Despite the recommendations for an optimal diet for teens, the vast majority of teens eat nowhere near what they should for optimal health. Instead, the adolescent diet is characterized by an abundance of sweetened beverages, french fries, pizza, and fast food. It typically lacks adequate fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy products, whole grains, lean meats, and fish. This makes for a diet very high in fat, saturated fat, trans fat, and added sugar and too low in calcium; iron; zinc; potassium; vitamins A,D, and C; and folic acid. However, despite these discouraging facts and a parent’s strong desire to force feed a teen all the right foods, as every parent of a teenager knows, adolescence is the time of increasing independence, decision-making, lessons learned from personal mistakes, peer pressure, and parental conflict. The parents’ opportunity to induce healthy eating has long passed.
So what’s a concerned parent to do when faced with a “picky” teenage eater? To successfully help your teenager enjoy a wide variety of healthy foods, you’re going to have to change your tactics. Here are a few suggestions-
- Only purchase foods you want your teen to eat. Accept that, for the most part, you can’t control the calories that your teen eats outside the home. But you do have some control over what foods available in your house. Adolescence is a time of rapid growth, hormonal surge, and ravenous appetite. Your teens will eat the food that is easily available to them. Stock your pantry with fruits, vegetables, and other tasty snacks and easy-to-prepare meals and your teens may just diversify their diets without you having to say anything.
- Model healthy choices. Your teen is watching what you eat. The most effective way that you can promote healthy eating is to have a healthy relationship with foods and eat a balanced diet high in whole grains and fruits and vegetables and low in nutrient-poor snacks and desserts. Also set an example for your self-conscious teen by avoiding making negative comments about your own body and size. Exercise regularly and be the example of health that you wish your children to emulate.
- Avoid food fights. Whatever you do, do NOT get into a power struggle over food with your teenager. You will lose every time. Instead, make any healthy snacks that your teen likes readily available. Try to make a healthy home-made meal at least once per week and be sure to include with it something (healthy) that your teen will eat. Avoid pressuring, nagging, or bribing your teens to eat the foods that you want them to eat.
- Check out MyPyramid Tracker with your teen. Get online together and fill out the dietary record. Both put in what you’ve eaten for a 24hr period and see whose diet stacks up better next to the MyPyramid recommendations. Not only does this give you a chance to spend some quality time together, but the information your teenager gets from an unbiased source might inspire him or her to eat a little bit better. And, by putting your own dietary habits on the line, you’re opening up an opportunity for you and your teen to set goals together so that you can both optimize your eating habits.
- Set your teens up for post-adolescent success. Soon your teens will be starting college or be out on their own and have to make decisions without you looking over their shoulders. Help them to make good choices by planning ahead. Give them the responsibility to help with meals, grocery shopping (with guidance on how you choose what to buy and nutritional requirements), and meal preparation.
- Seek help if your teen overly restricts or you are concerned she or he may have an eating disorder. If you notice that your teenager is overly restricting food, is losing or has lost a significant amount of weight, shows signs of low self-esteem and body image, is purging after eating, or exercises incessantly, be concerned that your child may be suffering from an eating disorder. Seek help from your child’s physician and consider consulting a registered dietitian for further evaluation, information, and other possible referrals.
Search ACE's Healthy Recipes database for a variety of kid-friendly, mouth-watering recipes. Plus, download my favorite teen-friendly recipes with delicious and healthy alternatives to chips, pizzas and candy that your child is sure to enjoy.
Have questions, comments, or suggestions about this article or any of the tips provided? We want to hear from you! Leave your comments here and start a dialogue. After all, the best way that we all can do better to help our teens and children lead healthier lives is to learn from each other’s successes, challenges, and setbacks.
Natalie Digate MuthContributor
Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RD, FAAP is the Senior Advisor for Healthcare Solutions for the American Council on Exercise, a board-certified pediatrician and Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, a Diplomat of the American Board of Obesity Medicine, registered dietitian and board-certified specialist in sports dietetics, and ACE Certified Health Coach. She is the author of "Eat Your Vegetables and Other Mistakes Parents Make: Redefining How to Raise Healthy Eaters" and the textbook "Sports Nutrition for Health Professionals." She has been ACE certified since 1998.
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