The teen growth spurt is one of the most dramatic, rapid changes that the human body experiences; it's second only to the amazing growth that takes place during the first year of life. To support this major transition, the body requires increased calories and nutrients. During the year of the greatest growth in height (about age 12 in most girls and age 14 in most boys) the average female requires 2,400 calories per day and the average male needs between 2,800 and 3,000 calories per day.
“Oh, great,” I can hear you saying. “My teen probably eats that many calories in bagels, burgers, cheese, pizza, and soda.”
Not to worry (too much). If your child isn't obsessed with food (eating too much or not eating enough) and is getting good reports at regularly scheduled medical check-ups, then in all likelihood there's no cause for alarm.
The Good Eats Department
Hopefully, by the time your child is a teenager, you've laid the groundwork for good eating. (Food consumption during the teen years probably won't reflect the values you've taught; don't worry, she'll come back to them later on.) Ideally—unless your idea of a balanced meal is nachos and beer—your child has internalized some basic ideas about healthy eating:
- Meal time is a pleasant time when the family enjoys being together, and no one gets nagged about what they eat.
- Family members are encouraged to stop eating when they're full. No one is forced to “eat just a little more” or to clean their plate.
- Food is not a reward: A good grade on an English test doesn't warrant extra helpings of ice cream.
- Food isn't used as a substitute for comfort: If your teen didn't make the hockey team, going out for pizza is not the solution.
- Adult family members model good eating habits, and if they diet, they do it safely.
- The fridge is stocked with healthy foods and most meals are nutritionally balanced.
Teens don't know much about nutrition, so any time your teen expresses an interest in it, you should talk about healthy eating:
- Teach her that the foods closest to nature are also lowest in fat and sugar and highest in nutrients. If she eats fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grain breads, lean meats, chicken, fish, and low-fat dairy products, she's doing her body a favor.
- Show her how to read nutrition labels on boxes. You might point out that “fat-free” snacks are usually loaded with sugar and chemicals.
- Tell her the (sometimes shocking) calorie content of certain foods, such as two tablespoons of peanut butter equaling 180 calories. You can also point out that although one-half cup of cottage cheese is only 100 calories, most people eat more than half a cup.
By teaching nutrition basics early, you'll give your child a guide for a lifetime of healthy eating.
Though snagging family members to sit down and eat together can be daunting, you ought to make it a priority at least twice a week. (And if dinners are difficult, what about a family breakfast on Sundays?) A few tips to make the most of family meals:
- On nights when getting the entire family together is impossible, see who's available. If you eat only with your son, for example, he might tell you things you would never get to hear if the rest of the family was around.
- In addition to using meal time as a time to be together, a shared meal also offers you the opportunity to sneak some extra nutrition into your teen's diet. You don't have to mention the fact that your famous cheese lasagna is packed with calcium, but by preparing it, you're giving your teen some of the nutrients she needs to grow.
- Meal times also offer you an opportunity to introduce different foods (no need to produce a sliced mango or a baked tofu dish with a big flourish; just serve it and let your teen try what she wants).
- In addition to a basic dinner, always provide teenage-friendly filler foods such as bread or a bowl of pasta. That way even if your son doesn't like what's on his plate, he will stay at the table because there's something else that he'll eat. In addition, this “filler” food will help him reach the caloric intake he needs.
- Leave a meal in the fridge for times when you won't all be together. It offers the opportunity for her to have something healthy at the end of the day.
Short on time during the week? Everyone is, but there are still some ways to help the family eat healthy:
- Cook on the weekends, and freeze the food in appropriate portions.
- Teach you teen to cook—some healthy foods are simple to make. A grilled cheese sandwich provides calcium; a home-prepared hamburger is easy and nutritious; a quick baked potato topped with cheese, ham, or vegetables is microwavable; and pasta with sauce from a jar is fine, too. If your teen is an enthusiastic cook you may find yourself dining on a meal he's decided to prepare.
- Keep frozen pizza on hand. You'd hate to have to eat it every night, but no one ever died of having it once in awhile.
Snacking: “You'll Ruin Your Dinner!”
When your children were younger you may have had a very strict policy on when—and if—they could snack. By the teen years, your teen is in charge, and your job is to provide nutritious snacks and a flexible attitude.
Because they have high caloric needs, teens can't get all the calories they need in three meals a day, so it's natural and important for them to snack.
Keep nutritious and filling foods with lots of teen appeal within snacking distance, such as:
- Whole-grain crackers and a variety of low-fat cheeses
- Fluffy whole wheat bread and sandwich fixings (lean turkey, tuna packed in water, lettuce, and tomatoes)
- Colorful fruit (try plums, nectarines, bananas, kiwis, or a bowl of juicy mixed berries)
- Raw vegetables (precut carrots and celery store well kept in water in the refrigerator)
- Healthy munchies like low-fat, low-salt pretzels and light popcorn