Healthy food choices for picky preteen

I have a 12 year old daughter who is very picky about what she eats. She won't try anything new, and I am at a loss for what to feed her. What would be some of the best foods for her to eat, nutritionally speaking? She does like to eat fruit, some meat, but does not like to eat breakfast. Thanks for your help -- I've tried almost everything.



Sue Gilbert

Sue Gilbert works as a consulting nutritionist. For many years she worked with Earth's Best Organic Baby Food, integrating nutrition and... Read more

Dear Paula,

I think you have asked a great question. For many parents out there with picky eaters, you need to choose your battles carefully. Which foods will you really need to push, and which can you lay back on? That brings up the question of which foods are THE most important. Well, as you probably know, nutritionists are always touting the merits of VARIETY because there is no such thing as one miracle food. Still, at different stages of development some nutrients play more important roles than others. For example, a thirty year old male doesn't have the need for iron that an infant does.

For any child, it is important to get some food from each of the food pyramid groups every day. That's because, for the most part, nutrients aren't shared between them. One group will be high in one nutrient, and another will be strong in something else. For example, the milk group is higher in calcium than any other group, and the fruits and vegetables are higher in vitamin C than the milk, grain or meat group. (You can safely mix the fruit and vegetables into one group because they do tend to share the same nutrients.) Print out a copy of the food pyramid to refer to.

To ensure that your daughter is getting all the vitamins and minerals she needs every day, she should take a multivitamin supplement. A supplement for women would be a good choice, since it contains extra iron and calcium. Ideally, your daughter would get all of her nutrients from food. That's because there are synergistic effects of foods and nutrients that we still don't understand completely. This synergy can't be found in a vitamin pill because the nutrients have been isolated. Therefore, even if your daughter is taking a supplement, don't get complacent about encouraging a variety of food.

Along with the supplement, there are some foods/nutrients you should be particularly sure that your daughter gets plenty of. A twelve year old girl is going through a period of rapid growth and development.

1) Adequate protein is essential. She needs about 46 grams a day. Because she eats meat, you probably don't need to be too concerned. Meeting protein requirements are easy because protein is found not only in the meat group,but also in the dairy group, and to a lesser extent in the vegetable group.

2) Another important nutrient is iron. If she hasn't already, your daughter will soon be starting to menstruate. This monthly loss of blood heightens her need for iron. That need for iron is coupled by an increased need, due to the expanding blood volume associated with growth.

3)Optimal growth requires adequate calories. Be sure to monitor her weight and height to be sure she is getting the calories she needs.

4)Calcium is essential for her bone growth. Forty to forty-five percent of an adults skeleton is built during the teen years. Your daughter should be getting 1200 milligrams of calcium each day. That's equal to four glasses of milk or the equivalent. Substitute yogurt, cheese or calcium fortified juices and cereals if milk is not preferred.

5) Teen girls tend to be deficient in folate. It is a B vitamin needed for cell division. Folate is high in dark green leafy vegetables, seeds, beans, and orange juice.

From a tactical standpoint, it is best not to pay much attention to the pickiness. Many preteens are very finicky eaters. Encourage eating a variety of foods, but don't make an issue out of it. Allow her to skip breakfast in favor of a mid-morning snack. It is often hard for some kids to eat in the morning, despite the importance of doing so. See if you can pack a healthy mid-morning snack into her backpack for school, such as a homemade muffin or granola bar.

Thank you for your important question. I also have a twelve year old, so I understand how difficult it can be. I operate with the attitude of just being grateful for getting whatever healthy foods that I can into him, and then not worry about what we didn't achieve or about the soda and fries that may have passed his lips. We eat meals together and we always have a healthy variety of fresh foods, so the example is always before him. It is a constant challenge, but one that is worth meeting.

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