By Diana Simeon
By now you’re probably well aware of what a healthy diet for teens looks like. It’s rich in whole grains, fruits and vegetables, legumes, lean meats, and good-for-you fats (think olive oil), with little to no processed food (as in those microwave dinners that are oh-so-easy.)
And you also know how tough it is for busy families to pull this off on a regular basis. Realistically, it requires planning—so you know what you’re cooking when you walk in the door from a long day at work—as well as buying mostly nutritious foods, so you and your teenagers won’t be tempted to eat too much processed food. “Because if it’s there, you are going to eat it,” says Dr. Adelle Cadieux, a psychologist with the Healthy Weight Center at Michigan’s Helen Devos Children’s Hospital.
But experts also stress that eating well does not have to happen overnight. In fact, even small changes can have a significant impact. “It’s just shifting your thinking a little bit,” recommends Dr. Jennifer Trachtenberg, a pediatrician and author of The Smart Parent’s Guide to Getting Your Kids through Check Ups, Illnesses, and Accidents. “You don’t have to become vegan or anything like that.” Here are some 3 easy ideas to get you started.
3 Tips for Healthy Diets for Teens
1. Add a fruit or vegetable to every meal.
“We don’t need to adopt a special diet,” says Cadieux. “It’s just choosing healthier foods.” So, here’s a simple idea. Try adding a fruit or vegetable to every meal. At breakfast, it could be berries or a banana on your cereal. An apple or pear with lunch. A salad with dinner. Hate chopping vegetables? Pick up pre-cut vegetables and fruit at your grocery store’s salad bar (or in the produce section). You can also buy frozen fruit and vegetables, which are often less expensive, but just as healthy because they’re frozen just hours after being picked.
2. Change up your snacks.
Your teenager arrives home from school—starving—and eats an entire bag of potato chips, ruining the dinner you’d planned in the process and not doing much for her own physical health. Sound familiar? No doubt, snacks can make or break healthy diets for teens.
Here’s an idea. Try slowly cutting back on the amount of chips, cookies, and other processed snack food you buy. “Just purchase those kinds of foods every once in a while,” advises Cadieux. “And instead make sure there are healthy snacks that your teenagers can just grab and go.” So this week, rather than potato chips, bring home some pita chips and a bag of popcorn. Try that for a couple of weeks, then ditch the Oreos in favor of granola bars or yogurt.
You can also start with just adding fruit or veggies to your teenager’s after-school snack. “If they’ve had some chips and they’re still hungry, then encourage them to have an apple instead of more chips,” says Trachtenberg, who’s also a clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. “It’s just small habit changes one at a time.” (Another excellent habit to encourage, says Cadieux: Make sure your teenager eats breakfast.)
3. Use smaller plates.
Bet you didn’t expect this idea for healthy diets for teens, but the bigger your plate, the more food you are likely to eat—and Americans in general eat too much food, even healthy food. “One of the things we Americans seem to really struggle with is eating appropriate portion sizes,” says Cadieux. “There is a lot of research to show if you have a bigger plate, you are more likely to fill it up.” So, consider ditching your dinner plates and instead buying some smaller ones, like salad plates—which, if you think about it, are about the size of the dinner plates we grew up with.