Teenagers are notoriously unhealthy eaters. They are still young enough to feel as though they’ll live forever but are old enough to want to make their own decisions about what to eat. Nagging them won’t work. In fact, nagging is more likely to make them rebel.
Instead, parents should make it easy for teens to make good choices by following these simple tips.
Give them “fast food” choices at home
A bowl of fruit is beautiful. Dark red apples, brilliant oranges, lovely yellow bananas. The colors are eye-catching… and yet, teens may walk past this beautiful bowl of fruit for a week until, sadly, parents are forced to throw it in the trash. If they go through this cycle often enough, they might give up and stop buying fruit.
But when parents put out a plate of apple wedges or orange slices already peeled, the fruit is likely to disappear within minutes. Same food, different presentation. When food is easy to grab and go, teens are likely to reach for a healthy snack.
The same is true of vegetables. When teens come home from school to find a handy vegetable tray in the refrigerator, they can get an after-school energy boost with nutritional value. Grocery stores make this very easy. Busy parents will pay a premium to get fruits and vegetables pre-cut, but when the additional cost is weighed against the health costs of overloading on junk food, the proper choice is clear.
Sneak stealthy healthy foods into their favorite meals
There are easy ways to make teens’ favorite meals healthier, and the whole family benefits from the extra vitamins. With lasagna, for example, fresh, chopped spinach can be added to the cheese layer. The spinach doesn’t noticeably change the flavor, but it certainly changes the nutrition count.
Most teens love pizza. Whole wheat pizza crust is a delicious base. Whole grains take longer to digest, so whole wheat crust will keep teens feeling full longer and will help prevent them from overeating. Pizza can be a very healthy choice, especially when made with low-fat mozzarella and lots of vegetables.
Ask teens to pack a lunch each evening
Teens often skip lunch simply because they’re too rushed in the morning to pack lunch, and they don’t have cash to buy a meal at school. (Just as bad, they have plenty of cash, and they fill up on junk.) If parents make it a part of the routine each evening for teens to make their lunch the night before – and provide healthy choices – then the groggy early-morning teen need only grab the lunch bag on his way out the door.
Let teens feed the family once a week
Teaching teens about nutrition is great, but when “teaching” turns to “lecturing,” they’ll tune parents out. But teens might appreciate being given responsibility for feeding the family once a week, or even just once in a while. If the young person grumbles, parents can turn it into something fun by allowing a friend to come over to help. At this age, children are very social, and they love any excuse to be with their friends.
The teens can plan the meal in advance, and talk it over briefly with parents to ensure it’s properly balanced. In this way, they’ll learn about nutrition by doing, which is always better than learning by listening to an adult drone on and on.
At www.kidshealth.org/teens, kids can learn about the food pyramid and find recipes. The site is packed with information about the body, so teens can learn answers to questions they’re too embarrassed to ask.
Dr. Marta Katalenas, M.D.