By Hope Damon, RD, CDE, LD
Teens are spontaneous, fun, hungry, sometimes picky, challenging eaters. They choose what to eat based on peer pressure, school and work schedules, sense of independence (rebellion!), weight goals, what’s easy, what’s there, what’s trendy. Just when their bodies need it most, teens’ lifestyles become too busy to even think about eating right. Parents know healthy eating provides energy, clear thinking, good sports performance, positive body image, healthy hair, skin and teeth as well as prevention of chronic disease. So, how does a parent influence their teens to eat well?
Know what your goals are and choose your “battles” thoughtfully. Parents are responsible for WHAT foods are available at home, for modeling healthy eating habits and for supporting their teens growing independence. Teens are responsible for WHEN and HOW MUCH they eat. It may be hard to accept that division of responsibility — but it works! Attempting to control a teen’s intake by directing what or how much they should or should not have simply doesn’t work.
Make it easy for your teen to eat well. If you limit the presence of high fat, high salt, high sugar foods, most teens will eat the healthier foods — if they are obvious. Arrange your fridge so the eye level, first foods you see are yogurt, fruit, pudding, ready to eat veggie snacks, low fat deli meats, hummus, cheese and low fat milk (even chocolate milk). Leave whole grain English muffins, triscuits and other whole grain crackers, bite-size fortified cereals, whole grain pretzels, raisins, fruits, nuts, low fat popcorn, and thoughtfully chosen bars (7 grams protein and some fiber) on the counter where they can’t be missed. You really do not have to buy the amount of junk food they are willing to eat. Instead buy more of what you want them to have and less of the unhealthy foods.
Compromise is key. Instead of plain corn chips, offer salsa and refried bean dip. Now that snack is a balanced meal and your teen is getting antioxidants, fiber, protein and good taste effortlessly. Peanut butter and jelly on whole wheat bread is a decent snack. Limit commercial baked goods but encourage your teen to bake muffins using whole wheat flour or oats, oil instead of butter/shortening and lots of fruit. Healthy muffins are an excellent alternative to cookies.
Family dinners matter; research shows teens from families that eat dinner together have less substance abuse, better grades, eat more vegetables and are less likely to be overweight. Dinner doesn’t have to be fancy and time consuming but thinking ahead helps. Roast a chicken with lots of vegetables over the weekend, teach them how to make a lean lasagna, or try homemade chili with lots of beans and a side salad. Even if you can only do this once a week, it can become a family time that is valued by all. Feed their friends, too — many teens will eat better at their friends’ houses than at home!
Nutrients to promote include calcium, vitamin D, iron, vitamin C. Girls are more likely to be deficient in nutrients as they skip meals and diet more often than boys. A daily multivitamin can help fill in the gaps but does not replace healthy eating. A separate calcium supplement is needed unless your teen routinely consumes at least three servings of dairy or calcium-fortified equivalents daily.
Seek professional advice from a registered dietitian if your teen is overweight, underweight, trying to be vegetarian, has food allergies, you need more practical ideas or if you just want someone who is not their parent to promote taking care of nutrition. And remember to enjoy these stimulating years!
Hope Damon is a registered dietitian who regularly shares fruits, vegetables and chocolate with teenagers. Contact her at The Nutrition Counselling Center in New London, N.H., at (603) 526-2078.