This article was written by Otago University nutrition student Jessica Meads, who shares her tips on getting teenagers into healthy eating habits.
When I think of the words teenage eating habits, two images immediately come to mind. The first is the chip munching, coke guzzling teen that swoops into the house around dinner time, and with no more than a grunt or mumble of thanks leaves immediately after. The second is the weight-conscious teen who always has a full social calendar and a dress to fit, and flits from one eating fad to the next. The challenge of keeping up with your teen’s social calendar is hard enough, let alone getting them to adopt healthy eating habits.
So to help you transform your teen into a healthy, active adult, here are some common barriers you may face, and some easy solutions to overcoming them.
Lack of time
A teen’s life is usually a fast, fun-packed one with many things on the go at once. The juggle between school, sporting commitments, part-time jobs and a social life leaves little room for the importance of a healthy diet and lifestyle.
Meals are often skipped. Breakfast is forgotten in the morning scurry out the door, a proper lunch or dinner gets pushed aside as sporting or work commitments arise. All are only remembered when the stomach rumbles half way through class, or on the way home from school. The majority of the time what results is a quick dash into the nearest dairy, canteen or pantry and the consumption of a sugar or fat-laden snack.
Skipping meals can not only cause an unhealthy binge session later on in the day, but also a lack of concentration, motivation and energy. In some instances a skipped meal may not always be accidental. Girls often have the misconception that it will aid weight loss or keep in shape. Instead, when hunger hits later in the day, they are more likely to reach for that fatty or sugary hit.
- Encourage some form of breakfast, lunch and dinner to be consumed.
- Breakfast doesn’t have to be as soon as they rise from bed, but eating within two hours of waking up is recommended. In saying this, it doesn’t have to be a full breakfast, something is better than nothing.
- The same goes for other meal times. For many teens, eating something small and on the go is often the most realistic approach. Some excellent options are cereal bars, fruit smoothies, drinking yogurts, high-fibre cereals and dried, tinned or fresh fruit.
- Healthy snacks and easy to eat options such as filled wholemeal pita pockets, low-fat yogurts and fruit should also be encouraged to tide those bottomless pits over between meals. Or perhaps used to encourage those to eat who don’t want anything to heavy.
- Replace energy-dense snacks in the pantry and lunchboxes with low-fat alternatives.
- Introduce different varieties of crackers with a variety of toppings, unsalted nuts and popcorn.
- As meal times and bursts of hunger will vary, it pays to be prepared. Have easy fillers ready such as baked beans, spaghetti, ham and cheese with whole grain breads for toasted sandwiches for an after-school snack.
- When cooking meals, try doubling the amount and placing the second batch in the freezer for those occasions when time to prepare a meal is limited.
- Encourage leftovers to be taken to school; add a few extra veggies or pasta to the main meal so that there will be some left over.
- Make time to eat together as a family. Even if it is only twice a week, it is good to sit down and have a meal together. Not only does it give you a chance to ensure your children get a balanced meal, it also allows the family to catch up with each other.
Lack of Interest
With all the new technologies, freedoms and constant changes to a teen’s social scene, it is not surprising they have a lack of interest in healthy foods and activities. They would rather be out hanging with their peers or driving around in their new car than be seen going for a walk with their parents or getting a lecture about healthy foods.
- Get them involved. Introduce a cooking roster where different family members cook on different nights. This will not only allow them to learn how to fend for themselves, it will also increase their awareness of what actually makes up their favourite meals. Start with simple meals such as burritos, pasta dishes or pizzas. Encourage them to choose what they would like to cook each week, getting them to write down what ingredients they need. Through this you could encourage healthier meals to be tried or simply how a favourite meal could be made healthier. For example, asking them to make a salad to accompany the meal too or add extra veggies to a pasta dish. Hopefully their interest might be sparked and you never know – the next Jamie Oliver could be discovered!
Unlike most boys, girls are more often than not weight conscious during adolescence and go through different food phases. The most common phase for girls is becoming vegetarian. Sometimes this is for ethical reasons, but it can also be because they want to be different, fit in with their peers, or simply to annoy their parents! And it can also be seen as a way to lose weight. Other phases could include cutting out carbs, avoiding dairy, or the latest fad diet they read in their favourite magazine. Whatever the phase they go through, often it can lead to an unbalanced diet lacking in nutrients needed for proper growth and development.
- Approach your teen about their new diet. If weight is a problem, then encourage safe weight loss. Make it a family affair by serving healthy low-fat meals or reducing the amount of high-fat snacks available. By removing temptation they are less likely to fell guilty or deprived.
- Perhaps suggest they get involved in more sports or join a gym, instead of cutting important items from their diet.
- Ensure you work with your teen through their phase, not against them.
- Encourage a balanced diet if they have decided to cut out a food group, then make sure they are still getting all the nutrients they require, ie if cutting out dairy, are they eating enough other calcium sources to make up the deficit? Or are they over-compensating and consuming too many kilojoules?
- If they are serious about becoming a vegetarian, sit down and have a chat with them. Introduce alternative protein sources to meat such as legumes, grains and soy products. Ensure they understand the importance of making up the missing protein which is usually gained from meat. Introduce vegetarian meals once or twice a week to the whole family and encourage your teen to look through recipe books and try new recipes.
Peers' opinions and acceptance play a large role in any teen’s life. With a full social calendar and an extensive social network, outside influences can take a large toll on a teenager’s attitude towards food.
- Encourage healthy alternatives such as pretzels and popcorn to be snacked on while watching a movie with friends.
- Take healthy dishes or snacks along to friends’ houses, barbeques or catch-ups. If your teen is going to be around alcohol, ensure they eat dinner before they leave the house and have a discussion around consuming alcohol safety.
NOTE: This article was written as part of a writing assignment for Otago University’s nutrition students. It has been reviewed by Healthy Food Guide’s senior nutritionist.