It is natural for parents to worry about whether their son or daughter is getting the right nutrition. Food scientist, Audrey Deane, gives her advice and tips on the best ways to keep your teenager in good health.
Starting nutrition habits in early years
Some children will eat everything you put in front of them while others will be more selective; but variety, respect and preparation is crucial for promoting healthy eating habits at an early age.
“A wide and varied diet is essential for your child when they are growing,” advises Audrey. “It’s always good to try different foods but if they don’t like it, never force them to eat it. Try not to make a big deal about them refusing to eat something as this becomes a battle ground for control.
“Try not to impose your own choice on your children either. Just because you like it, doesn’t mean they will too.”
As a child’s growth rate accelerates they will need to eat more to keep up with the intake of energy they require. “It is important you try and plan for hunger. Be prepared and keep nutritious snacks such as bananas or malt loaf in your bag,” advises Audrey.
Can food habits in childhood affect teenage years?
“We can all think of an example of a food we particularly hated growing up,” says Audrey. “We tend to remember the bad experiences and this can have a negative impact on how we approach food in the future.
“Tastes and textures change and vary through age so it’s important to retry foods with your child. Fortunately, just because they didn’t like it once, doesn’t mean they won’t like it again.”
What do teenagers need in their diet?
Adolescence is a time when the body goes through some dramatic changes, both physically and emotionally, and this needs to be partnered with the correct nutrition.
“We go through our main growth spurt in our teenage years, especially boys, and appetites can become particularly large,” explains Audrey. “There can be a lot of panic from a parent’s point of view about what you are going to feed them.”
Large amounts of B vitamins are needed during the teens. B vitamins, including thiamine, riboflavin and niacin, are essential for energy production and can be found in eggs, whole grains and Marmite.
Calcium and vitamin D
Calcium and vitamin D should also be high on the list for teenagers as they help strengthen bones, which are under increased pressure as children grow. Dairy products such as milk, cheese and yoghurt are great sources of calcium.
Iron is another important mineral throughout teenage years. For girls it is important as they lose iron in blood during menstruation and for boys the increase in muscle mass and a greater blood volume means their bodies require a larger intake.
Why is my teenager not eating properly?
Dietary choices are one way a teenager can show their independence. If they have a job, they may have more money to spend on food, or they may eat out more frequently with friends, meaning they can choose whatever food they want.
“Body consciousness is a landmine that wreaks havoc with food choices for teenagers,” says Audrey. “If you have a son or daughter set on restricting their calories, just remember low-fat versions of dairy products have just as much calcium as the full fat versions, but typically contain more sugar.”
Encourage them to eat fruits and vegetables, especially dark greens as these are low in calories and will provide them with important vitamins and minerals.
Top tips for good teenage nutrition
1. Always eat breakfast, ideally high in carbohydrates as the brain requires these for energy. A 2013 study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience identified that after breakfast participants felt more alert and satisfied and there was evidence for improved mental performance across the school morning (i).
2. Keep healthy, bread-based snacks in the cupboard. Foods like bagels and fruit bread will provide energy and are an alternative to crisps and chocolate, which are high in fat.
3. Hunger can often be mistaken for thirst. Encourage your teen to drink eight glasses of water a day. This will also help skin conditions, such as acne, which are most common during adolescence.
4. Get your teenager involved in doing the shopping. It will help them make good food choices and educate them before they move away to college or university.
Apply these tips to an everyday meal plan
Breakfast: Cereal or toast, a smoothie if you are on-the-go.
Lunch: Jacket potato and baked beans, which count as one of your five a day.
Evening meal: Mexican foods, such as chilli or tacos, are great to get teenagers involved in meal-planning and preparation.