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Family Health Magazine - NUTRITION

Teen Nutrition
Teaching kids about healthy food choices

When your child was small, it was fairly simple to control what was on the menu. Now you wonder if your teen’s bag lunches go uneaten, since most of her friends are buying cafeteria food. Thinking she will eat the carrot sticks you prepared while everyone else is munching on potato chips may not be realistic. Still, it is part of a parent’s job to teach kids about healthy food choices. What’s more, you know good nutrition is critical during the teen years. As a parent, what should you do?


  Girls Boys
Vegetables and fruits 7 8
Grain products 6 7
Milk and alternatives 3-4 3-4
Meat and alternatives 2 3

Begin by stepping back, taking a deep breath, and keeping your teen’s eating habits in perspective. Rather than worrying about snacks, focus on keeping the total diet healthy. The more you stress over junk food, the more desirable it may become to your teen. Healthy eating for teens usually means cutting down on treats while adding more nutritious foods.

Teens need to eat well for two main reasons. First, these years offer the best chance to build peak bone mass. Their bones are now at their strongest. Yet, research shows that most teens are not getting enough calcium to build strong bones. Osteoporosis, where bones become fragile later in life, could be the result.

Second, staying at a normal weight is important. Overweight teens are at risk of diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure. These conditions were once common only in adults. Healthy eating and exercise can help prevent weight gain. Remember, the good habits you encourage now can benefit your teen for a lifetime.

What should teens be eating?

According to Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide, most teens need the following numbers of servings from the four food groups.

A small amount (30 to 45 mL or about 2 to 3 tbsp) of unsaturated fat can be included each day. This type of fat may be found in cooking oils, salad dressing and soft non-hydrogenated margarine.

How much should a teenager eat?

Your teen must eat enough to stay healthy, support physical activity, and grow and mature as well as possible. When it comes to nutritional needs, no two teenagers are alike. Consider the following:

  • Body size – larger bodies need more nutrients and calories
  • Gender – teen boys need more calories and must eat more than girls with similar activity levels; teen girls have different nutrient needs, especially for iron
  • Activity level – active teens have higher nutrient needs than those who do not exercise.

Most teenagers need between 1800 to 3000 calories a day. Consider your teen’s nutritional and energy needs in choosing the right number and size of servings. For instance, inactive teens or those overweight and wanting to lose weight, need less energy and should eat the lower number of suggested servings. To get the right amount of nutrition without too many calories, they should choose low-fat, nutrient-rich foods from each food group.

Healthy eating: whose job is it anyway?

Good nutrition is a shared responsibility between parent and teen. Although teens are greatly influenced by their peers, they still look to parents and other adults for direction. Although it may not seem like your kids are listening, you are still a role model. Talk about and demonstrate a healthy lifestyle that includes a taste for healthy food.

As a parent, you can teach your teen how to make wiser choices whether eating at home, school or in fast food restaurants.

Setting limits

While teens need to make their own decisions, you can encourage healthy eating by setting ground rules.

  • Serve regular meals and expect your teen to be there for as many as possible.
  • Convince your teen to eat a good breakfast. This critical habit is linked to better performance in school and helps keep weight under control throughout life. Easy breakfasts include instant oatmeal, a peanut butter and banana sandwich, leftovers from supper, or a granola bar and cheese string.
  • Give guidance when it comes to favourite snacks. Your teen does not have to give up treats altogether, but can have a smaller serving less often. If your kids are having friends over for a movie night, serve a platter of cut fruit. Make your own popcorn in an air popper and add a favourite spice as flavouring. Switch to baked potato chips. Instead of pop, serve drinks made of 100 per cent fruit juice mixed with sparkling water.
  • If your teens love pizza, make it thin crust and vegetarian. You can also add extra veggies at home such as sliced peppers, mushrooms, and onions. Avoid pizza-only meals - serve a salad or cut veggies along with pizza.

Healthy snacking

  • Organize your kitchen so the healthiest choices are the easiest to grab. Keep an abundant supply of healthy snacks in plain view. Leave bowls of fresh fruit on the kitchen counter and ready-to-eat veggies in the fridge.
  • Always have milk on hand. Choose skim or 1 per cent but buy 2 per cent if that is what your kids will drink.
  • Stock a snack cupboard with whole grain bread and crackers, tortilla wraps, cereal and granola bars, and 100 per cent juice boxes.
  • Keep milk, yogurt, cheese, and cottage cheese in the fridge. Leave all of the makings for a fruit smoothie easily accessible.
  • Set up a sandwich centre in the fridge with meat or tuna in a container, right next to mayo, mustard and washed lettuce.
  • Store whole grain and thin-crust vegetarian pizza in the freezer.
  • Try fortified soy beverages, which are enriched with calcium. Buy yogurt and add your own fruit.
  • If you have not pushed whole-grain bread and pasta, it is easier to introduce than you might think. Begin by offering whole-grain breads, rice, and pasta (which has a delicious nutty taste) as two daily grain servings. Grains containcarbo hydrates, B vitamins, iron, zinc, magnesium and fibre.

Shop as a family

Prepare your teen to take on more responsibility for healthy eating by doing the grocery shopping together. This is a great way to begin passing on all the things you know about meal preparation. Teach your teen the basic layout of the store, how to make a shopping list, buy important basic items, select the freshest fruit and vegetables, read a label, buy a nutritious loaf of bread, and compare the cut and costs of meat.

10 Tips for Teens

  • Eat breakfast.
  • Include a fruit or vegetable with each meal and snack.
  • To build strong bones, get three to four servings of milk and alternatives every day.
  • Girls, make sure you eat foods high in iron daily, such as meat, fish, chicken, beans, peas, lentils, and eggs.
  • Eat regularly, about four to six times a day. Skipping meals does not help you lose weight, and might keep you from getting all the nutrients you need in a day.
    • Watch what you drink. Satisfy your thirst with water, not soft drinks.
  • Learn to cook a few simple meals for yourself. Easy foods include an egg on toast, a cheese quesadilla, a healthy sandwich or panini, a smoothie, or a dish
    that cooks on the top of the stove such as chilli.
  • Learn about fat in foods so you can avoid foods high in saturated and trans fats.
  • Eat foods with fibre such as whole grain breads,
    cereals and pasta.
  • Foods and beverages high in calories, fat, sugar and salt are treats. Try not to snack on them every day.

One other important tip

Find an exercise you enjoy and do it for at least 30 to 60 minutes a day. Exercise increases your energy level, helps you cope with stress and anxiety, and boosts self-esteem.

On the home front

Cooking is an essential skill that everyone must learn. Teach kitchen basics, like how to cut an onion, heat frozen vegetables, peel potatoes, make rice, open a can of salmon, and cook ground meat. As well, teach proper hand washing, how to wash dishes, and how to take out the garbage. Teach your teen how to make these simple meals:

  • Oatmeal – make in the microwave and add extra flax or dried fruit, such as raisins, apricots, cranberries or blueberries. Top with cinnamon and maple syrup.
  • Healthy sandwiches – can be made with whole grain bread, lean meat, and lettuce.
  • Eggs – try boiled, scrambled, poached and over-easy.
  • Easy dinners – include spaghetti, chilli, tacos and stir-fry.
  • Salad – most teens like Caesar salad, so this is a good place to begin. Use a low fat dressing!
  • Smoothies and shakes – made with yogurt, fruit juice, and banana.

School lunches

Does your daughter line up for an ice cream bar and diet coke every lunch hour? It may be time to gently remind her that eating well increases energy and mental performance, and helps keep blood glucose stable for an afternoon of learning. If your teen is supplementing her homemade sandwich, at the very least recommend milk or chocolate milk rather than pop. Although chocolate milk does have a little extra sugar, it contains all of the calcium, protein and nutrients of regular milk. In the cafeteria, the best bets are whole-grain bread sandwiches or pitas. If your teen craves a substantial lunch, recommend choices like pasta, a chicken or veggie burger, stir-fry, salad, chili with a roll, and milk.

At fast food restaurants

Thanks to the media, teens are more aware of health issues related to a diet based on fried fast foods. A steady diet of fast food can lead to struggles with weight, high cholesterol, diabetes, and potential heart disease.

For further information,
check out the following web sites:

Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide, published in 2007

Helpful fact sheets are available from Dietitians of Canada

Most fast food restaurants offer healthy main course choices and provide nutrition information by request or on a web site. Inform your teen that the smaller choices on a menu are healthier than larger ones. Suggest that your teen share large meals with friends.

Best bets are thin-crust vegetarian pizza, plain burgers, grilled chicken burgers, and sub-style sandwiches with lean meat or chicken. (Avoid salami, sausage, tuna salad and gyros.) Mustard, extra veggies and vinaigrette are betterchoices than the fatty ‘special sauces’ and mayonnaise. Salads are a great option, but make sure your teen asks for low-fat dressing. Otherwise, the meal will have as many calories as a fat-laden burger.

Encourage your teen to choose nutritious beverages, such as milk, water, 100 per cent juice, or chocolate milk.

FAMILY HEALTH is written with the assistance of
Alberta College of Family Physicians
FAMILY HEALTH is written with the assistance of
Alberta College of Family Physicians
While effort is made to reflect accepted medical knowledge and practice, articles in Family Health Online should not be relied upon for the treatment or management of any specifid medical problem or concern and Family Health accepts no liability for reliance on the articles. For proper diagnosis and care, you should always consult your family physican promptly. Copyright 2012, Family Health Magazine, a special publication of the Edmonton Journal, a division of Postmedia Network Inc., 10006 - 101 Street, Edmonton, AB T5J 0S1  [NU_FHb07]
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