by Rebecca Meiser
It is a story as predictable as the sun: your previously hamburger-and-bacon-loving teenager announces she has become vegan. At the same time, your 12-year-old son has spent the whole day grazing on cookies, chips and juice and has no interest in eating an actual lunch or dinner. And your older teen really, really wants to eat steak every night, if possible. What’s a crazed, busy parent to do? First off, don’t panic, says Elizabeth Villanyi, a clinical dietitian at University Hospital’s Ahuja Medical Center in Cleveland. With a little bit of planning and a little bit of help from your family, you can manage many of these requests and expectations.
“Involve your kids when creating the meal plan for the week,” Villanyi says. Talk in advance with your teens about what they want to eat that week and how it’s going to be prepared. Discussing in advance makes dinner less combative, Villanyi says.
Shopping and preparing for dinner together also helps. And, with the popularity of The Food Network, it’s a lot easier to convince your teens to come into the kitchen with you, says John Selick, the Executive Chef at Sodexo, Ahuja Medical Center.
“I encourage my kids to make a side dish for meals,” Selick says. “It makes it easier on me as a parent, my kids know they’ll have something they want to eat, and it’s also a way for them to express their creativity.”
The important thing, though, is to remember that you’re the parent, not the chef.
“It is not your job to become a short order cook,” says Dr. Jennifer Powell-Lunder, a clinical psychologist based in New York and co-author of Teenage as a Second Language: A Parent’s Guide to Becoming Bilingual. “In this age of permissive parenting, where everyone is so short on time, it’s easy to just want to placate your kids. But, you want to set good boundaries.”
It’s fine if your teen wants to graze during the day, says Powell-Lunder, but it’s also okay to demand that they still sit at the dinner table with the whole family. “Family meals are so important,” she says. “With teenagers running in all directions, meals offer a forum for everyone to connect. That small talk over dinner is so important. Kids who have ongoing, consistent communication with their parents fare much better.”
To encourage healthful grazing, Villanyi suggests keeping cut-up fruits, low- fat yogurts and homemade granola on accessible shelves.
“Kids tend to grab whatever’s most convenient,” Villanyi says. “If you keep vegetables and low-fat protein items at eye level, that’s what people will tend to reach for.”
It’s also advisable to set boundaries on these habits. “If your kid’s been grazing all day, it’s okay to tell your teen that no, they can’t eat another snack 10 or 15 minutes before dinner,” Powell-Lunder says.
As for your daughter’s new vegan diet?
Chances are, it won’t last. “A lot of times, when teens announce they want to become vegan, it’s because they heard their friend or someone famous say it,” Villanyi says. “When it comes down to it, they often don’t know what it means.” When they learn they will no longer be able to eat ice cream or cheese, teens often reverse course. “I’ve seen most of these phases last only a couple days or weeks,” she laughs. If your child is serious about vegetarianism, though, Villanyi suggest going to a dietitian to make sure they are getting the nutrients they need.
Rebecca Meiser is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Your Teen Magazine.