Healthful Eating for Teens on the Run
"I want to eat a healthy diet, but it's impossible with my schedule. I never have time for breakfast. I always get three slices of pepperoni pizza for lunch and two 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 healthful 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 healthful eating patterns, parents should encourage an overall healthful diet, one made up of predominately "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 (beans, peas, peanuts)
- 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, 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 the usual suspects—soda, candy, and other sugary foods, and foods high in saturated fat or trans 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 healthful eating. Here are some guidelines to help get your teens on track:
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 healthful diet.
These tips may help teens to work this important meal into their busy schedules:
- Offer granola bars, bananas, and other breakfast 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.
- 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 kid will eat.
Encourage teens to try new foods.
Today, more than ever, we have an enormous array of healthful—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—Thai, Mexican, Moroccan, Spanish, Japanese, etc.
Mix favorite foods with not-so-favorite foods.
For example, 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 juice, frozen yogurt or light ice cream, 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!
- 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 him 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 them grocery shopping and have them select foods for lunches; bringing a lunch to school may discourage kids from filling up on the junk in vending machines.
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 healthful entrées 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 healthful 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 healthful eating habits that will benefit them in the future.
American Dietetic Association
Canadian Council on Food and Nutrition
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Graff C, et al. Bodypride: An Action Plan for Teens Seeking Self-Esteem and Building Better Bodies. Griffin Publishing; 1997.
Lund J. Cooking Healthy With The Kids In Mind. Putnam Publishing Group; 1998.
Rickert VI. Adolescent Nutrition: Assessment and Management. Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins; 1995.
Willett WC, Stampfer MJ. Rebuilding the food pyramid. Scientific American. 2003:288:64-71.
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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