Twinkies for Teens: When Two Roads Diverged, My Teen Took the Healthy One

Today’s Parenthetical post discusses teens’ eating habits, and how parents (you!) can help your teen make healthy, nutritional choices when eating.

For anyone who has seen a doctor, watched the news, surfed the web or watched a frightening documentary on what it’s like to have a fast-food diet in the last 10-20 years, the fact that healthy eating and exercise are important to our physical and emotional well-being is old news.

Teenagers, are no exception. Not only do most teens acknowledge the importance of healthy eating, they are also able to list many foods that are on the “better” side of the food pyramid. However, research studies suggest that despite being able to identity healthy foods, teens are not very likely to actually eat them.

For adults, this may cause some confusion. We often believe (or hope) that if our kids have the “right” information, they will make the “right” choices. So why don’t they?

What’s eating my teen’s food choosing skills?

Despite knowing the importance of healthy eating, many factors can get in the way of teens putting their knowledge into practice.

  • Limited Knowledge – While teens know a healthy diet is important, this knowledge is often limited to stereotypical “healthy” foods such as salad and anything “low-fat.” Teens may struggle to translate this basic, limited knowledge to the real world where they have to decide between a wide array of foods and preparation styles.
  • Short vs. Long Term Benefits – Teens typically associate the benefits of a healthy diet with immediate gains, such as “staying skinny” or “having energy.” They are much less likely to link long-term health benefits, such as reduced risk for heart disease, with their food choices today. So, if they don’t see immediate negative side effects, their food choices might not seem all that important… just yet.
  • Tricky Timing and Terrible Taste – Teens assume that preparing healthy meals is time consuming, while many of the foods that are convenient and easily available are often unhealthy. Also, teen often describe healthy foods as bland, unattractive, and poor tasting; such beliefs may prevent youth from trying a variety of food items.
  • Peer Pressure – As adolescents seek autonomy from parents, peers increasingly become a source of influence and approval. Indeed, one of the biggest contributors to poor eating habits is spending time with peers who also adopt those habits.
  • Shifting Schedules – As teens become more active outside of the home, their schedules become fuller and sometimes irregular, which can interfere with usual mealtimes. As a result, much of food consumption comes in the form of quick snacks. Schools may present a unique challenge for snacking due to vending machines that are often filled with cheap, but nutritionally low-valued food items.

Plight of the Parent: What can you do?

By Chiot's Run on Flickr
By Chiot’s Run on Flickr

Adolescence is a particularly important time to be health conscious: this is the life stage where we do most of our growing, both physically and cognitively. However, this growth is accompanied by increased autonomy, time away from home, and busier schedules, which often translates into less regular meals and more eating “on-the-go.”

As the parent of a teen, you still have important roles that influence the choices your young person makes when it comes to food, even outside of the home:

  1. The “Role-Model”… Your kids really do pick up your habits, even when you aren’t trying!
  2. The “Gate-Keeper”… You can choose what is available inside the home.
  3. The “Taste-Setter”… The experience your child has with food in the home can influence later associations (good or bad) with different types of food (e.g., think Mom’s all-fixing chicken noodle soup)
  4. The “Advocate”…You can push for changes in the community to help making choosing healthy options easier (e.g., some parents have petitioned for removal of vending machines from schools)

What does my teen really need? 

Yes, fruits and veggies are good. The most important part of a nutritious diet, however, is in the balance:  reasonable portions of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, and low-fat dairy are all essential. For more information and tips on balanced meals tailored to individual needs, check out: 

Hunger Games: How to Promote Healthy Food Choices

Offer the right kind of encouragement!

  • Encouraging a healthy lifestyle with good eating habits and regular exercise is much more effective than discouraging dieting.
  • Why this works: Focusing on a “healthy lifestyle” reinforces the importance of balance and encourages a holistic approach to well-being. It also sounds less constraining than a diet!

Provide basic concepts about healthy food, and lots of examples!

  • Rather than telling your kids they “need a balanced meal,” which can be vague and sound unappetizing, talk to them about ways they can eat a variety of foods (from a variety of places) and still stay healthy.
  • Why this works: Giving your kids a framework for how to judge what makes food healthy can help them avoid black-and-white thinking, which may seem too restrictive. Providing lots of examples will help them see that they don’t have to only eat “low-fat salads” to be healthy.

Discuss techniques to improve self-regulation and personal responsibility

  • Ask for help planning meals for inside the home.  Talk about balance and ways to plan for meals outside the home. You can also offer ideas of how to prepare food beforehand for busy days or rushed mornings, in an effort to discourage missed meals.
  • Why this works: This supports your teen’s need to build autonomy by making their own choices. The focus on balance reminds them they don’t have to be perfect, but can treat themselves in moderation.
  • Added bonus: This might open the door for activities to do together, such as grocery shopping or dinner prep!

Make healthy choices accessible

  • Prepare meals at home that reflect the types of food your teen should be consuming outside the home. Offer teens “grab and go” foods that don’t need to be prepared (e.g., fruit). If your teen and their friends want to eat out, offer to drive to a place that has healthy options.
  • Why this works: By preparing healthy meals, you are not only creating “taste buds” for a variety of foods, but also have the opportunity to challenge stereotypes that healthy food tastes bad.

Model healthy eating at home

  • Schedule regular family meals that work with everyone’s schedule. Ask for help preparing meals when possible!
  • Why this works: Sitting down to eat provides an opportunity to talk and build relationships. This sets you up to be in a role-model position.

Ideas for Take-Out: The Take-Away Points

Adolescence is an important time for adopting healthy behaviors surrounding food choices. Not only is food intake important for growth, patterns established during this developmental stage can often endure well into adulthood. Parents of teens are in a position to impact both the exposure youth have to healthy foods, as well as the information they use to make choices about food. As such, parents are an essential component to the first steps a youth takes towards an overall healthy lifestyle.

Article by Dayana Kupisk

dkupDayana is a doctoral student in Human Development & Family Studies at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Dayana previously worked as a life skills coordinator at a residential living program serving homeless teens and young adults. She has one older brother, and, for the first time in her life, is living in a different state from her parents.