September 7, 2010

Would you like carrots with that?

Getting your teen to consider healthier foods

If you've been worried your teenager isn't eating enough green, leafy things or fresh fruits, you're not alone. According to a recent survey 96 per cent of teens aren't eating the recommended servings for fruits and vegetables in Canada's Food Guide.

What accounts for this imbalance in the teen diet? Lana Kusmack , a registered dietitian and community nutritionist in the Winnipeg Health Region, has a theory.

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She says when teens skip meals or become over hungry, they are more likely to choose foods that are not as healthy. Their priority is not to ensure their growing bodies are getting the appropriate nutrients, they just want to fill the gap as quick as possible to stop their growling stomachs.

Eating at regular intervals during the day is one part of the solution. But the foods your teen is choosing to eat could be healthier. How can you encourage that? And how can you get them engaged and interested in eating healthier?

"It's never too late to get your teen involved and interested in cooking. This basic skill will help prepare teenagers for cooking on their own so that they are less likely to skip meals or choose fast foods," says Kusmack. "Busy schedules can pose a challenge for family mealtime so it's important for teens to be able to whip up their own healthy meal before heading out the door."

What can you do to encourage healthier eating?

  1. As a family, discuss small goals you can set in your quest to eat healthier. Talk about how you can support each other in making these changes and discuss how these changes are having a positive impact on your lives, health and overall wellbeing. For example, do you feel more energetic after eating certain foods, sluggish after others?

  2. Consider the importance of breakfast and model the need to start your day with healthy nutrition. Eating something after their body has been sleeping and rejuvenating is the jump start your teens need to function at their best physically, mentally and emotionally. Consider baking muffins ahead of time, heating leftovers or making a smoothie.

  3. Try to minimize fast food and restaurant meals. If you must grab a quick meal, try to make healthier food choices. It is possible to order a meal that can nourish your family instead of offering high fat, high sugar, high salt and high calorie options. Pizza with a whole wheat crust, sandwiches and salads are alternatives to consider.

  4. Stop buying soft drinks, which are high in sugar and impact oral health. They also increase calorie intake without nutritional value. Energy drinks and sugary coffees should be considered occasional beverages as opposed to part of a daily routine. Educate your kids about the amount of sugar they may be drinking and encourage them to find healthier options. Encourage your teen to stay hydrated with water instead.

  5. Rethink your perspective on snacks as unhealthy. Healthy snacks are part of a balanced diet. Traditional snack foods may be convenient but there are nutritious, delicious and convenient alternatives - such as air popped popcorn (put ¼ or 1/3 C of popcorn kernels in a lunch bag, fold the top three times, place the bag in the microwave for approximately two minutes or until popping stops . . . or use the popcorn button), home made trail mix, nuts, cheese and crackers, or an apple with peanut butter - instead of high sodium, high fat snacks. Experiment with new recipes and food choices - make finding healthy, delicious snacks a fun adventure you share with your teens.

  6. Use a trip to the grocery store as a chance to educate your family about nutrition. Take the time to read labels and see which foods contain high amounts of sodium or fat.

  7. Try to get your kids to eat foods that are as close to their natural state as possible, such as unpackaged fruits and vegetables. Processed, packaged or frozen prepared meals and appetizers can be full of sodium and chemicals. Challenge them to meet attainable goals like eating two vegetables and fruits a day. Seem like a daunting task? Click here for inspiration and recipes.

  8. Planning is key to eating healthy. Engage your kids in cooking extra, freezing single serving sizes or preparing lunches. When healthy, delicious food is within reach and convenient, your kids are more likely to reach for it. Cut up fruits, vegetables and cheese for snacks and have them readily available to grab when you are in a hurry. Try this Mexicana Chili recipe, which can be made in advance and frozen.

  9. To discourage skipping of meals, encourage your teens to think about fuelling their bodies as comparable to putting gas in a car. Our bodies regularly need optimum fuel to operate at their best. The better fuel we put into them, the better they perform and the better we feel.

  10. Talk to your kids about things that could impact their nutrition choices - marketing and promotion, concerns about body weight and size, peer pressure - and remind them that being healthy is the primary goal.

Related links

Key Messages and Strategies for Promoting Healthy Eating and Active Living in the School Age Years

Healthy Eating ABCs

Fuelling the young athlete

Nutrition for athletes


Nutrition and healthy eating

Canadian Council of Food and Nutrition

Teaching healthy eating habits to teens

Helping teens make healthy food choices

Easy, Healthy Recipes

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