As your child gets older, it becomes more difficult to have as much control over what they do, let alone what they eat. The teenage years are laying the groundwork for when they eventually leave home and have to somehow feed and nourish themselves. The wisdom you instill now about eating healthy will stay with them as they move out and live on their own. There are a few things you can do now to encourage your teen to make healthy eating decisions.
Sit Down For Dinner Together
As kids get older and they get busier with schoolwork and extracurricular activities, it can be difficult to find time when the whole family is in the same place at the same time. Try to make sure the family sits down together for dinner as often as possible. This is an important time to catch up with your teen and model healthy behavior. And even when you can’t sit down to dinner together, only eat at the table, rather than in bedrooms or in front of screens. Missouri-based Pediatrician Dr. Natasha Burgert says this will discourage mindless eating, and provide more time for your teen to sit at the table, where you can have a chance to chat.
Make Sure They Have Basic Cooking Skills
Maybe cooking together has always been a family activity at your house. But even if it hasn’t, you can work with your teen to make sure they know some basic skills. Do they know how to boil water and work a stove and microwave? Can they make simple food for themselves, like eggs, soup, sandwiches, or salads? If not, get in the kitchen and teach them! Dietician Roniece Weaver recommends assigning a simple cooking task until their skills improve. It can be a great way to get them excited about cooking and inspired to do it on their own when they eventually leave home. You may be pleasantly surprised how quickly they are able to make full, healthy meals on their own.
Have a favorite food blog or recipe website you follow? Share it with your teen. Then, try new recipes together. Or if you’re up for it, try taking an intro cooking class together. It can be a fun way to learn some new skills while also being a great bonding experience.
Once they’ve mastered a few skills in the kitchen, try assigning one meal every week or two for your teen to prepare for the family, and have them manage it from the store to the table. You can steer your teen towards healthier options, but let them be in charge. This is also the best way to prepare your teen for living away from home.
Have Healthy Snacks on Hand at Home
Try to keep fruit readily available, especially fruits that can be eaten on-the-go. Your teen is probably very busy these days, and having fruits like oranges, bananas, and apples on hand can help encourage them to grab one on the way out the door. Instead of stocking up on candy or chips, try picking up dried fruit and nut mix, different kinds of flavored or herbal teas, or whole wheat pretzels.
Opt for The Healthy Version of Sweet Snacks and Desserts
If you like to make homemade treats, try replacing traditional cookies made with butter and lots of sugar with a lighter banana oat cookie. If you have a couple of overripe bananas on hand, just mash them together with some rolled oats, chopped nuts, and a little cinnamon. Form them into cookies and bake them for 15 minutes at 350 degrees for a surprisingly sweet and healthy alternative to sugar-laden cookies. Connecticut-based nutritionist Dr. Deb Kennedy says homemade granola and jerky are also yummy treats that your child can grab and go during this busy time in their lives.
Remind Them of Health Benefits
There are a lot of benefits to eating healthy that teens can relate to. In the long run, not eating healthy can lead to risk factors for certain diseases like diabetes and heart disease. It’s also important to discuss family health history, such as if high cholesterol runs in the family. That can mean your teen needs to be more careful around foods that raise cholesterol than their peers. Even though those consequences can seem far off for some teens, you can still highlight the benefits they can get from proper nutrition and exercise right now. Eating well and keeping active will help them focus on their studies or job, as well as create energy so they can excel at what they are working on.
Encourage teens to try tracking their nutrition. Weaver says encouraging young adults to start a MyPlate account to track food can help with late-night food runs. Knowing how much they eat can help them identify ways to spread total intake out over the course of the entire day. Burgert suggests downloading a food-tracking app if your teen has shown interest in tracking what they eat. Download the same app yourself and compare who made the best choices each day. This can help you both make sure they’re meeting all their nutritional needs for the day.
Don’t Pressure Them
Their body is their own, and of you notice they’ve put on weight or lost weight, try not to make it a big event or pressure them into losing or gaining weight, unless it's extreme or it’s affecting their health. Many teens struggle with their weight and appearance, and their weight may fluctuate at times.
“As much as you may be disturbed by your child’s weight gain, it is best to take a back seat and supportive role,” says Kennedy. “Be there if they want to talk about it, but continually bringing attention to their weight gain may have a negative effect on an already uncomfortable and sometimes shameful experience.”
Kennedy recommends parents only discuss weight in relation to other health signs. For example, do they seem to be depressed or anxious about school? Is eating a way that they’re coping with their feelings? If so, talk about their reasons for overeating and not their weight on a scale. If they otherwise seem fine, cut them some slack and don’t bring it up.