Teenagers and Healthy Food Habits

As of last month, I’m the parent of two teenagers!! And while peer pressure hasn’t really shown itself (yet), I’m beginning to wonder whether the desire to fit in is starting to show itself in my otherwise self-assured daughter – when it comes to what food she eats. Or perhaps it’s just FOMO (fear of missing out), prevalent in today’s society.

On the drive home from school late last term, my 14 year old announced that she thinks she should try more food that “normal” people eat. I inquired what she meant by that. She clarified “more food with additives”; I think she also meant sugar. Then she suggested that she might be less likely to react to them if she had them more frequently. (Currently cocoa is off the menu for her when there is study to be done, as in the past it has messed with her dyslexic brain, plus we are a mostly refined sugar-free and also low-sugar household, and we avoid certain additives).

I wonder if a conversation with a friend about a week prior that I overheard got her thinking… She was asked by her friend when she last had McDonalds and she couldn’t remember – not this year, maybe last. Whereas her friend (and most others her age) have a meal there weekly.

It’s true that as children get older, their brains develop and in most cases they are less sensitive to food additives, particularly those with links to behavioral issues. But additives are also tied to a myriad of health issues. And not just additives but the heavily processed food they are found in… like McDonalds – high in saturated fat, sodium and added sugar, and low in fibre and nutrients.

On the other hand, I’ve always tried to be careful not to develop a fear of foods in my children; I’ve modeled having the occasional treat myself and taught them that eating well 80-90% of the time is perfectly fine.

Perhaps I’ve been too strict lately tho. So… we bought chocolate. And got Domino’s for tea on the last day of term. Plus over the school holidays we baked – using fruit and coconut sugar as a sweetener but definitely more ‘sweet’ foods than we’d usually have. (Sugar still wrecks my immunity so I remain reluctant to consume very much, in whatever form).

As children get older, parents need to loosen the control (something I’m not the best at), so that once the kids leave home they can cope in the world independently – and this applies to developing long-term healthy food habits too. Being too restrictive means the possibility of our children rebelling once they are finally allowed to buy and eat whatever they want. But allowing them too much choice from an early age (including letting them control what goes into your supermarket trolley and not getting on top of picky eating) means a high chance they will not only lack the nutrition they need, but sets them up for unhealthy habits as adults.

There needs to be a balance. A teen is still short on food and nutrition knowledge and experience. Plus the teenage years are an important time when it comes to physical growth and nutritional needs. Parents should start trusting their teenagers with greater choices but provide clear boundaries – ideally coming up with an easy to assess ‘line in the sand’ jointly. For example, if a daughter wants to be vegetarian then parents need to make it clear that they expect to see her maintain her health, or not get sick more often because she is low in iron and protein.

We also need to consider that food is more than simply nourishment of the body; it plays an important role in bonding with peers. Food is often at the centre of get-togethers. Teenagers often use the local dairy or McDonalds as a meeting place – luckily the go-to for my daughter and her friends is a Japanese restaurant.

So relax. Continue talking with your teenager about how to get the best from what they eat. Control only what you can control, by offering healthy choices at home – and some occasional treats too. Give them increasing opportunities to make their own food purchases and trust them to make wise choices, at least some of the time.

Some extra tips:

  • Suggest your teen doesn’t walk on the side of the road where the dairy or fish and chip shop is if it is too much of a temptation; rather, walk on the other side.
  • Encourage them to avoid getting hungry; we make our worst eating decisions when hungry.
  • Be selective with fast foods, which don’t have to be junk food as many companies now offer healthier options.
  • Have a free-choice day once a week or fortnight to keep things seemingly in ‘balance’.

I’ve recently put Miss 14 in charge of one meal a fortnight with her getting full control of what’s on the menu – she just needs to supply me with a list of ingredients in case I need to purchase something on my weekly grocery shop. Her first meal was vegetarian nachos and berry-topped cornmeal mug cake. I don’t think I’ve got anything to worry about!

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