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Teenagers are notorious for eating & drinking copious amounts of junk food. It’s part of the ‘I’m old enough to be my own boss now & I’ll do whatever I like’ feeling – which is a totally normal & healthy part of them growing up & becoming their own person, confident enough to cut the apron strings & be independent from their parents. The ultimate parental goal is redundancy after all!
But teens are also old enough & clever enough to understand that food choices can strongly impact their day to day health and appearance. APPEARANCE. That is where you can really get through to them – there is no other time in a human’s life when they will be so concerned about their appearance, their image, how they look to potential new love interests…they won’t care if their soft drink or chocolate milk habit is predisposing them to diabetes & heart disease later in life, but they might listen if you can give them some logical evidence that it will make their acne or love-handles worse. (Best to get that evidence presented by a health practitioner / an expert who is not you – book them in for an appointment with a naturopath or nutritionist who has a passion for helping young people). Here are my top tips for keeping your teenager healthy without fighting too much with them!
1. Support their growth
Realise they have MASSIVE nutritional & caloric requirements due to their growth & development. Stock the fridge & pantry with nutrient dense, whole foods (the opposite to what they will want to be eating, but make sure you have plenty available at home). Know what they love & hate in the healthy real foods category & have loads of what they do like ready to go – must include a wide variety of vegetables, plus plenty of protein & good fats. They need regular protein for healthy skin, hair, nails & muscles. Protein is also vital for maintaining stable moods, blood sugar & immunity – but those probably won’t register as concerns like looking good will! Watching protein intake is super important especially for teens experimenting with a vegan diet, those who are going through a growth spurt, are very thin or very physically active, & also for those who struggle with excess body fat. Any teen prone to ‘hangriness’ (growing boys especially can lose the plot
2. Limit the junk intake
Don’t let teens eat junk too often (some is unavoidable, & it’s not worth being a total Nazi over it, but let them know seriously that they are building their adult body – good food during this growth period is key to supporting a healthy, normal, well-functioning body throughout life). Get the foundations right now, or they’ll pay down the track. You can help them gain privileges that they want, by showing they are mature enough to take responsibility for nourishing themselves properly. More responsibility / maturity = more trust & more privileges. Intelligent choices get noticed, praised & rewarded.
3. Make them aware
Make sure they are aware of the addiction potential of foods, & the sneaky tactics of food companies. Having a good understanding of the power of addiction from food experiences (i.e. sugar, salt, caffeine, MSG etc) can really help them to understand how drug, nicotine & alcohol addiction work too – good to know early in the teenage years. If your teen is addicted to energy drinks or soft drinks or lollies or chips – get them to realise they’ve been tricked into regularly giving their money to a big company who doesn’t give a crap about them & is happy to profit from making consumers sick / fat / unhealthy using addictive but legal substances in their food products. Giving someone else the power to control you is not a nice feeling, especially for a teen – appeal to their sense of justice & love of freedom.
4. Share the love of good food
Foster an interest in & a love of good food. If they are creative – encourage them to express some creativity through food, it’s a great medium – take them ingredient shopping at the local markets, compare the variety & freshness of what is available, start a food garden…food can be fascinating & beautiful, not just a chore. So many inspirational Pinterest ideas, Instagram recipe videos – there are loads of ‘cool’ young people into health & fitness (that’s one great thing about teens spending time on Instagram – eating healthy / being more food aware has actually become quite trendy it seems).
5. Get them into the kitchen
Let them into the kitchen – just put up with the mess & disasters as they learn. They can be so useful helping you shop, cook dinners, prepare lunches, snacks etc – don’t do it all for them, they may be leaving home in a few short years, so make sure that they leave with all the basic shopping, cooking, cleaning & food safety know-how to make it on their own! As motivation for your budding masterchefs – they could potentially use their culinary skills to get out of much of the cleaning! If they hate cooking – they can be on clean-up duty.
6. Give them choices (with boundaries).
Teens need to start making their own decisions, so let them help choose the shopping list, the dinner menu, the lunchbox foods, the cheat / takeaway night options…give them a voice & some voting power – but make sure they know that you set the boundaries – as they will be able to when it’s their pay check buying the food. Ie – yes, you can pick your own lunchbox food but it must contain some protein & veggies (one of our house rules); you can avoid that veggie but you have to replace it with more of another; we can buy some takeaway but it’s either ….. or ……(insert the healthier options in your area); at a restaurant you can have whatever meal you like but you can’t leave the salad / veg; if you don’t want salad in your lunch then you have a green smoothie after school instead, if you want to get dessert ok, but you’ll come for a walk / ride afterwards instead of device time, etc etc. Try to avoid the flat out ‘no’ for the small stuff, as this can easily lead to resentment & constant food fights – but save it for the big issues (like can I sleep over with my older boyfriend or drive the car to schoolies week).
The biggest 2 mistakes you can make are – giving up & not even trying cos it’s all too hard, or making it so stressful that food just becomes a battleground. Expect constant resistance, & stick to your guns knowing that you will never be able to control everything.