Parents

Plain pasta, again?! How to feed your picky tween

March 3, 2011 at 7:54 PM ET

There's plenty of advice out there for moms of finicky toddlers, but what happens when they don't outgrow the picky eater phase? And how many peanut butter sandwiches can one mom make before she loses her mind?

By Cari Nierenberg, TODAY Moms contributor

Hardly any vegetables make it into Charlie Hebert's mouth except for baby carrots and corn in season. The 10-year-old from Ohio isn't keen on fruit, either. If he eats an apple, it needs to be cut into wedges without the icky center parts. And if Charlie sees any brown spots on the apple, fuhgeddaboudit.

When his mother, Kay-Lynne Schaller, prepares spaghetti with "a beautiful rustic red-pepper sauce with roasted vegetables," her son eats his pasta plain with a little olive oil. 

It's incredibly frustrating for Schaller, who teaches a "Healthy Foods" class in junior high and loves to cook. "I can get junior-high students to try squash soup, lentils, or sauteed tofu, but when I come home, it's another story," she admits.

Many young children go through a picky eating phase, which they often outgrow. But sometimes it continues into the tween and teen years, much to the exasperation of parents. Although Schaller's son "has limited culinary repertoire," as she says, he's tall for his age, thin, and active. Her "imperfect solution" is to keep mostly healthy foods in the kitchen so Charlie can make his own peanut butter and jelly sandwich, cheese omelet, or oatmeal.

"My challenge as a parent is to not engage in any stubborness battles and to not turn the picky eating into a federal case," says Schaller.

Nor will she become a short-order cook, a decision that gains the approval of dietitian Janice Newell Bissex, co-author of No Whine with Dinner, a family-friendly cookbook. She tells parents of finicky eaters not to make a separate meal, to encourage healthy eating without parental pressure, and to keep introducing variety.

Peer pressure can also sway teens. Parents can tap into this by having older children invite a friend over and let them plan the menu, find recipes, and make the meal. "Set some parameters, so they need to include one vegetable or stick to a budget," says Bissex, co-founder of MealMakeoverMoms.com.

To make the experience more fun, create a theme. You can't go wrong with Mexican or Italian, and teens will enjoy chopping, slicing and shredding. Plus, by including familiar foods, you can find ways to boost nutrition within kids' comfort zones.

"If you model good eating habits and have healthy foods at home, kids will remember what you served and that's where they'll come back to as they get older," says Bissex.

Got any tips? What works with your picky teens and tweens?

Cari Nierenberg writes about health, nutrition, and lifestyle topics in Brookline, Mass. Growing up, she wasn't too picky about food.

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