From the time they were babies, most parents have been earnestly monitoring their kids’ food choices – from the protein shake they have for breakfast to the healthy sandwich and carrot sticks lovingly packed for lunch.
But then one day, your kid tells you that they don’t need a lunch from home anymore – they’re going to eat in the cafeteria or (gasp!) go off campus for lunch. Admit it – you did a little mental happy dance at the thought of that chore off your morning list. But then, you probably started to panic, knowing that teen eating habits will lead them to a lunch of double burgers, crust-stuffed pizza and cronuts.
You can’t monitor what they eat, but you can still guide them. Here are some ideas to get them turned in the right (healthy!) direction.
- Arm them with info. Sure, we’ve been bombarded with lots of nutrition information which really has helped this generation make better choices. But still, sometimes, kids don’t really know how bad certain foods are, or how to determine which is a better choice. Give them a crash course in label reading for packaged foods: ingredient lists, serving size, proteins, sodium and other nutrients. Tell them what to look for (short ingredient lists!) and what to avoid (too much fat, sugar and salt).
- There’s an app for that. Help them find an app like HealthyOut or Healthy Dining Finder that gives nutritional information and helps you find healthy meals for local restaurants. Shop Well is a great choice to quickly find nutritional information on packaged foods.
- Talk in terms of “fit” and “healthy” instead of “fat” or “skinny.” There’s so much more to healthy choices than just weight. For one, teens might feel self-conscious if you’re overly focused on their weight, and you don’t want to invite any penchant for an eating disorder. Secondly there are plenty of people who look skinny but aren’t doing their bones or heart any favors with their diet. Likewise, bigger boned teens might be eating all the right food groups to amass muscle.
- Thank the school for having your back. Thanks to the school lunch overhaul, you’ll find healthier fare than ever at the school cafeteria and better-for-you choices in the vending machines. While plenty of junk is probably still available, it’s harder to find these days from school-sanctioned sales sites.
- Put your money where your mouth is. Prefer they go to a juice joint or salad shop rather than fast food? Give them gift cards to the places you prefer! Amazing how much more motivated they’ll be to eat there when it’s already funded.
- Control what you can. Sometimes there’s only so much you can do and often that means just doing the best you can with the meals that you control. Urge your teen to seek a healthy breakfast for starters. And even though it can be almost mind-numbingly challenging to schedule a family dinner with the crazy schedules everyone keeps, it’s worth the effort to do so as many evenings as you can. Try to serve healthy foods that they like and also introduce new ones.
Sometimes it seems like you’ve been in a food fight since the first time they sent their peas flying across the kitchen from their high chair. But with some education and gentle nudging, it’s still possible to influence their food choices even when you’re no longer packing.