Feeding Your Teenager

Parents can help teens learn to make healthy food choices.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on December 17, 2008
From the WebMD Archives

Adolescence is a time of tremendous change. As teens mature, they make more food choices on their own, often in the company of influential peers.

But even as teens become more autonomous, it's still up to their parents to provide them with good examples and nutritious foods. Here are some tips on how to go about doing that.

Help Teens Make Good Choices

Deciding what to eat and how much to exercise is part of growing up. But too often, a child's choices give health the short shrift. Teens may lack the skills and motivation to do what they should to stay healthy.

"Balancing school, sports, social activities, and work presents a major challenge to eating healthy," says Kendrin Sonneville, MS, RD, who specializes in teen nutrition at Children's Hospital in Boston.

On-the-go adolescents may squander opportunities for good nutrition by skimping on foods that help fuel their growth and development. Skipping meals, especially breakfast, and choosing processed and convenience foods over fresh translates into too much fat, sodium and sugar, and not enough of the fiber, vitamins, and minerals essential to a teen's health now and later.

Calcium is Critical

Calcium, critical to bone development and density, is one of the nutrients that can easily fall through the cracks.

Calcium needs are higher than ever during the teen years -- 1,300 milligrams a day. Yet calcium consumption often drops off in teenagers as they replace milk with soft drinks. Research shows that 9th- and 10th-grade girls who drink soft drinks are three times as likely to suffer a bone fracture than those who do not drink them.

In addition to being naturally rich in calcium, milk is fortified with vitamin D, which also helps to shore up bones. Certain yogurts contain vitamin D; check the label to be sure. While they're calcium-rich, hard cheeses lack vitamin D.

Teens require the calcium equivalent of about four 8-ounce glasses of milk daily. Here are some other foods that supply as much calcium as a glass of milk:

  • 8 ounces yogurt
  • 1 1/2 ounces hard cheese
  • 8 ounces calcium-added orange juice
  • 2 cups low-fat cottage cheese.

Girls Need Extra Iron

Iron, as a part of red blood cells, is necessary for ferrying oxygen to every cell in the body. It's crucial to a teen's brain function, immunity, and energy level. Girls aged 14 to 18 need 15 milligrams per day. Boys in the same age range need 11 milligrams.

Iron deficiency is common in adolescent females and people who limit or eschew meat. Menstruating young women are at increased risk for an iron shortfall because their diets may not contain enough iron-rich foods to make up for monthly losses.

Iron is found in both animal and plant foods. The iron in animal foods is better absorbed by the body, but consuming a vitamin-C rich food along with plant iron increases uptake. Serve these iron-rich animal foods to your teen as part of a balanced diet (shoot for 4-6 ounces a day):

  • Beef
  • Poultry
  • Pork
  • Clams
  • Oysters
  • Eggs

Good non-meat sources of iron include:

  • Vegetables (including spinach, green peas, and asparagus)
  • Beans
  • Nuts
  • Iron-fortified breads, cereal, rice, and pasta.

A multivitamin with 100% or less of the Daily Value for iron, vitamin D and other nutrients fills in the gaps in less-than-stellar diets. But multivitamins do not contain enough calcium to make up for inadequate consumption of calcium-rich foods. Your child may need a calcium supplement too

The Dieting Dilemma

Adolescents often feel pressure to limit what they eat so they can conform to a certain look. They may also restrict food intake to achieve a certain weight for a sport like wrestling or gymnastics, or for social events, such as proms.

"Any sudden change in a teen's eating habits, like constant dieting or uncontrollable eating, is cause for concern," says Sonneville, who specializes in eating disorders. Other signs include weight loss; a preoccupation with food, nutrition, or cooking; compulsive exercise; depression or social isolation; visiting the bathroom after eating; and avoiding social situations involving food.

If you suspect your child has an eating disorder, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia, or binge-eating, express your concern in a supportive manner, says Sonneville. But don't be surprised if your teen gets defensive and denies having a problem.

"Schedule an appointment with your child's primary-care physician to help minimize the food-related arguments between you and your child," she says.

Diagnosing and treating eating disorders is not easy. Neither is preventing them. Keep disparaging remarks about your own body, as well as your child's, to yourself to encourage a healthy weight and strong self-esteem.

"Parents who diet constantly or make negative comments about their bodies or certain foods can pass along their disordered relationship with food to their children," Sonneville says.

Teen Talk

You want your 14-year-old to lay off the fries and learn to love broccoli. Why? Because you know that eating vegetables is linked to a lower chance of developing chronic conditions such as cancer and heart disease later in life. That may motivate you to pile your plate with greens, but it probably won't sway your teen.

"Each child is different, but most teens are motivated by having more energy for school and sports and looking their best," says David Geller, MD, a pediatrician at Patriot Pediatrics in Bedford, Mass. "I don't concentrate on their appearance so much as suggest healthier foods to get them what they want."

Geller recommends spending less time lecturing and more time modeling behaviors you'd like your teen to emulate, such as eating nutritious meals.

"Adolescents don't always make great choices, but if healthy foods are on their plates, they tend to eat them," says Geller.

Making time for family meals speaks volumes about what you value as a parent. Gathering at the table is about more than eating right. A recent study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association surveyed more than 900 teens and their parents and concluded that family meals are useful for enhancing togetherness and communication.

Move It with Your Teen

Many teens are involved in sports, but plenty still do not get the minimum 60 minutes of daily physical activity that experts recommend. Physical activity fosters endurance and muscle strength; builds strong bones and joints; and promotes well-being.

Moving around also helps maintain a healthy weight. One study found a lack of vigorous exercise was the primary cause for obesity in children aged 11 to 15.

Helping your child with weight control now can mean better health in adulthood.

"There is a very good chance that an overweight teen will become an overweight adult," Geller says.

If your teen tends to be sedentary, choose an activity to do together, such as walking, biking, in-line skating, or tennis. Working out with kids keeps them healthy in more ways than you can imagine. Recent research in the journal Pediatrics revealed that teens who participated in physical activities with parental involvement were less likely to have low self-esteem and engage in violence.

Snack On

Hungry teens have a hard time holding off for the next meal. Done right, snacking can provide the nutrients your son or daughter needs. These healthy snacks also double as quick breakfasts:

  • Whole grain bagel spread with peanut butter and topped with raisins; milk
  • Leftover pizza; 100% orange juice
  • 8 ounces low-fat fruited yogurt; whole grain toast; 100% juice
  • Fruit and yogurt smoothie; whole grain toast
  • Hard-boiled eggs; whole grain roll; fruit
  • Waffle sandwich (two whole grain toasted waffles spread with almond, peanut, or soy nut butters); milk
  • Trail mix made from low-sugar cereal, dried fruit, chopped nuts or roasted soybeans, and mini chocolate chips
  • Sandwiches on whole grain bread
  • Hummus or peanut butter and whole grain crackers
  • Bowl of whole grain cereal; fruit; low-fat milk
  • Vegetables and low-fat yogurt dip
  • Reduced-fat mozzarella cheese sticks and low-fat crackers
  • Low-fat microwave popcorn topped with grated Parmesan cheese; 100% juice
  • Yogurt with whole grain cereal mixed in
  • Low-fat cottage cheese and whole grain crackers or whole grain toast
  • Nuts; 100% juice.

Pick Your Battles

The house is stocked with healthy foods. You're home most nights for dinner. You talk with your teen about skipping soda in favor of low-fat milk, and choosing grilled chicken sandwiches instead of fried at the fast-food restaurant. You even bought inline skates so you can bond with your teen while working out. Still, their eating and exercising is less than exemplary. What should you do?

Back off, for starters.

"Avoid power struggles over food," says Sonneville. Strict control over what a child eats can backfire. "Your teen may respond by over- or under-eating just to assert his independence," she says.

"Teens know they shouldn't drink soda or eat fries. They also know they shouldn't smoke or drive fast -- but they do," Geller says. "That's the nature of the beast."

Still, there's hope, especially when your own lifestyle is on the right track.

"I like to look at it this way: By educating them and providing healthy foods, you're giving teens the skills to use now or at a later date," Geller says. "As a parent, that's about as much as you can do."

Show Sources

SOURCES: Dietary Guidelines for Americans, Chapter 4. Fulkerson, J. et al. "Adolescent and parent views of family meals". Journal of the American Dietetic Association, April 2006: 106(4): pp. 526-532. Nelson, M. "Physical activity and sedentary behavior patterns are associated with selected adolescent health risk behaviors", Pediatrics. April 2006; 117(4): pp. 1281-1290. Patrick, K. et al. "Diet, physical activity, and sedentary behaviors as risk factors for overweight in adolescence", Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, April 2004;158:pp. 385-390; Wyshak, G. "Teenaged girls, carbonated beverage consumption, and bone fractures". Institute of Medicine. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine,June 2000;154:pp. 610-613. Kendrin Sonneville, MS, RD, Children's Hospital, Boston; David Geller, MD, Patriot Pediatrics, Bedford, Mass.

© 2006 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved. View privacy policy and trust info