the time your child was a teenager their picky eating would be a thing of the past, but that’s not always the case. Picky eating doesn’t just go away for some tweens and teens. And, with very little advice available on how to help teenage picky eaters, you may feel hopeless.
BUT, there is still time and ways to help your teenager learn to eat new foods!
While I’ve worked with teens as an occupational therapist, the focus of that treatment admittedly wasn’t picky eating. However, over the years, I’ve learned a lot about supporting teens through some of our Mealtime Works students.
Some teen parents have turned to our picky eating program that’s usually only for kids through 10-ish years old because there simply aren’t other resources. In adapting some of my most trans-formative strategies to teens and tweens, they’ve had fantastic progress.
Aren’t Teenagers Supposed to Have Outgrown Picky Eating?
Having a teenager picky eater is usually down right frustrating and even annoying.
You’re not alone if you’re scratching your head about why your kid is still a picky eater after all these years.
I’m sure you worried plenty when they were younger. I bet you were told that they’d grow out of it and yet here they are at 13, 14, 15, and 16 years old, still refusing to eat that chicken you just slaved over.
Unfortunately, the popular “they’ll outgrow picky eating” advice is often wrong. Unless we start to do something different that we’ve ever done before, lots of kids will turn into picky eating teens and even adults.
Why Are Some Teens Still Picky Eaters?
Teenagers have logic on their side, and it seems at their age you can reason with them. Help them understand that they need this food to grow and feel well, but when a teen has a history of picky eating, especially extreme picky eaters, there are other factors in play. Often lying beneath the surface.
Extreme picky eaters are kids that typically have less than 25 foods in their diet and have an extreme reaction to new foods (think gagging, flipping out, and refusing to even come to the table).
When kids are extreme picky eaters, it’s not just a developmental phase. There’s a lot more to it than that. Often difficulty chewing, food sensitivities, reflux, or texture issues with food (aka sensory processing) make it extremely difficult for a child to eat new foods.
For some teens and tweens, those challenges haven’t been resolved and they continue to be picky eaters.
For others who have worked through some of those challenges, all of the negative food associations remain in their mind, even on a subconscious level.
My Teenager Refuses to Eat What I Cook!
It may seem like a small thing to consider, but getting to the root of why your child is a picky eater lets you know exactly how to help them. For instance, if they are still sensitive to textures, you can work on that by slowly desensitizing them with cooking, art activities that get them messy, and even yard work if it involves digging in dirt or sand!
Or, if they’re still struggling with reflux, you can address that with a doctor or nutritionist so they can get relief.
That’s one part of the solution, but to help you move past saying, “My teenager refuses to eat what I cook!”, you’ll need a few other tips too.
Powerful Tips for Picky Eating Teen or Tweens
#1. End the battle
Often times picky eating teens and parents have developed a mealtime battleground dynamic. The parent is frustrated and worried about their nutrition so they prod their teen to try the food or tell them why they don’t like it. Parents may tell them why they think they’ll like it and even still try to bribe them with dessert.
All of these tactics lead to teens feeling defensive and misunderstood. That directly equates to them NOT trying any new foods.
At the next meal with your teenager, notice how often you say something in an effort to get them to eat. Watch how they respond verbally and with body language. You’ll see what I mean.
Stopping any pressure is a powerful first step that will eventually lead to your tween or teen feeling comfortable enough to try a bite of something new. It may take a few days, weeks, or in some cases months, but it’s totally necessary.
#2. Don’t Praise
When your teenager does finally take a bite of some new food, you’ll want to rejoice or say something like, “Oh wow, you tried the cherries, I told you they were good.”
Act like you could care less.
Pretend not to notice.
Teens HATE when the spotlight is on them and most don’t like admitting when their parents were right. They don’t want it to be a big deal that they tried something new, so as much as you want to acknowledge it or teach them that they can now try other foods too, it will only backfire because they will deliberately avoid trying a new food in front of you again.
#3. Converse, Don’t Lecture
While I don’t recommend lecturing your child on nutrition or why they should eat more foods (this causes them to feel pressure), there is a way to talk to your child about food, but you have to be careful.
Teens are excellent at sniffing out hidden motives, which is why this can’t be forced. Instead you’ve got to wait for the opportunity.
As you take the pressure off and your teen begins to trust that you aren’t going to lecture them, they’ll likely ask you a question about food. It could be, “how did you make this chicken” or “why do you like your toast so burnt?”
This is your chance to nonchalantly talk about an ingredient of food or a preference that you might have for a taste or texture. You might say, “Oh, I used a little balsamic vinaigrette on the chicken, that’s why it looks a little darker. It’s a brown vinegar, but has a sweet and tangy taste to it a little like barbecue (or some other food their familiar with). Feel free to use ranch (or any dip they may like) with it.”
Or, “I’ve always liked my toast very crispy. I love crispy foods like roasted chick peas, kale chips, and nuts because they’re so crunchy. How do crispy foods feel to you?”
In this second example, you’re opening a conversation, and if your teen doesn’t ask any questions, you could just share this info with them sporadically off the cuff. The key is to not do it too often.
Focus on talking about foods and preferences neutrally, not labeling good/bad or like/dislike. Explaining textures and ingredients helps teens draw connections and process their own experiences with food. This is incredibly valuable because it often leads to them being comfortable enough to try new foods.
#4. Menu Plan and Cook Together
Listen, I know that menu planning may make your anxiety rise if you’re not a planner, but don’t skip this step if you’re struggling to get your teen to eat any new foods. It’s an effective tool in your bag of tricks and you don’t need to do it forever.
Pick a day on the weekend to start planning out at least your dinners for the week (one day ahead of time or monthly is an option too), and pencil in some ideas. Invite your teen to contribute. If they refuse, remind them that they get to have some say in what’s in a meal. This is often motivating. Grab some magazines or scroll Pinterest for ideas.
Put some parameters on the meal like it needs to include a protein, fruit/veggies, and a carb, which could be totally optional.
Then, ask them to pick 1-2 meals they can help you cook. Try to keep this light and casual, but for teens that aren’t interested, you can make it part of their chores.
If they’re nervous about touching or smelling any ingredients, reassure them they don’t have to do anything they’re not comfortable with. Follow through on that when it comes time to cook, BUT over time, you want to help them take baby steps to get more comfortable with the food. If they can’t stand cutting up the broccoli, can they get it out of the fridge? Can they wash it off?
Any interaction they can have with food will help them get closer to eating it, and cooking together also creates an awesome time to converse neutrally about food (see tip #3)
#5. Tap Into Their Interests
Teens are often fixated on something whether it’s skateboarding, makeup, or their favorite Netflix show. Use that to your advantage.
Mary, a Mealtime Works student with a teen daughter, leveraged her daughters love of Korean boy bands to help her try new foods. Even though her daughter was very picky, her deep interest in this music allowed her to be open to trying Korean food – the food the boy band ate!
If they faithfully watch a TV show, maybe you can find out what one of the actors likes to eat? Bring it up casually saying something like, “Oh I read that Noah Schnapp from Stanger Things eats chicken wings before every shoot. I’m going to make some for dinner tomorrow.”
Don’t follow that up with, “Maybe you want to try some?”
That’s putting on the pressure and setting the stage for a battle (tip #1). It’s critical that this is casual!
What to Do If Your Teen Is Obsessed With Junk Food
It’s common for teens to want to gorge themselves on chips, cookies, and candy. It’s worrisome when they aren’t eating anything else, but be very careful in labeling these foods as bad or unhealthy because it tends to make teens want them even more.
For some teenagers and tweens, it causes confusion and guilt and can lead to eating disorders.
If you’re concerned about the amount of junk food your child is eating, buy less of it and look at labels to make choices you can feel better about. Just make sure that your child has enough food choices that they will actually eat in your home. It can be very stressful if they feel they don’t have food they can eat.
Experiment with healthier snack foods like roasted chick peas, homemade granola, nuts, fruit, and plantain chips. Make these available, and set them out before they go rummaging for a snack.
Affiliate links used below. See our full disclosure.
A Great Book For Picky Eating Teens
As I mentioned earlier, there’s not a lot of resources for helping picky eating teens, so I wanted to make sure I shared this excellent book by two feeding experts Katja Rowell and Jenni McGlothlin:
I highly recommend this workbook style guide to help your teen understand and work through some of the difficulties they face when trying to eat new foods.
Now I want to hear from YOU, what foods would you like your teen to eat? And, if this was helpful, let me know that too in the comments below so I can share more to help picky eating teens and tweens!
More on Picky Eating
Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 15 years experience with expertise in sensory processing and feeding development in babies, toddlers, and children. Alisha also has 3 boys of her own at home. Learn more about her here.