How to Deal with a Picky Eater Teen

I was once introduced on television as the “Picky Eater Whisperer”, and this nick-name caught on like wildfire.

I now get questions all the time from parents who struggle with everything from feeling like a short order cook to getting angry about food waste at mealtimes.

I wrote a recent post that I think will really help parents with younger children, as the advice is playful and age appropriate.  Additionally, in this recent article that I wrote for Naturally Savvy, I suggest presenting younger kids with “Rainbows on a Stick” since young children LOVE eating the rainbow and also love finger foods.

But what about teens? Rainbows and finger foods might not do the trick at this age. Since my own two children are now teens, I will provide some advice on what works for this age group.  I've organized my advice into three tips.

Tip #1: Find another messenger.  Advice from mom and dad might not be the most popular, especially during those tumultuous teenage years.  In fact, whatever you as the parent pushes just might be the exact thing that you teen rejects.  So don't push healthy eating on your teen, please.  If your teen needs to clean up their eating, enlist the help of another trusted adult who can help deliver the message.  Examples include coaches, school counselors, teachers, aunts, uncles, or anyone that your teen trusts and looks up to.  Don't ask that this person become your puppet by any means, but have a friendly conversation about your concerns relative to your teen and see if they have any ideas about how to provide some advice when the time is right. These outside, objective viewers often know better how to inject a little advice without coming across as an authority figure or too heavy handed.  The lighter the touch, the greater the impact.

Tip #2: Provide a sense of control.  Teens want to feel like they are fully in charge of themselves.  As much as you can get out of their way and let them do things themselves, the better.  So leave cut up veggies such as carrot sticks, celery sticks, washed snap peas and washed cherry tomatoes right where they will see them when they are in the kitchen.  I employ this strategy all the time.  The chances of bagged snap peas in the refrigerator produce drawer being eaten? Slim to none.  The chances of washed snap peas in a bowl on the counter or the kitchen table getting eaten?  Almost 100%. Try this technique out for yourself and see!

Remember that at this age, you as the parent are still in control of what is purchased at the store and what is available to be eaten under your roof.  So take a careful inventory of what you are buying and make sure that you are not part of the problem. A lot of parents that tell me that they have picky eater kids supply lots of easy to grab (and fill up on) items like cookies, crackers, and granola bars in their homes. No wonder the teen doesn't like/eat the carefully presented healthy meal!  They have been snacking all day and are full of “fillers”.  Just remind yourself that your teen will eat whatever is easy to get their hands on, and their hunger is not always set for mealtimes.  Besides the cut-up and easy to grab veggie strategy, here are other ways to have easy “healthy grabs” for your teen:
-Have a slow cooker going with a yummy soup or stew.  Leave a ladle and bowl out to make it even easier to eat as your teen passes through the kitchen
-If you have a warming drawer, leave high protein items like chicken, fish or meat for your teen to eat.  Leave out a plate a a fork and maybe even an appealing picture of the food (for example, if you followed a recipe and have the photo of the food you prepared)
-To encourage healthy drinking, have lemon/lime wedges (or cucumber slices, watermelon cubes, or any flavoring your teen prefers) ready to plop in a glass of water.  Don't buy soda or other sugary drinks.

Check out this teen cookbook from a program I did through my non-profit work with Nurture.

Tip #3: Get to the root of their behavior motivation.  Every teen has a different driving force that they are particularly connected to.  For my daughter, it is her desire to do well in school.  For my son, it it is his desire to have lots of energy for long mountain bike rides. I pepper my conversations about food with my teens with tidbits related to their motivational drivers.  For example, I might make note of how a certain food is a “brain food” around my daughter (example include low mercury fish, nuts, and berries). For my son, I talk about how protein helps to build muscle (and make sure to give him examples of what food items contain protein– see below).

If you have teens, they are old enough to have some basic education about food and nutrition. So now, I will provide a little further education that you can pass on your teen.  I'll share with you an article I wrote along with nutrition expert Kristen Ide for Healthy Kids Ideas Exchange:


I grew up with a biochemist (my wonderful dad) constantly saying, “make sure you eat enough protein!”.  I always try to make sure that I’m eating protein throughout the day, and that my kids/teens are too, but what is the right amount?  Why is protein so important?  How can you be sure that you and your kids/teens are getting enough protein every day?  To help us answer these questions, I asked UIC dietetics student Kristen Ide.  She has provided us with a lot of great information, supplemented by recipe links and daily meal plans.

The Importance of Protein, by Kristen Ide, MPH

Chances are, you have heard about protein.  You know you need to eat it.  You probably at one point in time have also worried about whether or not your child/teen is getting enough of it.   But what is it and why is it important?  Protein makes up the building blocks for our body.  It builds the tissues in our body like muscle, and organs like our heart.  It also helps in other roles like transporting oxygen to breathe, and maintaining our immune system to fight disease.  It is even in our DNA!  The protein in our body is constantly breaking down, which is why it is essential to make sure we eat enough protein to replace it.

When protein is consumed, our body breaks it down into smaller units called amino acids.  The amino acids are what our body uses to replace the muscle and tissues in our body.  Scientists have discovered 22 different amino acids.  Some are much more important than others.  Many of those we don’t need to worry about because our body can automatically make them.  However, there are 8 amino acids that our body can’t make.  Those are considered “essential” because our body requires us to eat them.

Now why am I telling you about amino acids?  For the simple reason that different foods contain different types.  Protein can be found in a variety of foods including eggs, meats, dairy, vegetables, beans, nuts, and seeds.  The foods that contain all of your essential amino acids are animal sources which include beef, fish, poultry, eggs, and dairy products.  Vegetable protein, which includes beans, nuts, seeds, and soy, is considered incomplete because it is missing at least one of the 8 essential amino acids.  However, even if these are your only sources of protein, you can still get what you need by mixing it up.  As each food contains different amino acids, by mixing it up and eating a variety of foods, you can still get what you need for your body to function properly.

For our children/teens, protein is essential for growth.  Is your child/teen consuming enough protein?  A general rule of thumb is that a person needs 0.4 – 0.5g of protein per pound the person weighs.  An easy way to calculate that is to take the weight, and divide by two.  So a person who weighs 100 pounds needs approximately 50g of protein.  One can always look at the nutrition label to find out how many grams of protein the food has.  You may now think I am crazy, wanting you to count how much protein your child is getting.  Don’t worry, I don’t count my protein, and I am not asking you to do that either.  If a person is eating a variety of healthy foods, they should be meeting their protein requirements.

Below is a sample of different foods, with the amount of protein per serving:

FoodServing SizeAmount of Protein per serving (in grams)
*Cottage cheese, low fat½ cup14
Soybeans½ cup14
Soy milk1 cup8-11
*Chicken breast, boneless/skinless1 oz9
*Ground sirloin1 oz8
*Milk (all fats kinds)1 cup8
Peanut butter2 tbsp8
Beans½ cup5-7
*Fish1 oz6.5
*Egg1 egg6
Nuts1 oz4-6
*Lunch meat1 oz3.5

* Contains all essential amino acids
Don’t think I’d send you on your way without some tools to help you out!  Below is a 3 day menu to help with some ideas that will provide a good source of protein for you and your children/teens.  Please keep in mind the amount of food you provide your children/teens will vary with their age, weight, and appetite.  This sample is for approximately a 70 pound child.  Teens will be hungrier and will need more! Children less than 2 should receive whole milk.  Also, feel free to modify these menus to fit your individual needs.  Children (and teens!) may need multiple exposures of a food before they like it, so don’t give up the first time.

CaloriesProtein (in grams)
Day 1
½ serving of Apple Pie Porridge, 4 oz low fat yogurt2289.5
Snack: 4 oz Skim Milk and ½ Banana945
½ serving Bulgur Chickpea Salad, 4 oz Skim Milk1424
Hummus with 1/4 cup Carrots and Broccoli1253.5
½ serving Chicken and Carrots, 4 oz Skim Milk15017
Day 2
½ serving Pumpkin Pecan Oatmeal with ¼ Grapefruit1986
½ Orange with 4 oz Skim Milk755
½ serving Chicken and Rice1389
¼ cup raisins1251.3
½ serving Lentil Tostadas * with 4 oz Skim Milk26514
Day 3 (vegetarian option)
½ serving Tropical Breakfast Bowl1356
½ Handful of Baby Carrots with 4 oz Skim Milk594.5
½ serving Vegetable Lentil Soup with ½ Poached Egg887
2 oz Almonds with 4 oz Orange Juice40612
½ serving Quinoa Salad with 4 oz Skim Milk1578.5



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