Teenage Nutrition: How to Get Your Teens To Eat Healthy Food (Most of the Time)
Here was my 15 year-old son’s snack after school today: 3 bananas, 5 chocolatines (also called pain au chocolat-these are similar to a flat square croissant with chocolate inside) and 1 sugared doughnut. (And he still ate dinner!)
He (The G man) doesn’t usually eat a snack this size. Lately he needs massive amounts of calories and he engulfs food like he hasn’t eaten for weeks. (Check out how much he has grown in the picture below.) Today I stared at him with amazement (as he peeled his third banana):
Mom, I am HUNGRY! (With a ‘leave me alone’ tone)
Mr. G man is the second of my four kids to reach the teenage phase. When my oldest daughter (who is now 17 years-old) was a young teenager, her eating habits also changed dramatically within a few months. She changed from eating ‘like a bird’ to being very hungry, craving sugar (a common taste change when teens are growing quickly) and having a mini addiction with Nutella. She couldn’t walk into the kitchen when I was cooking food because the odors were strong and repellent (read why teens might be more sensitive to odors here). She has since returned back to ‘normal’ healthy eating and now it is her brother’s turn: this time I am ready when Mr. G man shows the ‘I need food right now’ typical teenager eating phase.
The dilemma for parents is how and what to feed these hungry teenagers to support a healthy teenage nutrition. After infancy, the teenage period is the second most important phase for good nutrition because of adolescents’ dramatic growth of physical and mental changes. Hunger and taste are the two biggest factors in determining when and what teens eat. As a parent and dietitian that has been thru it already, this time I feel more relaxed. It is okay if my teens eat junk food or drink Coca Cola sometimes. But most of the time at home, the priority is to feed them balanced and full of taste meals to satisfy their hunger (and have it ready when they need to engulf their calories!).
I know it isn’t easy to regularly feed teenagers healthy meals. Teenagers don’t care as much as their parents do about eating healthy, adolescents think in the short-term. When they are really hungry they want (and need) to eat high calorie foods that taste good. Many factors play into what, how and why teenagers eat the way they do and the home environment is still the most important base for encouraging and supporting a teenager’s healthy eating habits.
Healthy teenage nutrition is important for developing healthy adolescents.
Here are my 8 Food Rules for Feeding Hungry Teenagers that I use to keep the home front a zen and nourishing atmosphere to build healthy teen bodies and brains. The rest of the family follows along too.
Eight Teenage Nutrition Food Rules For Feeding Hungry Teenagers
1. Healthy is a 7 Letter Bad Word (so I don’t use it)
Teenagers do not care whether a food is healthy or good for their health. They think in short-term. Therefore, I try to offer balanced and regular meals (see rule number 2) without emphasis on ‘you need to eat your vegetables’ or ‘too much junk food (example potato chips) it isn’t good for your health’. For my teenagers, the food I prepare or have available at home is just food, food as nourishment without this is healthy or unhealthy ‘labels.’ Teenagers know that vegetables and fruit are healthy food choices as well as they know that other foods like chips and cola are not the best choices. We don’t need to remind them (because they really don’t care).
2. Meal Spacing and Regular Mealtimes
As a parent of hungry teenagers, this is the hardest rule to continually implement, but maybe the most important. Probably the most tactical way to get your teenager to eat well is for them to be hungry and looking forward to sitting down at the table to eat tasty balanced meals. This rule I stole from the French: the breakfast, lunch and late dinner meals are separate sit down phases along with eating one afternoon snack. Meals are served around the same time everyday (weekends more relaxed), because the appetite (hunger) starts to grow knowing the time the meals will be served and eaten. Snacking between meals is discouraged especially before the main meals. I say ‘No’ to eating snacks too close to main meals (and sometimes I have to block the refrigerator with a smile), but if hunger is too much to handle there is fruit available (see Rule Number 6). We do like the French: we eat a late supper around 7:30-8:00 pm and this is the last meal for the day. If my teenager was in a big growth phase (like my son is now) sometimes hunger hits again at 10 p.m. and stops them from falling asleep; this phase is short (a few weeks) and usually passes. I try to go with the flow, if they cannot fall asleep because they are hungry, they eat a piece of bread and butter or a healthy low-sugar cereal which calms the growling stomach and helps bring on sleep. This rule is most successful when you have someone who keeps the meal discipline: a parent or both parents who keep meals structured and snacks at limited times. It sounds restrictive, but it is a normal part of learning food social skills; eating, enjoying, sharing-around a table of good food.
3. The No-Branding of Food and Drinks
Similar to rule number 1, the no-branding of food and drinks means that ‘every-type-of-food’ is allowed in moderation because foods do not belong in categories such as: healthy, forbidden, a treat, good, bad, reward, etc. The no-branding of foods and drinks means that the food served at home does not have an ’emotional link’ or used as a reward. This no-branding of food is a general rule: I do treasure and believe in building emotional memories during celebration meals or a special event, like a birthday cake or a party with everyone’s favorite food.
4. 1 or 2 Foods On A Plate
Some teenagers are more sensitive to odors of foods than others (my daughter was, my son less so). In general, kids and teens do not like big portions of different kinds of food piled on their plates (at least this is my experience in France and Italy where meals are served in courses). My oldest daughter was the first one in the family to ask for only one food on her plate at a time; she is sensitive to odors and doesn’t like different types of food to touch each other. I noticed my other kids also like to eat this way. I take advantage of using the way the French serve the meal and offer salad, soup or vegetables first (when they are the most hungry and will eat these healthier foods first) and then the main part of the meal as the second course. It makes teenagers appreciate the taste of food more, helps them recognize hunger and adds to their food enjoyment. (Read more about ‘how to get kids to eat more vegetables‘ here).
5. Staying Calm During a Teenager’s Food Taste Changes
Infants and toddlers go thru food phases and so do teenagers. The stage of growth during puberty affects what type of food tastes (bitter, sweet, higher energy dense foods) teens are attracted to. Probably the most striking taste preference for me is a teen’s ‘obsession’ with sugar. When teens are at their fastest growing period, they crave and want energy dense and sugar-rich foods and drinks. At the end of puberty, adolescents accept more bitter tasting foods like vegetables. Teens may suddenly announce they are vegetarian, or want to eat gluten-free, or vegan or other. Whatever food taste or food phase your teenager is in, stay calm and support their choices while keeping the meals balanced. There are high chances your teen’s food preferences will change or adapt over time. Interested in how your tastes change as you age? Click here.
6. Food and Nut Bowls On The Table, Kitchen, and in the Car
This is the easiest food rule to do and maybe the most successful one. I keep bowls of fruit on the kitchen counter, on the dining table and (believe it or not) carry hard types of fruit (such as apples) in the car. Kids will pick up fruit and nuts and eat them when they are handy to do so. Studies have shown that when fruits are out and available at home, they get eaten. At our house, this is so true!
7. Hiding the Coca Cola
Fruits are out on the kitchen counter, but I hide the Coca Cola! Coca Cola and other sugared drinks are not forbidden, but aren’t readily available at home except for parties and occasional weekend evenings. I have noticed that when these drinks are out, my fast growing teenagers want to drink (devour) them. Especially when they are in the ‘I want sugar!’ phase. Sometimes my oldest teenager would ask me to hide other sugared foods too: Nutella, chocolate, cookies. She said she couldn’t resist and when these foods were out she would over-eat them and not feel well afterwards. This rule is similar to Rule Number 6 but on the opposite way: The less healthy foods and drinks are not openly out in the kitchen and the more healthy foods are.
8. Keeping My Mouth Shut and Comments to Myself
Last rule I try to follow is to keep my mouth shut to my kids on how they eat. I have self-confidence that the efforts to feed them healthy and balanced regular meals will pay off in the long-run (even if they don’t care about their long-term health at the moment!) At home the main goal is to offer healthy balanced regular meals at regular times sitting down at the regular table. Teenagers will eat and drink foods that are not always good for them. Or they may start an eating phase like being a vegetarian or only wanting pizza for breakfast. My rule: no comments, just support. Whatever phase they are in, it will pass! I see now that my 17 year-old has come thru teenage eating years with a gold medal: she enjoys real food, eats everything that she likes, is lean and has no eating or body image issues. She doesn’t like sugar-rich foods or sugared drinks and she doesn’t eat Nutella anymore. I am sure that my food rules are not the only reason she is like this today, but I have given her the highest chances to have balanced eating habits and a healthy approach to food.
And for this I feel happy that I have done my job.
Voila: Mr. G Man and me (8 months apart!)
Do you have a food rule for feeding teenagers that isn’t on this list? Or do you want to read more stories like this? You can subscribe to BrightonYourHealth monthly newsletter and article updates by hitting the button below. By joining you can download your 13-page free E-report on “How to Eat Like The French Without a Food Snob Attitude.” Merci!