Feeding Teenagers is No Picnic
By Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, CSSD
If you think toddlers are picky about what they eat, you haven’t spent much time around a teenager. As kids get older, many hang onto their quirky childhood eating habits. But adolescence is also a time for asserting independence and doing what’s socially acceptable—and growing concerns about body image and appearance start to affect food choices, too.
During junior high and high school, my son ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every school day for seven years. Why? Because it wasn’t cool to carry an insulated lunch bag with an ice pack, only a brown paper bag would do. “Everyone else” packed turkey sandwiches that sat in warm lockers all morning, but since I’m such a stickler for food safety, a daily PBJ was our compromise.
For a lot of teens, adolescence is a time to experiment with new dietary patterns. Some will get on a health kick or suddenly declare themselves vegetarians. On the other hand, if parents are pushing their teens to eat better, their rebellious nature may tell them to do exactly the opposite.
And, just like when they were little, teens may reject foods that don’t look or smell right, or have a funny texture. Many don’t like to be reminded where meat comes from. Any meat with bones or skin is gross, so they may end up favoring more processed foods, like chicken nuggets, that are barely recognizable as poultry.
By adolescence, foods start to become more emotionally charged, too. Teenagers associate junk food with pleasure, friends and independence, but also with guilt and weight gain. And healthy foods – which teens generally perceive as being less tasty – are associated with parents and staying at home, but also with weight loss. No wonder we grow up to be so conflicted about food.
Family meals play a big role in helping kids to eat better. Teenagers who eat frequently with their families eat more fruits, vegetables, grains and dairy products than those who eat with their families less than twice a week. Primarily because these foods are usually more available at home than they are at teen-oriented fast-food places.
Rather than nagging kids about their diets, offer up subtle messages by eating well yourself and serving as a good role model. Do your best to keep only reasonably healthy foods in the house—it makes no sense to stock unhealthy stuff and then turn around and tell your kids that they shouldn’t be eating it. You may not be able to stop your kids from drinking soda, but you don’t have to encourage it by keeping it in the house.
And, despite what their attitudes may tell you, the majority of teens who don’t often eat with their families say that they wish they ate together more. If scheduling dinners are tough, maybe breakfast together on the weekends might work better. It’s easy to let life get in the way, but setting aside time for a few meals together every week is good for everybody.
Susan Bowerman is a paid consultant to Herbalife.