As a child becomes a teenager, their bodies are changing enormously and good nutrition is critical to support their growth and development. However, this is also the time when many teens begin to exert their ‘free will’ and make their own choices. Unfortunately, when it comes to choosing what to eat, they are often heavily influenced by their peers and clever junk food advertising, so poor food choices can prevail.
Many health conscious parents find it really tough to deal with their formerly healthy teens sudden penchant for processed food. So I thought I’d share a few suggestions for encouraging teens to make food choices to nourish their rapidly developing bodies and support ongoing good health.
1) Set the standard
Even though they are becoming more autonomous, it is still up to parents to set the standard and fill the pantry with healthy choices. When you are preparing their foods, prepare the foods you want them to eat. Make extras of their favourite meals so there are always leftovers for them to grab when they are hungry the next day. Bag nut mixes, cut up veggie sticks, boil up some eggs and have them ready in containers to eat when they are hungry.
2) Family meals matter
Research has confirmed that teens that eat at a table with their family (as opposed to alone or in front of the TV) fare better nutritionally, socially and also psychologically. Make every effort to eat at least one meal a day together as a family. Such a simple thing can have a profound effect on their long-term health and wellbeing.
3) Pick your battles
You can control the food you buy and the food you prepare at home but try to avoid power struggles over the foods they choose to eat otherwise. Teens know they shouldn’t do many things, but they do anyway. Nagging and berating them to eat better will only create animosity. Trust you have laid enough of a foundation for them to learn that eating rubbish makes them feel awful. This phase will pass and they will come around eventually.
3) Out market the junk food companies
Drop subtle hints, like you don’t really care, but you thought you let them know anyway. I do this with my kids all of the time. If for example I read about a successful sports person relating their healthy eating habits to their success in their sport, I always pass it onto my (sport loving, competitive) kids. My vain daughter always pricks her ears up to beautiful, successful women’s health tips. The trick is to market to their own individual ‘sweet spot’ – the thing that matters to them. It might be achieving better grades, helping clear their acne or improving their sports performance. Whatever it is; subtle, regular hints that they can relate to, can work wonders.
4) Call on a friend
Seriously – what do you know? I apparent know and understand NOTHING according to my pre-pubescent daughter. So you need to find that person that knows more than you do. It might be a friends parent, uncle, grandparent or a professional. When I was consulting, I saw so many teens who were just so compliant (for me) in changing their unhealthy ways (often to the amazement of their parents). I always built a rapport with them and they respected my advice enough to follow it. Recently my sporty daughter asked for a sports drink stating ‘all the professionals drink them.’ Luckily a close friend who is a talented professional AFL player clarified that they are paid to hold and even open the bottles of brightly coloured sports drinks, but he (and many of the other players) never, ever drank a drop. Lesson learned, she now happily drinks water and coconut water to hydrate.
Many teens do go off-the-rails a little, but if in their younger years you’ve developed a healthy understanding and appreciation of real foods, they will come around.