Susan Lewin took it in stride when her daughter, Jessica, was a finicky eater as a toddler. But the New York City mom figured the child would outgrow her pickiness in due time. It hasn't happened yet. "Jess is in seventh grade and still eats only a handful of things: cereal, pizza, pasta, cheese, and fruit," Lewin sighs. "It's incredibly frustrating."
Many parents of preteens share Lewin's frustration. Some say their kids have never gotten over picky childhood habits. Others complain that, now that children are making food choices on their own, they're consuming too much junk. Still others describe self-righteous adolescents who reject certain foods on moral or philosophical grounds.
"My 10-year-old suddenly started turning up her nose at hamburgers and steak, saying that meat 'grossed her out,' " says Barbara Kaplan-Radler, of Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania. "Recently, when we tried to serve her ham, she was indignant. 'I like pigs,' she told us. 'Why would I want to eat one?'"
Dietitian Joy Bauer, author of Cooking With Joy, isn't surprised. "Kids this age often go through food phases and appetite fluctuations," she notes. In fact, the fussy preteen eater, just like the picky toddler, is struggling for autonomy and independence -- an appropriate developmental milestone at each stage.
But there's a key difference: "The preteen's food quirks are typically a response to things like peer pressure or a budding social consciousness," notes Melanie J. Katzman, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Weill Medical College of Cornell University, in New York City. "If their friends are talking about animal rights, or if they hear a report about the health benefits of a low-carb diet, they may decide to change the way they eat," Dr. Katzman says. "And, at this age, they can be very passionate about their choices."
Still, it can be hard to cope with your child's food preferences. As a parent, you feel responsible for making sure he consumes healthy and nutritious fare. There's a psychological component to it too. "When your child refuses to eat the foods you prepare for him, it can pack an emotional wallop," Bauer says. "But you can't take it personally. It has nothing to do with you."
Instead, try these expert suggestions for dealing with your picky preteen:
Say the right thing. Unlike toddlers, preteens can be reasoned with. So instead of trying to legislate what your child eats or nagging her about her choices, you should educate her about the importance of eating healthy foods at a time when her body is growing and developing, suggests Ellyn Satter, a dietitian and author of Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family. Make sure she understands that it's wise to avoid high-sugar and high-fat foods and why it's smart to drink water and to consume lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. But aim to inform a preteen about good nutrition, not lecture her: She's more likely to listen if you show respect for her intelligence and independence. Above all, try not to make too big a deal out of what she eats. The less you make of a child's fussiness, the faster it will pass.
Set rules about afternoon snacking so it doesn't interfere with a child's appetite for dinner. And, if possible, establish regular mealtimes and insist that your preteen eat with the family -- even if he doesn't like what you're serving. How accommodating should you be of his preferences? Instead of cooking special meals just for him (or forcing the whole family to eat tofu), experts say to make sure your menu includes one or two items you know he'll find acceptable. "If he only eats the rice and salad and avoids everything else, so be it," Bauer says. "If he's hungry later on, he -- not you -- can make a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich."
Discourage junk-food overload by keeping your fridge and pantry stocked with healthy options: whole-grain breads and crackers, fruits, vegetables, juice, and low-fat yogurts and cheeses. But don't put any food completely off-limits. "Kids this age need ownership of their food choices," Bauer says. "If you tell a middle-school child she's never allowed to have candy, chips, or soda, she could end up filling herself with junk when you're not around and hiding that fact from you."
Support well-thought-out decisions. Never belittle a child's genuine interest in vegetarianism, animal rights, or any other food choices based on a sound belief system. Instead, ask questions to find out why she wants to eat the way she does; you may be surprised to hear how carefully considered her decision is. If she's committed to avoiding meat or to eating a vegan diet, have her talk to the pediatrician or a nutritionist about how she can get the vitamins and nutrients she needs.