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Teens and Eating Right
When your children were little, it all seemed so simple: You served the food, and they ate it. Of course, it wasn't really that easy – even little kids balk at some foods or prefer to fill up on candy. But compared to what you face as the parents of teenagers, it seemed like a piece of cake.
Which is probably a bad choice of words, since too many teens seem to be eating too much cake. Or eating cake and then making themselves throw up. Obesity is a national health crisis for teens, but eating disorders such as bulimia or anorexia can be equally frightening. What should teenagers be eating, and how can parents help?
First, you and your teen need to understand how nutrition affects the body changes of adolescence. Some girls develop eating disorders in response to worries about the natural growth in hips and breasts that are preparing their bodies to become mothers – sometime in the far, far distant future. On the other hand, kids who once spent hours playing kickball on the playground and running around after school have become teens who spend hours in the library – or playing video games – and aren't burning off the same calories anymore. You may want to ask your child’s doctor to be part of this conversation.
Next, get a grip on the guidelines. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently issued new nutritional guidelines that call for everyone, including teens, to eat a lot more whole grains, fruits and vegetables. According to the USDA, teenage girls should eat 6 ounces of grains a day, and teenage boys should eat 7 ounces. An ounce is roughly equivalent to a slice of bread or a ½ cup of pasta. At least half the grains should be whole grains – whole wheat bread or brown rice instead of white bread or white rice, for example.
The USDA also urges teens to eat more fruits and vegetables. Teenage girls should get 2½ cups of vegetables and 1½ cups of fruit a day, and boys should eat 3 cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruit. They should choose from a wide variety of fruits and vegetables with as little processing as possible.
Teenagers also need dairy products – 3 cups a day, according to the USDA. Low-fat or nonfat milk, yogurt and cheese are the best choice. Teen girls need 5 ounces of meat, fish, beans or nuts, and boys need 6 ounces. They should choose lean meat and fish, as well as non-meat protein options like beans and nuts. Fats, oils and sweets should be used sparingly.
So what's missing from this list? Many of the staples of the teen diet: potato chips, soda pop, cookies. How can you encourage your teenager to adopt healthy eating habits?
- Set a good example. If you eat well, the chances are your children will eat well – or at least better. Make good choices at the supermarket: Buy whole wheat bread and make sure you have fresh fruit. Although it is unlikely that you can keep your child from eating any junk food, you can avoid having it on hand at home.
- Try to eat together as much as possible. Teenagers are often on the run, but they are more likely to eat a balanced meal if they sit down at the table. Plus, you get the bonus of a little quality family time.
- Make it easy. Teenagers can be notoriously lazy, so make healthy eating easy. Have cut vegetables or washed fruit easily available, and maybe they will reach for the grapes instead of the chips.
- Appeal to their concerns. They are unlikely to be impressed by the idea that eating well now will keep them from developing high blood pressure, diabetes or osteoporosis down the road. After all, down the road is out of sight for most teenagers. So tell them that a healthy diet will help them keep a normal – and attractive – weight, keep their skin clear, their hair shiny and their teeth white. Point out that eating well will help them perform better in the classroom or on the athletic field.
- Get them involved. Ask them for their input before you go grocery shopping, or take them with you. Let them help with planning dinners. They may even want to cook. If they love pizza, for example, encourage them to make it themselves – with whole wheat crust, low-fat cheese and turkey pepperoni. Explore some cuisines they may like.
- Have fun – eating should be enjoyable. And if your teens take the time to enjoy what they eat, they may be more likely to think about the choices they are making.