"I want to eat a healthy diet, but it's impossible with my schedule. I never have time for breakfast. I always get 3 slices of pepperoni pizza for lunch and 2 cartons of chocolate milk. I grab a candy bar, chips, and a soda from the machine after school. Then I heat up something for dinner around 9:00 PM when I get home from work, or I stop by McDonald's," says Adam, age 16.
Most teens are on the fast track as they balance school, work, extracurricular activities, friends, and family responsibilities. Teens can be aware of what a healthy diet requires, understand its importance, desire to have it, yet find it too difficult to work into their busy schedules. However, it can be done!
Most teens know which foods are good and which are bad. However, to help kids develop healthy eating patterns, parents should encourage an overall healthy diet, one made up of mostly good foods, but that has room for some indulgences as well. The good foods, which teens should try to increase their intake of, include the following:
- Legumes, which include beans, peas, and peanuts
- Non-fat dairy products such as fat-free, unflavored milk
- Nuts and seeds—cashews, almonds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds
- Whole grains, such as brown rice, whole-wheat breads, and oatmeal
- Healthy fats, such as the unsaturated fats in oils, fish, olives, avocados, and nuts
- Lean sources of protein, such as lean meats, low-fat dairy products, soy products, and beans
Those foods considered bad, and which teens should try to limit their consumption of, include soda, candy, and other sugary foods, and foods high in saturated fat ortrans fat, such as full-fat dairy products, fried foods, processed snack foods, butter, and margarine.
Tips for Improving Teens' Eating Habits
Both the food and the enjoyment kids get out of preparing and eating meals can help enhance the appeal of healthy eating. Here are some guidelines to help get your teens on track:
Don't Skip Breakfast
Skipping breakfast is a big mistake, but busy teens often do it.
"I don't have time," "I'm not hungry," "I'd rather sleep," or "I hate breakfast food" are just a few of the excuses teens use to avoid eating in the morning. Breakfast is essential for a healthy diet.
These tips may help teens to work this important meal into their busy schedules:
- Offer granola bars, bananas, and other foods that can be eaten on the bus or in the car.
- Keep it simple. Include a protein, complex carbohydrate, and a fruit: cereal with milk and fruit or a bagel with peanut butter and an apple to eat on the way to school.
- Make your own fast food. Bake fruit and oatmeal bars with your teen on the weekend so they'll be ready to grab during the week.
- Some breakfast foods, like oatmeal, can be made in a crock pot the night before so it is ready in the morning.
- Get creative. Pretty much any food can be a breakfast food: leftovers from last night's dinner, a sandwich, cottage cheese and fruit, or whatever your teen will eat.
- Make use of the microwave. Eggs, for example, can be scrambled and cooked in less than one minute.
Encourage Teens to Try New Foods
Today, more than ever, we have an enormous array of healthy—and even exotic—foods from which to choose. Encourage your teens to try new foods:
- Bring them grocery shopping and have them pick some new foods for your family to try.
- Encourage the whole family to try a new fruit or vegetable each week, such as papaya, mango, or spaghetti squash.
- Try ethnic cuisines such as Thai, Mexican, Moroccan, Spanish, and Japanese food
Mix Favorite Foods With Not-So-Favorite Foods
Most kids like cereal, smoothies, pasta, and sandwiches. Here are some ideas for boosting the nutrition in these foods:
- Stock your pantry with a variety of cereals—some high-fiber choices and some lower-fiber, high-sugar cereals that teens tend to favor. Suggest that your teen combine a high-fiber cereal with their usual cereal for their morning bowl. They'll still taste the sweetness and get some extra nutrients.
- Encourage kids to add sliced fresh fruit (blueberries, bananas, or strawberries) or dried fruit (raisins, dried cranberries, dried dates) to a bowl of cereal.
- Smoothies are popular among teens. Make these drinks with skim milk or 100% juice, frozen yogurt, and fruit.
- Stir-fry fresh or frozen vegetables in olive oil and toss them with pasta and tomato sauce.
- Add sesame seeds, fruit, raisins, scallions, or other nontraditional salad ingredients to liven up a green salad.
- Stuff sandwiches with cucumber and tomato slices, lettuce or spinach leaves, and sprouts, and use smaller amounts of meat and cheese.
Involve Teens in Planning and Preparing Meals
Teens are often trying to exert their independence and take some control over their lives—so let them do it in the kitchen! Here are some ideas:
- Plan a few nights each week (as many as possible) that the whole family can have dinner together.
- Assign your teen one night of the week to plan dinner. Help with the preparations as needed. Assign smaller tasks on the other nights.
- Provide refrigerated pizza dough, low-fat cheese, tomato sauce, and fresh or sauteed vegetables, and let your teen be the pizza chef.
- Bring your teen grocery shopping to select foods for lunches.
Tailor Meal Times to Energy Needs
Because of their busy lifestyles, teens' diets need to be tailored to their schedules.
- For kids with sports or jobs after school, provide them with a hearty snack, such as a peanut butter sandwich and an apple, to eat before heading off to practice or work.
- If extracurricular activities interfere with dinner time, have leftovers ready when your teen gets home.
- Make healthy meals on the weekend and freeze them in individual containers that can be thawed and heated for quick dinners during the week.
- Keep the kitchen, school locker, and backpack well-stocked with healthy snacks.
Most teens on the run are running low on the nutrients they need to fuel their active lifestyles. As your teenagers continue to make more independent choices, encourage them to establish healthy eating habits that will benefit them in the future.
Eat Right—Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
Choose My Plate—Department of Agriculture
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NHLBI integrated guidelines for pediatric cardiovascular risk reduction. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated February 12, 2013. Accessed March 17, 2016.
Smart snacking. Nemours Kids Health website. Available at: http://kidshealth.org/teen/food_fitness/nutrition/healthy_snacks.html. Updated September 2015. Accessed March 17, 2016.
Tips to help you eat fruits. Department of Agriculture Choose My Plate website. Available at: http://www.choosemyplate.gov/fruits-tips. Updated January 7, 2016. Accessed March 17, 2016.
Tips to help you eat vegetables. Department of Agriculture Choose My Plate website. Available at: http://www.choosemyplate.gov/vegetables-tips. updated January 12, 2016. Accessed March 17, 2016.
Tips to help you eat whole grains. Department of Agriculture Choose My Plate website. Available at: http://www.choosemyplate.gov/fruits-tips. Accessed March 17, 2016.
Tips to help you make wise choices from the protein foods group. Department of Agriculture Choose My Plate website. Available at: http://www.choosemyplate.gov/protein-foods-tips. Updated January 21, 2016. Accessed March 17, 2016.
Tips to help you make wise choices in the dairy group. Department of Agriculture Choose My Plate website. Available at: http://www.choosemyplate.gov/dairy-tips. Updated June 26, 2015. Accessed March 17, 2016.
What are oils? Department of Agriculture Choose My Plate website. Available at: http://www.choosemyplate.gov/food-groups/oils.html. Accessed July 13, 2012.
Last reviewed March 2016 by Michael Woods, MD Last Updated: 3/17/2016