Teenagers are on the go, whether it’s off to sports practice, hanging with friends or heading to a study group. So when it comes to food, they are looking for fast and convenient—and they typically don’t have health on their minds.
“As teens become more independent, spending time outside the home and away from parents, they begin making a lot of food choices on their own,” said Katie Dougherty, a registered dietitian in Akron Children’s Healthy Active Living program. “Unfortunately, many teens tend to reach for foods that are convenient, like Starbucks or fast food, rather than nutrient dense.”
The problem is with these unhealthy habits come nutritional deficits. Teens are going through puberty and rapid body changes, and still developing in a lot of important ways. Getting adequate nutrition is vital to properly fuel their bodies to support their growth.
When teens eat a lot of processed foods, their bodies are missing out on the nutrients that come from foods in their natural form, such as fiber and the variety of vitamins and minerals that get eliminated during processing.
“Many teens also aren’t getting enough protein, vitamin D or water,” said Katie. “Water seems so simple, but with so many trendy drinks to choose from, teens forget about the importance of just plain water.”
So, how can parents help teens build healthy eating habits?
It’s easier said than done when it comes to getting your teen to adopt healthier food choices. Incorporating small goals one at a time—such as swapping out pop for water even once a day or adding veggies to the dinner plate—will add up over time to big results.
Just be sure when discussing your teen’s food choices to keep the message about fueling their body in a healthy way, instead of talking specifically about calories, weight, body size and shape. Focus on the benefits of a healthy lifestyle: more energy for a stronger, faster athlete; healthier heart and brain for school success; and a stronger immune system. You also can discuss the risks that an unhealthy diet can bring, including diabetes and heart disease.
An important step you can take to help teens make healthier choices is to protect the home. While you can’t control what’s outside your home, you can control what’s in it. So, fill your pantry and refrigerator with healthy foods your child likes. When you limit processed foods and drinks in the house, it can eliminate arguments over their food choices.
Make fruits and veggies, trail mix, nuts and low-fat dairy and cheeses easily accessible. Katie suggests cutting up produce, and buying single-serving hummus, yogurt or peanut butter, so kids have something easy—and healthy—to grab and go.
“If there’s a certain food group that you struggle to get your child to eat, make it easily accessible on a daily basis to increase their exposure without forcing them to eat it,” Katie said.
It’s important to expose your kids to a variety of different foods and tastes, and she suggests creating a culture at home of trying new foods. Encourage kids to take one bite and if they don’t like it, that’s OK. Trying new foods is important to make sure your kids are getting a variety. They may even find a new healthy food they enjoy in the process.
Also, role model the behavior you want to see in your kids. You can ask teens to adopt different menu choices, but the key is making sure you’re eating a healthy, balanced diet to set a positive example. If you serve broccoli for dinner, you should eat it, too. Believe it or not, parents are still the biggest influence in a teen’s life.
Lastly, keep teens involved in food prep and planning. Allow teens to add to the grocery list, and prepare their own lunch or dinner, as they are able. Encourage them to include certain food groups, such as a protein, fruit and veggie, but then let them choose what to eat in each of those categories. Katie’s motto for her own house is: parents provide, child decides.
“These are formative years for teens, and we need to model healthy habits that teach them how to fuel their bodies healthfully,” she said. “By establishing healthy habits now, we are helping our teens develop important skills to take into adulthood and hopefully prevent chronic diseases later in life.”
If you’re concerned with your child’s diet, talk to a pediatrician. If your child is struggling with obesity, Akron Children’s Healthy Active Living program can help. Call 330-543-5673 to schedule an appointment.