Find out what teenagers need in their diet to stay happy and healthy, plus top tips to encourage a positive relationship with food and manage comfort eating.
The teenage years are key for experimentation, which – in regards to food – can be used to your advantage. You can introduce new foods and might be pleasantly surprised when your teen eats things they wouldn’t previously touch. It's at this age that teens might become more interested in cooking and begin to learn how to cook independently. With it, this brings about a new understanding of food, which yields many positives as long as teenagers are taught the importance of a balanced diet and good nutrition.
Teenagers today have a lot to contend with; exams, stress, exposure to unrealistic body shapes, fast food choices, alcohol and technology, not to mention the whirlwind of hormones, emotions and body changes that play havoc with confidence and wellbeing. The adolescent years are physically dominated by the production of sex hormones such as oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone, which bring about all sorts of physical and emotional changes. The teenage body typically undergoes a growth spurt and changes shape, all of which requires energy, vitamins and minerals.
Storecupboard essentials and snacks
A lot of the time, your teenager will want to graze or grab a quick snack. The trick is to ensure there's healthy and delicious food available when they want it. Make sure there's plenty of choice – cheese and crackers, toast with nut butter, yogurt with fruit and some good quality chocolate, as well as plenty of foods that provide goodness as a snack or a more substantial meal that can be put together in no more than ten minutes.
When it comes to main meals, have a few staples such as wholemeal pasta or noodles and wholegrain bread, which teens can transform. A low-sugar breakfast cereal or porridge oats are useful so they have a proper breakfast, topped off with a chopped banana, a handful of nuts or an apple and some natural yogurt.
Keep a stash of ready-to-eat fish in the fridge or freezer, or canned varieties for topping wholemeal toast or making fish cakes. Eggs are another essential standby – boiled, poached or in an omelette or frittata they make an easy, nutritious dish. Batch-cook evening meals so there are leftovers for lunch or snacks when they come home hungry. The more you encourage teenagers to eat at home, the less chance there is of them eating in fast food outlets or skipping meals altogether.
If girls are dieting or restricting their fat and protein intake, their menstrual cycle could be disrupted, which has the potential to affect their fertility and bone health in the future. Menstruation means that each month, girls lose some ironm which you should try to replace by including iron rich foods in the diet such as lean red meat, eggs, lentils, fortified breakfast cereals, dried apricots, figs, nuts, spinach, kale, broccoli, watercress, oats and seeds.
Iron also provides a key role in cell replication, so it’s essential for both boys and girls to eat enough to meet their growth needs. Rapid growth, coupled with lifestyle and poor dietary choices, can result in iron-deficiency anaemia which can make teens look and feel tired or breathless, experience poor concentration and affect mental and physical development.
Eating for your skin
Spotty skin is the cause of much teenage angst, so it might be that your child can be persuaded to eat more healthily on the grounds of vanity if nothing else! It's a myth that chocolate causes spots and that dairy products block pores. What the skin does need is plenty of hydration and enough replenishing nutrients, such as zinc, vitamin C and iron. Antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids are also essential and can be consumed through a combination of vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds and oily fish. Oily fish are also a rich supplier of protein, essential for growth and development.
Comfort eating and weight management
Your teenager's relationship with food is an important one. The best way to encourage teenagers to have a comfortable relationship with food is to eat with them as much as possible and teach them simple nutritional knowledge as well as cooking skills. Teenagers sometimes develop anxieties around sweet food, which they perceive as being fattening. Help them build their confidence by introducing wholesome and healthy sweet dishes such as:
If you're concerned about your child’s weight and want to try and support them without upsetting them, consider the following:
- Hydration plays a big part so get them to drink enough water throughout the day
- Teach them five quick dishes they can make for themselves, even a sandwich is a good option! Lunchbox mains.
- Encourage them to only eat at mealtimes. If they need a snack, try raw vegetables, stewed fruits and natural yogurt, unsalted nuts or healthier versions of a flapjack like sunshine bars, on-the-run breakfast bars and cinnamon berry granola bars.
- Keep to three meals a day plus fruit or veg-based snacks. Insist on eating a healthy breakfast, even if it’s just a banana and yogurt or a smoothie. This will improve moods and energy and make them less inclined to snack.
- Encourage them to create balanced meals and snacks, which include plenty of vegetables and salad, lean protein such as chicken and fish and complex starchy carbohydrates such as rice, oats, grains and potatoes.
- Cook nourishing meals for the whole family to share:
- Don't ban foods, just encourage moderation. Try not to enforce the view that a single food is 'good' or 'bad, or that food is a reward or treat, because this creates an emotional tie to food.
- Stay positive about food. If you can instil a basic love and appreciation of food rather than allowing it to become the enemy, you will have more chance of them developing a good relationship with their bodies, and with food.
This article was last reviewed on 14th October 2019 by Jo Lewin.
Jo Lewin is a registered nutritionist (RNutr) with the Association for Nutrition with a specialism in public health.
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