When we transitioned my kid to baby food, everyone told me, “Give her the peas before the peaches. If you give them fruit first, they’ll never eat the veggies.”

I wish they’d told me that about baked chicken and Dino Nuggets, too.

My kid is a picky eater. And the things she picks do not cover an abundance of healthy options. She still eats Dino Nuggets. Pizza bagels. Ramen soup. Macaroni and cheese (from a box only). Anything pasta. Oh, and chocolate. ALL THE CHOCOLATE.

Start Em Young

I know that getting your kids to eat healthy is much easier if you start them off young. Although I never subscribed to the Sneaky Chef methods, which is one of the more popular ways of getting young kids to eat healthy. Making brownies with spinach might make the brownies healthier, but the goal is to get the kid to WANT spinach, not eat more brownies. 

Also? Why would we encourage our kids to eat brownies with hidden green stuff in them? I feel like that just sets us up for a future of failure.

I ate all sorts of stuff growing up, but when my husband was growing up, he lived in that kind of family that had meatloaf every Monday, fish every Friday, and for the days in-between, they alternated among three ways of chicken (usually involving Campbells creamy soup). He was picky too, but only because he’d never had other options. The most exotic food he had eaten when he met me was “Beef Fried Rice.”

So, when we decided our kid needed to be a more adventurous eater than my husband was raised as, we wanted to empower her to try and to enjoy all sorts of foods on her own, not have it forced on her. 

We implemented New Food Dinners once a month. We’d pick a restaurant – usually not American – and we’d ALL try something we never had before. To help motivate, we rounded New Food Dinner off with New Food Dessert (which was code for various forms of chocolate something or other).

Parents of the Year (for One Year Only)

This served us well. Our daughter loved shumai and udon and ribs and Thai chicken skewers. She finger-painted avocado all over her plate and licked it off her fingers. She loved eating little trees (broccoli) and reached for carrots when there were cookies on the table. We were the envy of all our friends, and we basked in our own cleverness.

 For exactly one year.

Then? She gave up on everything. Her taste buds changed, I guess? All I know is suddenly she got super sensitive to even the lightest of “flavor.” All of a sudden everything was “too lemony.” “Too garlicy.” “Too spicy.” “Too… something-y.”

The positive part of this is she hates soda (“too bubbly”) and most chips (“too salty”) and most candy outside of chocolate (“too sugary”). 

But the negative part is, she seems to have had a bad experience with just about everything out there and now eats very little. And even less healthy food. I have yet to find anything that is “too chocolate-y” but I’ll keep looking.

As a teenager, she needs a more balanced diet. But also, with teenagers, you have to walk that careful line when it comes to body images and eating disorders. And sadly, the allure of finger painting with avocado just doesn’t hold the same appeal. 

Empower the Power Foods

Education is key. But teenagers are programmed to automatically tune out anything you say or anything that makes logical sense. I recommend having a doctor or an adult your children respect deliver (or reinforce) the healthy eating message because they are more likely to actually hear it. 

At my day job, I am lucky enough to work with some amazing experts and I turned to our go-to pediatrician Dr. Julia Nordgren, because she is also a Culinary Institute of America trained chef.

Here’s her take: “I believe that credible, individualized education is essential.  When I am talking to a teen one on one, I want them to understand what their bodies need, what types of foods tend to cause them harm, and what kinds of foods they can eat liberally and joyously. 

I encourage them to focus on the foundation of a healthy diet, and what that really looks like. It is amazing that the kinds of foods that have the most nutrients and the most health benefits are what teens eat the least of! 

As their doctor, I truly want to empower them with knowledge and skills to feed themselves well, both while they are living at home, and when they head out into their early adult life. Many teens have (appropriately!) stopped listening to their parents, and I want to show them how to gain some independence and agency on eating well (and in a way that they will enjoy!).”

Don’t Throw Away The Baby (Ruth) With the Bath Water

Once they have the education part down, it’s up to you to help reinforce it. Not by nagging – but by example and by what you make available to them.

When I first realized my kid’s eating habits had become an issue, my mom’s advice was to ban junk food completely and throw away anything that isn’t healthy, but I don’t necessarily agree with this method.

Teens are young adults, and to them, the emphasis is on ADULT. They don’t want to be told what to do, they want to choose their own adventure. 

So, when it comes to healthy eating, empowering them to make their own choices goes much further than only offering certain food options or banning others. When the food they want isn’t available at home, teens will just stop eating there. They’ll find what they want at friend’s houses, fast food, vending machines, 7-11… whatever.

Also? Teenagers are lazy. Use that to your advantage. Limit the junk food options at home but keep a few things around. The key is to keep many healthier options front and center. If they have to go ALLLLL THE WAYYYYYYYY to the basement for a bag of chips, they might just grab the bag of carrots that’s right there in front of them instead.

As Dr. Julia notes, “Another thing I encourage parents to understand is that in almost every family with teenagers, the least healthy food will be eaten first. Parents get so frustrated when the fruit sits untouched on the counter as the chips and candy get eaten first. It is up to the parents to decide what the least nutritious foods in the house are.  

And it matters so much to get those fruits and vegetables front and center, not only in the house but on the table, on those plates, every day. It takes a lot of work but the vast majority of vegetables and fruits that teenagers eat are consumed at home.”

With special thanks to Dr. Julia Nordgren for advising on this subject. You can find more of Dr. Julia’s advice, as well as delicious and nutritious recipes on her website or check out her published materials: The New Family Table and How Superfoods Work.

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About Lily Winters

A full-time copywriter, Lilly Winters lives outside Washington, D.C. in a house full of animals—which include her husband and teenager. Under a different name, she’s written a book of short stories, a Young Adult novel, and was most recently published in Gravity Dancers. Lilly Winters isn’t posting her real picture because it’s possible she is currently wanted by the Mexican drug cartel. It’s also possible she watches too much Ozark.

View all posts by Lily Winters