I met Rose at a networking event. When I introduced myself to Rose and told her what I do, she immediately asked, “How do I get my teenagers to eat healthy?”
Rose owns her own business and is a solo entrepreneur. She works 60 plus hours a week and juggles multiple needs. She also has teenagers at home who are busy and have voracious appetites. Rose’s spouse also works long hours. Meal planning falls under Rose’s family responsibilities, and she is health conscious and aims to provide healthy meals for her family. Rose ensures that healthy foods are available in her home, she plans meals, but her teenagers want to eat fried and fast foods. They choose chips and cookies over fresh vegetables.
“The teenage years are full of physiological and psychological changes.”
These are concerns that I often hear from my clients. Many of my clients with teenagers ask the same question; How do I get my teenagers to eat healthy? It is important to remember, that the teenage years are full of physiological and psychological changes. It is a time of angst and new experiences. Teenagers are trying to find their way through school and their social circles. It is also a time when they are given more freedom to make choices. Food preferences and appetites also change. Teenagers are also very passionate about their beliefs, ask questions and challenge their situations – including the food they are eating.
A child hits puberty, and suddenly, the parent has no idea what to prepare for meals. The child is moody, their body is changing, and they continually make unhealthy decisions. Parents worry that their child is becoming overweight or having self-image issues or that they do not want to acknowledge that their choices are leading to long-term health concerns.
Research has shown that poor dietary habits are a precursor to obesity, more so than poor exercise habits.
The way I see it is, parents have two choices on where to go from here:
- Argue and criticize food choices, or
- Find a way to support this tumultuous period of physiological and psychological change and be a “guide.”
What motivates teenagers to eat healthy?
One study of 8th graders in Texas studied the effect of aligning health behaviour with teenage values. Instead of focusing on the long-term health benefits of healthy eating, they aligned health education to teenage values and their mindset of short-term immediate goals; understanding that the teenage years are full of changes and influenced by peers.
This study organized health education around two parts.
- Expose the food industry practices of making food more addictive and manipulating teenagers into eating more. They uncovered deceptive food labelling practices that were making unhealthy foods appear healthy.
- The education also illustrated how the food industry unjustly targeted children and low socio-economic status people with their advertisements.
Teenagers like to have control
Health education was suggested as a way for the teenagers to regain control of their choices and rebel against the food industry practices of processed junk food to be highly addictive. They also suggested students could “Take a Stand” against the social injustice caused by the food industry’s manipulative practices that are targeting vulnerable populations, such as the poor and young children.
The results of this study showed that a day after the education, there was a significant increase in healthy choices by the students who participated as compared to the control group that did not receive the education. This study provides insight into a strategy for getting teenagers to eat healthy.
Align healthy eating messages with short term results
What we also learn from this study that with teenagers, aligning the message for healthy eating with long-term health benefits are less effective. Offering proof of a more immediate consequence of their choices, alignment with values of peers and having a feeling of being socially valuable, produces an increase in motivation to change behaviour.
Teenagers do not want to be controlled. The teenage years are a time for a parental change and for allowing increased decision-making. Many of my friends became vegetarians in their teen years as a result of concern over animal rights or the environment. Parents need to respect their growing teenager’s choices and guide them in the right direction without controlling them.
5 Tips for encouraging your teenager to eat healthy
As a parental guide, I would suggest the following ideas to relinquish control on your teenagers healthy eating habits.
1. Children learn from what they see.
It may take years for you to realize what type of influence you have on their eating habits. As a teenager, I resisted being in the kitchen with my mother. I resisted learning how to cook, but silently observed, and as I grew more aware of how food impacted my body, I started to take a stand. As I began to understand our food supply, I volunteered with meals on wheels and food banks to make good food choices available to vulnerable populations. As a parent, you can emulate healthy food choices by merely packing your lunch so that your child sees what you are doing.
2. Keep healthy foods in the house.
Keep the unhealthy snacks available but overpower with fresh choices and make fresh foods easy and accessible.
3. Prepare homecooked meals in front of the kids.
Cook at home, but don’t pressure them to cook with you. Kids silently watch what you do. They will not follow your lead in the short term, but in the long-term, they will remember what they saw and experienced at home.
4. Teenagers need to find their truths.
They need to experience the natural consequences of their choices. If they eat a whole bag of chips, they will feel ill. If they don’t eat before school and feel weak during school, they will understand the consequence of not eating.
5. Be a role model not disciplinary figure.
Be accepting of their food choices. Focusing too much of “healthy” will lead to orthorexia and poor body image. Don’t say things like, “I can’t have any ice cream, I have gained too much weight.” Be a role model and leave the judgment out of your food choices.
Your child will make poor choices, but I promise, if you emulate a healthy relationship with food, your lead will guide them in the long run.
8 tips for parents of teenagers to be strong role models
- Ditch your scale
- Ditch your diet
- Ditch your definition of what is healthy
- Focus on fresh whole food ingredients
- Focus on cooking at home
- Focus on fresh
- Focus on your relationship
- Focus on kindness to yourself
Healthy food habits also include doing things together, which may not always seem easy with teenagers, but some things you can try to do together include, meal planning with your teenager, creating a grocery list together, asking about meals at their friends’ homes, inviting your kids friends over, and having a regular family meal night. Encourage your child to prepare their lunches and encourage them to make a meal themselves, and include them in decision-making.
If you are short on time for meal planning, consider outsourcing meal planning or order meal kits, but make the meal choices together. You should also consider working with a Registered Dietitian and meal planner to ensure your home is well-stocked and ready for healthy eating, including meals and snacks. Healthy eating does not have to be stressful or overwhelming!
As a mom to four boys, I know life can be busy, which is why I offer services that not only save time but also match foods to your specific health condition, concerns or needs. To learn more about what foods you should be eating to maintain a healthy lifestyle, book a free 15-minute consultation.