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My Child Only Eats Junk Food! What Should I Do if My Teenager Won't Eat Healthy Food?

I often hear from parents of teenagers who are trying to help their children improve their nutrition. Concerns like "he won't eat any vegetables!" or "she only will eat instant noodle soups" are very common. So what should you do if your child won't eat healthy food? My quick answer is that there is no quick answer. You have to be in it for the long haul. Let's get into it.


chicken nuggets and french fries

First, it is important to understand that the issue of not eating healthy food is not a healthy food problem. It is a picky eating problem. Once your child is a teenager, usually this problem has been going on for years. Often, what brings it to the fore are concerns from your pediatrician about your child's health. The longer the issue went on, the longer it will take to address. But it definitely will be easier to address it now than in five years!


What Not to Do For Picky Eating


There are a few approaches that don't work, and we can review what not to do first. Strong-arming your child won't work. Chances are, your child is stronger than you! But either way, it is never necessary to force your child to eat something. It also won't make them want to eat that food more. Cajoling and pleading also don't help. And neither do bargaining or promising rewards. True avoidant eaters won't eat the peas in exchange for a new gadget. Finally, trying to scare them by telling them all the health problems they will have when they get older due to eating junk food doesn't work. Teenagers don't usually have the capacity to think into the future like that. Even for kids who already have a diagnosis of prediabetes, diabetes, or hypertension, they usually have not had any adverse problems from the disease for it to be a reality in their minds. These techniques are stressful for parents and likely won't help.


Common Reason for Picky Eating


At baseline, your teen perceives eating certain foods--healthy foods--to be unpleasant. They assume those healthy foods taste bad or will feel weird in their mouth. They are somewhat afraid (and with some kids, very afraid,) of experiencing that unpleasantness. They will avoid these healthy foods at all costs.


What it Takes for a Child or Teenager to Want to Eat Healthy Food


There has to be something in it for the teen for them to want to make a change in this area. Some teenagers are at the point where their restrictive eating impacts them socially. Some kids will only get to that point as young adults. Usually that is when teenagers start wishing they were less picky.


You may be able to start pointing out to your child instances where their avoidance of foods impacts them. Maybe they need to spend time packing snacks before an outing with their friends instead of just heading out the door knowing they can get food wherever they are. Or you are out for dinner, and they can't find anything on the menu they are willing to order but French fries. These small annoyances might not bother them yet, but often as kids get older and develop more relationships, these issues become bigger deals.


Once a child says that they wish they liked more foods, you have basically won the game. At that point, they become willing and interested in going through the process to learning new food likes.


Next Steps in Encouraging More Varied Food in Your Picky Child Who Won't Eat Healthy Food


It is important to encourage teenagers to, as best as they can, put aside all their preconceived opinions about a new food before trying it. They should go into trying a new food expecting it to be a new, maybe strange and unusual, flavor. For example, we understand strawberry ice cream not to be another version of vanilla ice cream, and we know it will not taste the same. Similarly, whole grain bread is another favor--we should not eat it hoping that it tastes just like our familiar white bread.


I always explain to people who are starting to experiment with eating new foods that the first instinctual aversion is just an aversion to the strangeness-factor of the food. They are recoiling from the unusualness, not from actual bad taste. With that, it takes a willingness to do repeated exposures with the new food until the strangeness-factor goes away. Once it does, the teenager can actually decide if they like the flavor or dislike it.


If, after the first trial of a new food, the view on it is anything better than horrific, that is exactly what we are aiming for. "Weird," "strange," "mediocre," "meh," "not terrible," "I thought it would be worse," and "I didn't really like it" are all what we are hoping for. There should not be an expectation that the teen will like the new food after the first try.


After repeated trials of the food, the strangeness-factor will dissipate. Maybe the teen will like the new food. Maybe they will think it is OK. Maybe they won't like it. But most of the time they will have found that the experience of trying a new food was not as terrible as they were expecting it to be. It opens the door to being able to trial more food.


Helping Your Picky Child eat More Healthy Food


Remember, it will be a long and slow process to help your picky teen increase the variety of healthy foods that they eat. There is no easy way to make them change their behavior. Once they are ready, you can start the process of trying new foods.




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