When my first child was a baby, I vowed that I’d feed my children nothing but pure, healthy food. I used our little food mill to grind up fresh fruits and veggies for him, I took him to health food stores and bought him organic, whole grain graham crackers. We ate homemade jam on fresh bread right out of our oven, and although I went through phases where we didn’t pay as much attention to diet and we did at times partake of fast food, I took great pride in the fact that my youngest child didn’t know what a Happy Meal was until she was six.
My oldest child is now 16. Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.
Have you seen what teenagers eat? I’m not sure how it happened, but lately I’ve realized that my all-natural, real food eating kid is suddenly consuming a whole lot of stuff that I’m hesitant to even call “food”. He’s old enough to be making his own food choices some of the time, and I try not to be overly ridged about food…a little junk here and there is something I can accept, as long as the whole picture is healthy. But there’s really only so much Cheez-with-a-Z I can handle before the real food mommy in me wants to fight back! What’s a Mom to do? I’m not claiming to have all the answers, but here are 5 ways to help your teen eat right.
1. Give them a good start.
From the time they are able, let your children help you when you meal plan, shop and cook meals. This gives you lots of opportunity to discuss why certain foods are good for you and why others are not! Let your toddler help pick out fresh produce at the store, explain to your preschooler how to tell if fruit is ripe or if a vegetable is past its prime. Discuss where food comes from, from farm to table. Consider growing a garden and letting your child help with the process from planting the seed to making the meal! When lessons about food become a natural part of preparing meals and eating, your child learns to appreciate real food and make good choices about which foods to eat. This groundwork will stay with them throughout their lives (even if it seems to have completely slipped their minds when they hit high school).
2. Understand why teens make poor food choices.
What’s going on in a kid’s head, when suddenly they’re making strange food choices? A whole host of things! To begin with, the teenager is away from home a lot more than he used to be. Hanging out with peers becomes a big part of life, extra curricular activites at school and part-time jobs take teens away from home much more often. Peer pressure to eat junk food is rampant, and in fact much marketing of snack food is aimed right at this vulnerable age group.
Besides poor food choice, another problem for teenagers (particularly girls) is skipping meals and dieting. Pressure to be thin (most models these days are dangerously underweight) and self-consciousness about their changing bodies drive many girls in this age group to dangerous diets and even anorexia. Boys who worry about being “scrawny” may try to put on weight by eating high calorie junk food, not understanding that the empty calories will not help them gain muscle mass. With this in mind, it’s important to approach food issues with teens carefully and with a lot of grace. Be sure to discuss food issues from the standpoint of what is healthy for their bodies rather than focusing on outward appearances, and (as hard as it can be) expect your child to make some food choices that you disagree with. It’s part of the learning process, and as long as you keep those lines of communication open and approach the issue from an “I’m concerned-about-your-health, let’s work together on this together” point of view, food choice mishaps can be an opportunity for learning and discussion.
3. Make your home a real-food haven.
You might not have much control over what foods your teen has to choose from when she’s out of the house, but you can make sure that there are good choices at home! Make a point to have sit-down, family dinners most nights a week. This can be hard given the busy schedules that most families are facing (especially families with teens!) but it’s a great time for the family to re-connect, as well as eat a balanced and healthy meal. Invite your teen’s friends over to dinner, too…you’ll get to know them better, and it’s amazing how often teenaged guests are excited to have a home-cooked meal. Make your house an open, comfortable place for teens to gather.
This is important for many reasons; I’d rather have a house full of teenagers and know what my child is up to than have a quiet house any day! Having your teen’s friends experience your family’s food choices can help both your teen and his friends. Have plenty of healthy but teen-friendly food on hand, and plan dinners (like a homemade pizza bar featuring build-your-own pizzas) that will be fun and good for you. You may be surprised by the reaction that other teens have to real, home-cooked food! On more than one occasion, teen-aged dinner guests have expressed to us that they wished their families ate homemade dinners together, too.
4. Educate, educate, educate.
The three biggest food pitfalls that teens face are dieting, junk food/fast food, and soda. Now’s the time to educate them more in-depth on the reasons why you want them to avoid these things! As a teen, your child has the ability to really understand the reasons behind eating healthy, chemical-free, responsibly grown food. Watch a video about farming practices, or a documentary about food additives. Revisit the reasons why you avoid fast foods and get into the nitty-gritty, gross aspect of how these foods are processed. Comment on junk food advertising aimed at teens when you see it, and point out the methods being used to influence their food choices (nobody likes to be manipulated, and there’s no time like the present to teach your child to think critically when it comes to the media).
Discuss what goes into soda and why it’s bad for you, or why you have always avoided using foods with artificial colors or flavors. They may have heard you tell them to avoid eating certain things over the years, but at this age they really need to be reminded of the why. Finally, take some time to discuss the dangers of dieting with your child, even if he or she is not currently considering a diet. Not only does dieting at this age carry an increased risk of eating disorders, studies also show that teens who diet actually have a harder time controlling their weight in adulthood.
5. Pick your battles and prepare ahead.
If something about your teen’s food choices needs adjusting, take a moment to think about it before addressing the issue. Figure out what you’re willing to accept and what really needs to change, and choose your battles wisely. Hold the discussion on your terms, at a time when neither of you is upset…not in the heat of the moment. Be prepared to negotiate on certain issues and to stand firm on others, for example one trip to a fast food restaurant with friends per month may be acceptable, while eating foods that you know your child is sensitive to (such as certain grains or MSG) is not an option.
In the meantime, know where it’s likely that a teen might make a bad food choice, and plan ahead. For example, have a discussion with your child about what’s available to eat at school and make sure that she has a healthy but delicious snack with her if she’s going to soccer practice right after class…thus avoiding the temptation of the school’s vending machines. Make healthy alternatives to fast food and over-processed, frozen convenience foods that your teen can quickly prepare as a snack, lunch or dinner when family dinners aren’t possible. For example, freeze your own homemade pizza, macaroni and cheese, hamburgers and homemade oven fries so that they can eat something healthy at home rather than be tempted to make a fast food run. Stock plenty of natural, flavorful snacks that can be eaten while doing homework or hanging out with friends, and provide some natural, sparkling drinks as an alternative to soda.
Finally, enjoy this time! While the teen years can be challenging, I’ve found that they can also be wonderful. Teens can be a great help in the meal-planning, cooking and shopping department, and it’s fun to have a partner-in-crime in the kitchen. And although my oldest can make some questionable food choices, we’ve gone through some discussions about it and all is not lost…he’s eating better these days, and this morning I saw him pack his own lunch before school: A sandwich on gluten free bread with lettuce, tomato and all natural ham, a hard boiled egg, and a container of homemade, apples-only applesauce. It made my day!
Do you have a teenager? What tips do you have about getting them to eat right?