by Diana Simeon
When Melinda Heart’s daughter arrives home after school, she’s hungry. Really hungry. “She goes right for the snack food,” Heart says. “Chips, cookies. I say, ‘Eat some fruit!’ But she just rolls her eyes and ruins her dinner.”
Sound familiar? Sound different from how you snacked as a teen? It is.
“Over the past 30 to 40 years, teen eating has changed quite dramatically,” explains Jill Castle, a childhood nutrition expert and co-author of Fearless Feeding: Raising Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School. In fact, according to the latest research, teenagers are eating more processed foods and fewer fruits, vegetables, dairy products, and whole grains than we did as teenagers. Teenage girls also consume less protein.
And, the results show. Between 1980 and 2012, according to the Centers for Disease Control, the rate of adolescent obesity quadrupled to more than 20 percent. Thirty percent of adolescents are now either obese or overweight. These nutritional habits (or lack thereof) take a toll in other ways, too.
“Teenagers are getting less Vitamin D, potassium, folate, fiber, and iron,” Castle says. “There’s a whole host of lower intakes in the nutrients that constitute a healthy, well-balanced diet.”
These findings may seem dire, but raising healthy teens is not as hard as you may believe. Try:
1. No need for an instant makeover. One change a month is plenty.
If you need to make changes in your teenager’s diet, start with a small step, like adding a fruit or vegetable to every meal, says Joy Bauer, a registered dietician and nutrition expert for NBC’s Today Show. (See our Q&A with Bauer for more easy ideas.)
“Don’t be overwhelmed by it, and don’t feel like you need to do everything in one day,” agrees Cara Natterson, a Los Angeles-based pediatrician and author of the popular American Girl series, The Care and Keeping of You. “Look in your pantry for high-sugar and processed foods and just slowly get rid of them. As you get through them, don’t replace them. Or if they’re stale, throw them out.”
Instead, buy more (and, eventually, mostly) real, unprocessed foods—fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and dairy—and read labels to find healthier alternatives for your teenager’s favorite processed items, like whole-grain cereals instead of sugared ones or whole-wheat pita chips instead of potato chips.
Hint: Shop the perimeter of the supermarket, where most unprocessed food is located.
2. Focusing on what you can control.
Even though you can’t control your teen’s intake at every meal, you’re still providing the majority of food they’ll consume. Start with those after-school snacks.
“Teenagers want to grab and go,” Natterson says. “Have stuff in the fridge, so they can open the door and grab something healthy.”
Some ideas: apples and peanut butter, carrots and Ranch dressing, whole-wheat pita chips and hummus, cut-up fruit and Greek yogurt.
Long Island mom Leora Lantz stocks her less-than-nutritious snacks on lower shelves in the pantry. “The kids tend to look straight into the pantry,” Lantz notes. “It’s a trick on the eye, but it does help.”
3. Staying calm.
Teens will eat some junk food, but if you provide them with nutritious foods most of the time, they’ll get the message. Let their not-so-great food choices slide, unless it becomes a pattern.
Say your teenager routinely eats fast food with his pals during lunch. “Then, I encourage parents to say, ‘I’m not doing this right. What can I do to help you have a good lunch?” Castle suggests.
Just be wary of the hard and fast—no sugar ever!—when it comes to food. This can backfire (see our article My Teenager Needs to Lose Weight).
4. Modeling, modeling, modeling.
Remember: When it comes to raising healthy teens, they will follow the model, not the rule. You need to show your teens what a healthy relationship with food looks like.
“Actions speak a lot louder than words,” Castle says. “Don’t be that mom that stands at the counter eating salad, while your teenagers eat dinner at the table.”
Don’t skip meals, binge on junk food or talk relentlessly about dieting. “You are more likely to create a teenager who does the same thing,” Castle adds.
5. Teaching with purpose.
Providing teenagers with the right kinds of foods is only half the battle; raising healthy teens means showing them how to feed themselves when they go to college. Teach them about food in a way that’s relevant to them.
Bauer recommends linking conversations about nutrition with a teenager’s goals or interests, but never with appearance (i.e., “That will make you fat”). “For example, my youngest daughter is an athlete, so it’s easy to casually work in information about how protein helps her muscles,” she notes.
6. Eating together.
Yes, we’re busy. We’re often so busy that it seems overwhelming to get healthy food on the table most nights. Here’s the bottom line, though: Eating as a family, 3-5 times a week, is a luxury to keep. Benefits include: consuming healthy foods in the right amounts, improved academic performance, improved communication skills and lower rates of risk taking. It doesn’t need to be dinner; Saturday breakfast works just as well. And, only one parent needs to be present to make an impact.
When you eat together, Castle recommends that you consider eating family style, with all the dishes in the center of the table. “Put a regular meal on the table. Then, just watch,” she advises. “Don’t talk about the food. Don’t reflect on who is eating what. Just observe. Talk about anything else under the sun.”
Over time, tweak the food you serve—maybe an extra fruit, a salad, or brown rice instead of white. Again, this doesn’t have to be from one meal to the next. Take your time.