Ask the Expert: Expanding The Pre-Teen Picky Eater’s Palate
My daughter is 9 and a self-described picky-eater. The foods she will eat easily are around 12: chicken, some fruit, peanut butter, bread, etc. And, of course, junk food if we let her. She is growing consistently in height and weight and has a normal BMI. My husband and I encourage her to try new foods but she refuses, sometimes vehemently. We’ve been trying to get her to expand her menu, but we’re concerned if we push too hard we’ll make it a major issue and inadvertently lead her into an eating disorder. How can we safely encourage her to try new foods and make it a positive experience?
It sounds like you are on the right track by not elevating the issue with your daughter about her picky eating, and not resorting to letting her indulge in excess junk-food as a so-called “solution.”
Picky eating is normal for a pre-teen, and her healthy bodyweight should give you reassurance that the eating habits are not a major concern at this point. It also sounds like the foods she is eating are giving her a variety of nutrients.
Pressuring your daughter too heavily to diversify her eating is likely to create greater anxiety around the issue and possibly push her further away from trying something new. It is also important to remember that in the teen and pre-teen mind, any recommendation from a parent often gets pushed away, as it’s common for these youngsters to want to do the opposite of what their parents say.
Continue to monitor your daughter’s weight and development, while offering new foods but not making too much of the situation if she declines. Meanwhile, there are other steps you can take that might help draw her to other foods — without being too aggressive.
Children who are picky eaters might be willing to try foods that build on what they currently like to eat. For example, if your daughter likes peanut butter, you may want to suggest adding a banana or jelly to her peanut butter sandwich, or trying a smoothie with peanut butter and a variety of other ingredients that are healthy.
It may benefit you to talk about eating in the context of any physical activities your child engages in, such as sports or dancing. You could causally mention the importance of food to a strong performance, or if you have a good relationship with a coach, consider approaching that person about mentioning the value of nutrition.
Parents of picky eaters should also keep an eye on whether there is anything else anxiety-provoking that might make dinnertime stressful for children, and minimize anything that could contribute to that atmosphere. Of course, for many teens and pre-teens, taking a break from friends and social media for a sit-down family dinner is stressful in itself, and it is recommended that these dinners continue as an opportunity to speak with children about their day.
While offering your picky eater the foods she likes is important, she should also not dictate the entire dinner menu. Ensure that other options are there that she is always encouraged to try.
Finally, as you have been, you should resist the urge to let your daughter eat junk food for the sole purpose of her consuming more calories. Many parents resort to this approach, and it makes it difficult for children to develop healthy eating habits down the road.
If your daughter appears to have a change in her bodyweight, or is decreasing the number of items she eats, or the overall portion sizes, then you will want to revisit this issue with your pediatrician. For now, a close eye and a positive, encouraging attitude about healthy eating are the best ways to deal with the situation, which may continue into her teenage years.
Mary Brown, M.D. is a pediatrician at the Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center and an assistant professor at Tufts University School of Medicine.