Healthy Eating for Teens: Is It Possible?
I’m honestly embarrassed to write this … but I’m a big believer in vulnerability. In fact, this honest post that I wrote 10 years ago went viral. I’ve shared my personal struggles with body image relating to breast implants most recently, and so I feel okay sharing this with you: I feel like I’m failing as a mom when it comes to healthy eating for my teens.
For those who have followed me for a while, you’ll know that creating a strong foundation with healthy eating for my kids has been of utmost importance. From their very early years, I strived to have nutritious foods on hand and to get kids in the kitchen. In fact, I wrote 4 e-books on healthy school lunches and another on getting your kids in the kitchen. I’ve explained. I’ve worked side-by-side with them. And yet, here we are. My kids are now 10, 12, 14 and 17. In my dreamworld, all of my teachings would be showing. But that’s not reality. They aren’t perfect. What’ IS reality is me reexamining my expectations and working in a few daily things that get me to a “good” place with it.
Here are my tips on healthy eating for teens – read on to see if it’s possible.
Start the day off right
It’s easy enough for kids to want to get out the door quickly. They either spend more time getting ready (helloooo my teenage girls) or they get caught up on their phone in the morning and don’t have ample time to get a good breakfast.
For every year of their lives, we have served our kids a plate of fruit that they enjoy with their breakfast. About 6 months ago, my husband (who was the one who got the fruit while I made the younger ones’ breakfast) got burned out. (I can’t blame him). You’d think that by this point it was ingrained in them and they’d think to get fruit on their own. Nope.
I always have fresh fruit in the house. They seem to like frozen fruit, so I have that, too. But I STILL need to remind them to get fruit with their morning meal.
Along with fruit, I’ll encourage some type of protein – either a hard boiled egg or two with toast, a bagel with nut butter, a parfait of sorts, or oatmeal (or hot grain-free cereal!) with nut butter, fruit, etc.
The bottom line: if I don’t make it for them, only one out of my four kids will get a really kick-butt healthy breakfast. The others are not bad; maybe bread with a piece of cheese and some fruit on the side.
And end it well, too
Six out of seven days a week, I make sure to have a healthy dinner prepared for my family. Now don’t get me wrong—at least one of those days we are having leftovers. And since I meal prep a lot, sometimes I’ll repurpose a meal into something else—read: I’m not cooking an entirely new meal for dinner each time.
With each dinner, I make sure to have at least one or two vegetable choices at this meal since I know that they may not always choose these on their own.
The way that I figure—if I make sure that their morning meal and their nighttime meals are solid, perhaps it can make up for the in-between. Wishful thinking??
Get home to healthy
So I need to preface that I don’t do this—but preparing a healthy after school snack could be another opportunity to ensure that they are getting in something solid. For me, my afternoons are too busy. I work until 2 or 3 p.m. and then I begin my afternoon taxi driving in the mom-mobile. In reality, it doesn’t take that long to cut up some apples or celery and put out a jar of almond butter with it, but it’s just an area that I’m not focusing on. And I’m okay with it.
Plan accordingly with the pantry
So here’s the thing … kids are kids, and 95% of them (okay, I don’t know if that’s an accurate number, but still!) are going to want to buy junk. What’s a mom to do? When they are out with friends, they have the same choices to make. When they are someday out on their own, they’ll have the same choices to make. You need to decide what works for you, and what your boundaries are.
For me, I will buy cereals with less than 7 grams (ideally 5, but I’ll flex to 7 grams) of sugar per serving. BUT I’ll always make sure to have plain oats available, too. As far as snacks, I’ll let them pick out a couple of snacks to have in the pantry. I try to make sure that they include things like popcorn and I don’t buy things like Cheetos or Doritos. We do oftentimes have these crackers, we’re fans of these tortilla chips, and I’m a sucker for plantain chips. I buy all organic corn products and frankly any organic snacks when feasible. These are my comfort levels; you need to determine what is going to work for you.
Prepare foods when you can
I swear that my kids are clueless when it comes to the refrigerator. I always DO have decent options on hand—it’s simply a matter of them finding them. So when I make something (think muffins, energy balls or some type of baked bread), I need to make sure it’s easily visible and that they know it’s there. I find that, as much as I despise the plastic, if I put these in large zipper-sealed bags, they’re easy to see. I still need to remind them of them, though. Even if I use Pyrex dishes, they still don’t pull things out. I have found that these reusable storage bags are a good option, too.
Healthy eating for teens: the takeaway
I’ve realized that through all of this, I need to manage my own expectations. Oftentimes I get frustrated because I feel that what they are choosing to eat is a reflexion of me. But in reality, I know that I gave them a healthy foundation. Someday they may choose to fall back on it. And if they do, then it’s a win because they have the education. If they don’t, well I did my job by trying to teach them. You know the saying … you can bring a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink.
I get to choose what I want to eat. And as a mom, I can provide them with good options and education. But ultimately, since I don’t choose to dictate what they are going to eat, they will need to make their own decisions.
My tips to you, that I’ve learned as I’ve been raising 4 kids:
1. Create realistic expectations and boundaries. What you are comfortable with will likely differ from what works for me. And that’s okay! The important thing is for you to determine what you’d like (within reason) and then how to make that happen.
2. When they are with other friends, know that the above boundaries may fluctuate. When my kids go to dinner with friends, I know that their meals may not be as dialed in as they are at home. In fact, my 2nd daughter just did drivers education last weekend. The first day she packed her meal. The next she went to Wendy’s and got a large fry for dinner. While I wasn’t thrilled, I simply told her to make sure to get something healthy when she got home. Balance is everything.
3. Total restriction does not work. I have this opinion both professionally (as a health coach) and also as a mom. I’ve seen kids who have absolutely zero “junk food” at home—ever. And when they go out of the house, it’s a free-for-all. Deprivation does not work. There’s got to be some leeway.
4. Figure out where you want to focus your time. For me, it’s making sure to stock my house well, always ensuring they have a healthy dinner, and helping them start their day off well, too.
Parenting is not easy. It doesn’t come with a guidebook—we’re simply figuring it out along the way as we go. Eventually our babies fly the coop and are out on their own. In the meantime, try to make sure that you do provide them with that solid foundation and that they’re well equipped when they get older. There will be frustrations along the way, but when it comes to healthy eating, I’m hopeful that these tips can help.