You’ve come home from a long day of work only to find yourself running around to kid’s after school activities. You’re tired. You’re not inspired. Cooking something extravagant isn’t an option. Just getting dinner on the table and the family fed feels like an uphill battle.

The last thing you want to hear from your teenager is “Erghh, that looks gross.”  “I hate that!” or “I’m sooooo sick of spag bol” (eye roll emoji).

I won’t lie, it’s been a little while since I’ve been a teenager and I’m not currently living with teenagers. BUT I do understand a fair bit about fussy eating and the frustration it can cause at dinner time.

Overcoming fussy eating becomes increasingly harder the older your child gets, so if you can tackle fussy eating habits when your child is a toddler or at primary school, you stand yourself in better stead for the adolescent years.

However, if you’re reading this in the throes of your child’s puberty, there are still approaches you can take to instil healthy eating habits in their life.

1. Divide the responsibility

When we work with toddlers, the basic principle is this:

  • The parent decides what to eat and when

  • The child decides if to eat and how much

This usually takes a lot of the stress out of mealtimes. Once you, as the parent puts the dinner plate down, you’re done. You can encourage trying foods and lead by example but if they don’t eat it, that’s fine. You then decide when and what the next meal is.

While teenagers have a lot more autonomy when it comes to what they’ll eat and when, the principle remains the same for dinners.

You as the parent are paying for and cooking the dinner meal, which means you are still in control.  Ultimately, your teenager can decide if they want to eat it or not. That’s their call. It sounds harsh, but it’s true. They are getting to an age where they have the capacity to cook their own meals. So, if they don’t like what’s put down in front of them this can be a great opportunity to get them interested in food and meal preparation (see Number 3).

2.Avoid substitutes and PERSIST!!!!

In many cases, fussy eating is caused by offering an alternative option. Kids learn this simple cause and effect relationship at a very young age; ‘If I say no to dinner, Mum and Dad will get me something I like’. The same thing is the case in adolescence. ‘If I always say that I hate stir-frys, Mum and Dad will make me pasta.  Awesome!’

But you are not an a la carte restaurant.

Making a different meal for each family member isn’t feasible and it doesn’t teach your child about trying new things, acquiring new tastes or gratitude.

Story time; I hated zucchini growing up. HATED IT. But being one of 5 children, my parents couldn’t really bend to everyone’s individual likes and dislikes.  Week after week I faced zucchini on my plate. I used to make a fuss over it and was made to sit at the table until I ate at least some (albeit covered in tomato sauce). Eventually, I learnt that if I ate it first it was over and done with and I could enjoy the best bits of my meal (potato, obviously).

Now as an adult I use zucchini on a regular basis. Not because I love it (it’s certainly not my favourite veg) but because it’s easy to hide in meals and fantastic in fritters. If I had said, ‘I don’t like zucchini’ and never saw it in my meals again, I wouldn’t have any inclination to include it in my diet as an adult. My range of veg would have been limited.

Try having a household dinner policy which might include:

  • Everyone thanks the person who cooked dinner.
  • Everyone remains positive or constructive about their meal.
  • If you don’t like something on your plate you can offer a suggestion for next time.
  • Everyone must try a little bit of everything on their plate.

3. Get some buy-in

If you know your teenager has some interest in food, or they aren’t happy with what you’re providing (see above), get them involved in the planning or cooking for some of their favourite meals.

  • Ask your teenager to pick their favourite meal for dinner one night. Let the condition be that is has to have ½ plate of veg (link to half plate veg article).
  • Get your teenager to make a list of what they need and go to the shop to buy the ingredients.
  • Ask your teenager to help with the cooking, whether it be chopping the meat or veg.
  • Put your teenager in charge of dinner one night a week. While this might need some prompting and support, avoid taking over. Let them have the ownership of the meal.

4. Do one thing differently.

If you are feeling like you’re in a bit of a meal rut with your teenagers, change just one thing. Pick one new recipe for a fortnight or pick 1 new vegetable to try. Expanding food preferences doesn’t happen overnight. But if you tried 1 new food a fortnight and your teenager liked half of them. That’s 12 new foods in a year. Not bad!

5. Take a long-term mindset.

In the business of life, feeding the family can seem like a daily battle. Focusing on just surviving day to day. But it’s important to remember that the cooking and eating habits we form throughout childhood and adolescence, have a massive impact on what we do for the rest of our lives. The teenage years can be a great time to teach your child how to prepare, store and eat healthy food. Think about your child at 28 years old, out of home, cooking and eating zucchini fritters like a pro :P.

If you have a fussy teenager at home or could relate to any of the above, then come and see one of our dietitians and get personalised advice, specific to you and your family’s needs.

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