If you have a tween, you probably thought the days of picky eating were (thankfully) long over. Then, your child comes home chanting "Meat is murder!" and announces they’ll no longer be eating it – or gluten or dairy or some other food group your family enjoys. It can be frustrating – even downright annoying – and for many parents, it raises the question, “What do I do if my child wants to be a vegetarian?”
Most kids outgrow picky eating around age eight, but some kids experience a second wave of pickiness between the ages of eight and 12. While younger kids may be selective eaters because they’re overwhelmed by new flavors, textures, and scents, older kids are discovering new perspectives and ideas that can have just as dramatic an effect on what they will – or won’t – eat. It can leave many parents with concerns like:
Why is my preteen suddenly changing their diet?
Do I have to let my kid eat different foods than our family?
Is it safe for a child to be a vegetarian or vegan?
Am I really stuck making separate meals for my picky child?
In HelloJoey’s “Picky Eating, Healthy Eating” kit, we take a look at why older kids become picky on principle. We explore what’s happening in their brains to prompt these changes and talk to the experts about how parents can handle tweens’ requests for special diets.
Understand your child’s decision
If your child suddenly decides to make a dramatic change to their diet, your first instinct might be to argue, laugh, or flat out refuse. Deciding how to handle their request starts with understanding why they’re making it.
Between the ages of seven and 12, children start to have a new concept of logic and rules, which gives them a new perspective on fairness and justice. However, kids at this age haven’t developed the ability for abstract thinking, so everything is black and white, and when a child feels something is unfair or unjust, they react strongly. It’s not always fun for parents, but it’s appropriate development for tweens.
For adults who are able to think abstractly, this perspective can feel judgmental and irritating. Remember that kids this age can’t look at all the angles and may not even realize there are other angles. They’re just learning to expand their perspectives, and children’s brains aren’t capable of jumping from viewpoint to viewpoint in the same way adults can.
Help your child get the right nutrients
After you understand why your child is making a dietary change, you can decide how to handle it. Nutritionist Gretchen Flanagan suggests talking with your preteen to discuss whether the new diet is nutritionally-feasible.
“It can be a challenge if the child wants to eat in a vastly different way than the rest of the family. It may take sitting down with the child to explain their responsibility to nourish their body in a way that allows them to continue to grow. If their ideals are not in line with being able to nourish their body, it may not be the right time to fully-embark on this change."
By having a conversation, you can teach your child how their food choices affect their body and decide whether this new choice also is a healthy choice. Many parents worry specifically about vegetable-based diets, but both the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and American Dietetic Association unequivocally agree that being vegetarian or vegan is healthy as long as kids do so responsibly.
Let your kid take responsibility
You might be worried that by letting your child eat differently from your family, you’re going to be stuck making separate meals every night. The good news is that kids this age are old enough to accept some of the responsibility and the burden of choosing a unique diet. When you talk about your child’s choice, you can help them find ways to take charge of it.
Rabbi Rachel Solomin, lead researcher at ParentLab and HelloJoey, explains it like this: “It's a good opportunity to work together with your child to come to solutions that are respectful to the parents and to the child's own growing individuality at a time when they're able to take more responsibility for the preparation of the food and the planning of the meals.”
It’s not easy, but letting your child make food decisions that satisfy their nutritional needs and their personal perspectives can help them to grow and develop both physically and mentally. Rather than saying, "No you can't do that," you’re recognizing your child’s choice and having a discussion that’s healthy for everyone – all of which helps to strengthen your relationship.
In HelloJoey’s “Picky Eating, Healthy Eating” kit, we explore how and why picky eating affects older kids and how parents can handle it. You’ll learn more about:
how to help your child develop a healthy relationship with food.
using play to take the pressure off mealtimes.
“phasing in” dietary changes to support your child’s health.
when to get help for your preteen’s picky eating.
Interested in more about “Picky Eating, Healthy Eating?” Start your path to a solid parenting foundation in just 10 minutes a day. Check out the HelloJoey app.