In the world of nutrition we talk a lot about fussy eaters, weaning and primary school meals. These early years are an important time as tastes, preferences and habits develop.
What seems to be getting lost a bit in all this is what happens after primary school; in that big leap to senior school, developing independence and ever increasing peer pressure.
In my work I see a lot of teenagers, and the challenges they face when choosing their foods are diverse. I hear some things regularly – like not having time for breakfast, and others (less often admitted) but that sadden me, like ‘My parents went out last night, I forgot to have tea.’
Teenagers are growing at their fastest between the ages of about 12.5 years (girls) and around 14yrs for boys. It’s so important we empower our teens to make good decisions for themselves at this vital time. After so many years of having supper put in front of them, it’s time for them to start making their own decisions and learning to fend for themselves.
Unfortunately, choosing a healthy lunch at the school canteen just isn’t, well, cool. (I am informed by the teenagers I work with, incidentally, nothing is ‘cool’ anymore). But what can we parents and carers do to help?
Firstly, we need to reinforce positive messages about a healthy lifestyle at home. This is about having a strong, healthy body that can do all the things we want it to do – play sport, play an instrument, do our studies, laugh with our mates. It shouldn’t be about how we look, but with media pressure and airbrushed magazine images shouting from every shelf, it’s hard to get away from this. Try to keep a balanced approach, not ramming messages (and kale) down their throats, but a gentle and continuous reinforcement of the amazing abilities their bodies have, and that it’s important we look after it, nurture it – not punish it with fad diets and skipping meals.
One of the biggest gifts parents can give their children is the ability to cook simple nourishing meals. School has a role to play here too, and teaching food in schools is a vital part of this. But little beats a home cooked family meal, and if your teen has had some choice in what’s being served up, they’re more likely to be enthusiastic about not just helping prepare it, but also in eating it (some parallels with our fussy eating toddlers here!). Eating together not only enforces positive role models, but provides that all important social bonding time.
Finally, we may be trying to foster independence, but a bit (read ‘still quite a lot’) of help here and there to make eating healthily a bit easier doesn’t hurt. Having healthy snacks in the fridge for the ravenous raid at home time, plenty of veg to choose from for an evening meal and a good selection of quick and nutritious breakfast options can all help boost their nutrient intake for the day.
Most importantly, remember that every teen is different - sweet tooth, super sporty, disinterested eater, body conscious, always hungry? Try to work with your teenager and come to a compromise that sits comfortably with you both –it might not look like a diet plan straight off Instagram, but if you’re providing good basic nutrition and cultivating a healthy attitude towards food and their body, then you’re on track.
Groovy. (Oh no, apparently not…) #fuelyourteen