Getting Creative With Teens Who Are Picky Eaters

Veggies Aren't Cool?

Getting Creative With Teens Who Are Picky Eaters

Back in September when I took over a cooking group with teenagers, I had high hopes for creating change.  They aren't fond of veggies?  Bring it on.  Fast food and processed is their preference?  Not with me in charge. 

Boy, I was in for a wake up call.  For the first few weeks we made things that were fun and familiar, until I finally got up the nerve to take the plunge and try something different. I handed a co-worker a list, and arrived last Friday to a kitchen overflowing with produce. 

We were making salads, baby.   Was it ambitious? You betcha-but I wanted to get them to try something a little outside of their comfort zone, something that pushed their ideas of what we should be cooking.  Why is that?

Well, statistics around teens and healthy eating  are a little scary, right now.

According to the Canada Food Guide, children between the ages of 9-18 should be eating between 6 and 8 servings of fruit or vegetables a day.  Unfortunately, the Public Health Agency of Canada has also found that the majority of Canadian young people between 11 and 15 are eating less than one serving of fruit or vegetables a day.   Teens are a tricky lot-finding independence for them also means having more say over what they will (and won't) eat, deciding if they want to try being vegetarians, and for some, it's a time when their relationship with food really can be at risk.  Growing up and moving away from their parent's ever watchful eyes, they are acquiring jobs, and using that new found freedom and income to make their own food choices, which are often not so healthy.  Many opt for the low cost and convenience of fast food on a regular basis.

The kids that I work with are no exception, which was absolutely evident when I broke out the salad bar.   Bowls of bright green broccoli, sliced red pepper, freshly washed lettuce, and crunchy carrots awaited them, dotted with bowls containing things teens might find enticing to create a salad with; hard boiled eggs, cheddar, croutons, and ham.

They didn't care.  In fact, there was nearly a mutiny.  

You've got to be kidding.  Salad?  I'm not eating salad.  Salad is boring.  Why can't we make cookies?  There is no way I'm making salad, and if I make it, there's no way you can make me eat it. 

But wait, I pleaded.  This isn't just a boring green salad, this is a meal!  You can customize it to whatever you like, even.  Leave out the stuff you don't like.  I waved around a baby carrot, enthusiastically prodding them to just give it a chance.  See? Carrots! They're delicious! You'll love it.

I don't like anything on that table.

My heart sank.  What now?  Threaten them?  Well, sorta.  The truth is, the kids had to be told that if they didn't make the salads, they couldn't cook next week, which could be something more fun.  I quickly whipped up a sample salad to show them what was possible, and before you know it I had them in the kitchen one by one, begrudgingly chopping.  

I know how to make salad.  You can't make me eat this, though.  Suddenly they would pause as they noticed the few bowls of fruit on the counter.  Wait, you can put grapes in salad?  I like grapes.

Dude, you can put ANYTHING in salad.  Clean out the fridge!  Chicken!  Tuna!  Nuts!  Anything!  I'd grin back.  A shy smile, then a hand would reach over and discreetly grab a few grapes because you know, it can't be cool to appear to be too enthused about salad.   

Is this what your kitchen is like?  There are ways to convince teenagers to eat vegetables that aren't quite as blatant as mine was.  I've found that many kids don't mind their veggies as long as they are cut small and mixed in with other things. 

  whiz up zucchini, carrots, sweet red peppers, and mushrooms in a food processor to get them cut really small, fry up until tender, and add to pasta sauces, or the meat sauce in lasagna, or shepherd's pie.

  stuff wraps with pea shoots, sweet peppers, grated carrot

  top pizzas with thinly sliced zucchini, mushrooms, peppers, seeded and thinly sliced tomato.  The thinner sliced they are, the better-as they cook better that way and don't go soggy.

  twice baked potatoes are great with broccoli and cheddar cheese

  try mashing cauliflower in with mashed potatoes

  don't be afraid to try new ways of cooking veggies, like roasting asparagus or broccoli 

  kids often really enjoy smoothies, which are a great way to get extra fruit into them

  soups are another fantastic way to get in more veggies, especially if many of them are pureed.

Most teens I know also love raw veggies with a really good dip, which can easily be substituted in place of a vegetable at dinner.  By the teen years, many kids have established their preferences, so ask your kids what they would like and let them experiment with different ways to eat vegetables.  We would be bored if we ate the same thing every day, and so are they!  My family loves chopped salads the most because the pieces are so small that you get a bit of everything in every bite, and I try to mix it up with different add ins to keep things interesting-fruit, nuts, cheeses, and more. Try checking out places like Eat Right Ontario and Healthy Families BC for tips, recipes, and information.  Lastly, it really is your own attitude about healthy eating that sets the tone for dinner time.  If you view vegetables as the devil's handiwork, so will they.  Make it a family affair to try out one new vegetable, or maybe a new salad, every week.  You never know when you'll hit the jackpot and find something you all love!  It's surprising what you might find when you just take a little bit of a risk.

Back at the school, a group of kids were standing outside the kitchen, all munching on salads and eating every last bite.

Huh.  I forgot that salads were actually good.


She may go by the name Scatteredmom online, but Karen really is anything but scattered when it comes to the kitchen.  Churning out tasty treats within view of the Georgia Strait on Canada's west coast, Karen will hand you an organized weekly meal plan or teach you how to make meals from scratch.  As Mom to a teenage boy, she knows exactly what it takes to keep kids full and happy-which has really come in handy with her job as the Food Editor at Yummy Mummy Club.

A strong supporter of Food Revolution who has been endorsed by Jamie Oliver himself, by day Karen can be found working as a special education teaching assistant, running a kitchen and showing teenagers how to cook nutritious meals for themselves.  By night, when she's not chatting on Twitter and answering cooking questions,  she writes her popular blog Notes From the Cookie Jar, or posting mouthwatering recipes over at Chasing Tomatoes.  Not afraid to give her opinion and passionate about community, Karen spoke at Blissdom Canada 2010 and her writing has been published in Canadian Living magazine, as well as in various online publications. 

Follow Karen on Twitter @scatteredmom