Two field studies were carried out to determine the influence of Abies balsamea foliage age on the preference and performance of larvae of Neodiprion abietis, a specialist Diprionid sawfly. Preference was determined by examining N. abietis defoliation on all age classes of foliage. Performance was estimated using larval survival, cocoon weights and the percentage of adults that were females. Neodiprion abietis preference for, and performance on, current-year foliage was very low, peaked on 2 or 3-year-old foliage, and declined on older foliage. Thus, sawfly feeding preference was adaptive. However, survival and cocoon weight were highest when sawflies were allowed to feed on all age classes of foliage, demonstrating that an insect specialist may perform better when feeding on several age classes of foliage from a single host plant species. These results indicate that either different larval instars have different nutritional requirements, or that food mixing provides the best diet, permitting the herbivore to obtain needed nutrients while avoiding ingestion of toxic doses of secondary metabolites. In addition, our results suggest that limited availability of varied foliage has more negative consequences for N. abietis females than for males, as the percentage of survivors that were females decreased when juvenile mortality was high. Our results emphasize the importance of considering non-linear changes in foliar quality as leaves age on herbivore preference and performance, and demonstrate how a herbivore can use this variability to maximize its fitness.