Parenting teenagers can be a tricky business. Your babies are growing up, they are forming opinions of their own and they are learning how to make decisions and navigate the world around them.
It’s important to give them the leeway to do just that. But giving them more freedoms and responsibilities does not mean letting go of all rules or relinquishing our role as their guide. This holds true on important topics ranging from relationships to money to appropriate behavior. And it definitely holds true when it comes to healthy eating.
The habits and tastes that your teen is busy exploring now will shape how they relate to food for years to come. That doesn’t mean their tastes won’t change (I was somewhat of a junk food vegetarian as a teen, and now I am a registered dietitian), but by providing some careful pointers and subtle incentives, you can help tip the scales in favor of a balanced, life-affirming relationship with food. Here are a few key pointers.
Make healthy choices easy
Teens are often busy, and they are prone to snacking on whatever they find in the house. Make sure you stock the cupboards with healthy, wholesome foods that can be grabbed on the fly (if necessary). From granola bars to fruit to crackers or veggie chips, there are plenty of options beyond the candy bar. As I explained in my post on getting kids to eat vegetables, studies have shown that presenting foods prominently and attractively will increase the likelihood that teens will eat them. So if you do keep candy bars in the house, put them at the back of the cupboard — and put an attractive fruit bowl out where they will see it.
Make breakfast a priority
Whether it’s sleeping in, running off for yet another extracurricular activity, or throwing a tantrum over what they’re going to wear to school, teens seem to be particularly prone to doing something, anything, but sitting down and eating breakfast. So be sure to plan ahead. Have smoothies ready for when they wake up or start some oatmeal in the slow cooker the night before. And remind them, if they are interested, that eating breakfast is an important strategy for effective weight control.
Build a culture around food
Contrary to the popular stereotype, most teens don’t actively hate their family — at least not all the time. Plan for fun, enjoyable and healthy sit-down meals together. The occasional unhealthy indulgence is OK too. When you eat out together, pick a place that has healthier choices available. And talk about what food is, where it comes from, and the often complex issues that surround it.
Why not also try cooking with your teens? There are plenty of fun resources geared toward different youth cultures, and you may even enjoy them too. My husband, for example, has become somewhat of a fan of the Vegan Black Metal Chef. (I confess that I hope my kids never get the same enthusiasm! Check out the video below.)
Respect your teens' choices
As teens explore their own world views, they will inevitably explore choices that are different from your own. Even if you never set foot in a fast-food restaurant, chances are they probably will. And they may also get interested in the ethics and politics of food — adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet for example. Some of these choices are more troublesome than others, from a health point of view. It's relatively easy, for example, for a teen to eat a healthy vegetarian diet — and a vegan diet should also be no problem, provided that you make sure they are getting enough calcium, vitamin B12 and iron. (Most teens do not eat enough calcium.) With fast food, however, you may want to keep an eye on their habits. The occasional burger won't destroy their health — and banning them may create a backlash — but if you find your teen indulging on fast food every day, you may want to start thinking about a carefully crafted strategic intervention.
Be a role model
Again, sorry to bust the stereotypes, but teens really are heavily influenced by what their parents do, even if they sometimes rebel against it. So be sure to eat healthy. Take the time to enjoy your food. Eat your breakfast (yes, this is an obsession of mine) and generally do what you’d like your teens to grow up doing.
Nagging and/or guilt tripping a teen (“Why can’t you eat like me/your sister etc.”) is unlikely to lead to anything but trouble, but inviting them to share your enjoyment of a fresh garden salad, or a bowl of hummus and crackers, may turn into more than a healthy meal.
In fact, you both may even find that you're having fun together.
Jenni Grover, MS RD LDN, is a registered dietitian and co-founder of Realistic Nutrition Partners. She specializes in child, maternal and prenatal nutrition, with a focus on whole foods.