Children's Nutrition

Encouraging Teens to Eat Healthfully

Articles that provide tips and strategies on how to instill healthful eating patterns in children tend to focus on toddlers and preschoolers. Sure, they’re the little people with major food jags and temper tantrums, but what about teenagers? With access to school vending machines, fast-food lunches off campus, and parties galore, teens are prone to have less-than-stellar eating habits. Teens are in a season of life in which they’re branching out and gaining more independence. It’s during this time when power struggles over food often can occur. Following are some practical tips from parents who are dietitians that can help you counsel clients.

Focus on the Positive
As RDs, we know first hand that always saying “No” doesn’t work. It turns off clients, patients, and certainly teenagers. Instead, suggest clients say “Yes” to nutritious eating. Recommend they stock their fridge with washed and ready-to-eat fruits, vegetables, yogurt, hard-boiled eggs, and hummus. Kim Melton, RDN, of NutritionPro Consulting, says offering healthful after-school snacks for her hungry athletic teenagers is her primary goal. She admits it takes a bit more planning and work, but it’s a worthwhile investment. Now her young athletes want to know which foods provide more protein, vitamins, minerals, and energy to fuel their sports activities and enhance performance.

Another way parents can influence teens’ eating habits is to point out healthful menu options when eating out as a family and make restaurant dining an occasional treat rather than a daily occurrence. Instruct clients about mindful eating and the enjoyment of food and the benefits of healthful eating, and encourage them to discuss these things with their teens. Recommend parents try foods or spices from unfamiliar cultures to explore new flavors, or recruit their teens in the summer to become sous chefs—planning and cooking family meals to teach life skills they’ll use for years to come. The key is to encourage parents to deliberately give attention to positive eating behaviors.

Live by Example
Even when her daughters were little, Tracee Yablon Brenner, RDN, CHHC, of Triad to Wellness, always ordered broccoli sautéed with olive oil and garlic as a side dish with their favorite pizza. It was second nature for her girls to continue the practice as they became teenagers.

Suggest clients purchase healthful foods to stock their kitchens with and plan family dinners to enhance teens’ nutritional health. Christy Wilson, RDN, of Christy Wilson Nutrition, cooks the majority of her family’s dinners, so her kids discover firsthand how to incorporate fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes into delicious meals. She agrees that modeling healthful eating and offering healthful foods at home are the best methods to encourage healthful choices among teens.

Forgo Scale Talk
Because disordered eating and body image distortion is on the rise, it’s important for parents to avoid specific talk about weight or body shape with their teens. Brenner’s family didn’t have bathroom scales, and she talked to her daughters about overall health, how their clothing fit, muscular builds, and not comparing bodies with others. Melton never addressed her children’s weight status or discussed gaining weight. Keep in mind that avoiding scale talk includes refraining from verbally obsessing over one’s own weight as a parent. Taking the focus off the number on the scale and back onto healthful lifestyles is essential to teaching lifelong wellness. So discuss these principles with clients.

Special Considerations for Athletes
When teens need up to 3,500 to 4,000 kcal daily to fuel sports activities, high school cafeteria food usually isn’t enough. Amy Drescher, PhD, RDN, mom to three athletic boys, provides calorically dense foods, including peanut butter and jelly sandwiches using high-fiber breads and low-sugar jams, homemade protein energy bites, quesadillas, dried and fresh fruits, jerky, and eggs. Drescher relies on easy homemade dinners due to sports practices and game schedules. Her sons love simple foods such as crockpot meats and stews, tacos, and pastas. Teammates who load up on protein powders and sports supplements have experienced consequences such as muscle cramps, so Drescher educates her teens on the importance of nutritious, real food choices. These ideas serve as great talking points during counseling sessions with parents who have active teens.

Let Some Things Go
There have been times when I’ve cringed at what my daughter ordered for lunch off campus with friends. I’ve been pleased to observe some of the natural consequences of her food choices: big sugar rush/drops or headaches in the afternoon after downing sugary drinks and ice cream during lunch, or feeling miserably full for hours after eating a bacon double cheeseburger and large fries. Slowly, I’ve seen her come around and make changes to her eating habits—switching to water, splitting fries with a friend, or ordering a single burger. Letting kids deal with minor consequences stemming from unhealthful eating habits enables them to learn lessons on their own, eliminating the nonproductive lecture from parents. This, too, is another great talking point.

Important Nutrients for Teens
As RDs, we know that certain micronutrients are vital at this stage of the life cycle. Supplementation may be necessary if clients’ teenagers aren’t getting enough. Just a few to consider include calcium for bone mineralization during growth spurts and iron, especially for menstruating girls.

— Jennifer Bowers, PhD, RD, owns, a nutrition communications consulting company. She has 20-plus years of clinical nutrition experience in Tucson, Arizona. A natural educator, Jennifer has taught nutrition to students from elementary school to medical school and everyone else in between. Her writing has been published in Reader’s DigestPrevention, and Rodale’s Organic Life, as well as peer-reviewed scientific journals. She’s presented research-based work in France, Switzerland, Canada, and at FNCE®. Jennifer enjoys marrying science-based data with a down-to-earth style.

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