Diana K. Rice is the mind and the mother behind The Baby Steps Dietitian. She is a Registered Dietitian (R.D.) and mother to two adorable kids. She wants to help all families eat just a little bit better, one baby step at a time.

Cereal for breakfast? PB&J and chips for lunch? Ramen for dinner? The typical teen diet is a recipe for nutritional disaster. As any parent of a teenager will confirm, telling your teenage son or daughter to do something is an excellent way to get them to ignore you, or worse, do the exact opposite. Although it may very well be in your teenager’s best interest to eat their veggies, drink milk, and sit down to a nice family dinner with you, telling them to do so isn’t the best way to go about making it happen. So, what can you do about it?

Well, before we dive into how to make your teen eat better, we need to understand why your teen’s diet is so important in the first place.

The Awkward Truth About Teen Nutrition

It’s perfectly understandable if you’re concerned about whether your teen is consuming a nutritious diet. Good nutrition is particularly important during adolescence: it not only provides the fuel teenagers need for their busy day to day lives but can also impact their health later in life. Adequate calcium intake during the teenage years, for example, will help keep their bones healthy and strong for the remainder of their lives.

Upgrade Your: Kids Favorite Junk Foods

But according to national data, teenagers fall short of the recommended intake for dairy products, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and they’re over-consuming processed grain products (white bread and toaster pastries would be examples), sugar, and caffeine. It makes sense of course. Teens express their newfound freedom in many ways, but especially via their food choices.

While taking a daily supplement such as SmartyPants Teen Girl Complete or Teen Guy Complete can help adolescents meet their nutrient goals*, the food your teen chooses to eat each day remains the most important source of nutrition. And perhaps even more importantly, teens are also building the eating habits that they will come to rely on throughout their lives. So, it is especially important to steer your teenager towards healthy dietary habits right now. But how to do so without telling your child what he or she should eat?

What To Do

The best course of action is to create an environment that makes consuming healthy foods easy for your kids but refrains from putting any pressure on them to choose healthy foods. Sound confusing? Try these practical tips to help make it work:

1. Stock your home with healthy choices

Monkey see, monkey eat! Without a grocery budget of their own, when teens are at home they typically eat what’s around. So stock up on sliced veggies to pair with hummus or a yogurt-based dip and store them at eye level in the refrigerator. Keep fruit like bananas, apples and clementines visible in a bowl on the counter. Create “Eat Me!” boxes for additional grab-and-go snacks – one for the refrigerator with items like string cheese, yogurt, and hard boiled eggs and another for the pantry with whole grain crackers, nuts, and dried fruit. Swap sodas out for flavored sparkling waters and keep the fried chips and cheese puffs to a minimum in favor of whole grain corn chips to pair with salsa.

2. Model healthy eating yourself

This one is tough, but it’s of no help to your family to be encouraging healthy habits while you’re not following them yourself. Kids are far more observant than they put on and the habits you model make a big difference when they’re making their own choices. So snack on those apples and cheese sticks, too! Try to keep your habits healthy and well-rounded: eat nutritious whole foods when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full, and enjoy the occasional treat. A parent’s restrictive dieting behaviors have been shown to be a leading cause of body image issues in adolescents. This can lead teens to restrict their own food choices, which robs them of the good nutrition they need and may make it difficult for them to develop a healthy relationship with food down the line.

3. Have regular family meals

The benefits of regular family meals are numerous: in addition to consuming healthier diets, teens who regularly participate in family meals also earn better grades and are less likely to try drugs. But if getting your family to sit down for a nutritious Norman Rockwell-style family meal sounds like the craziest idea you’ve heard all day, you’re certainly not alone! Conflicting weeknight schedules and a teen’s desire for independence can make it very difficult to get everyone to the table. Consistency is the name of the game here, even if you’re only able to add one or two additional family meals per week. Be clear that dinner will be eaten at the table only, but make if fun by asking your teens to pick the recipe or trying out a meal kit delivery service.

4. Keep communication open

Here’s another proven benefit of family meals: teens can talk about what’s on their minds. The more often teens participate in family meals, the more likely they are to report having an excellent relationship with their parents. But regardless of how often you’re able to sit down for meals, make it a point to check in with your teen about what’s going on in their life. On the subject of food, try to make it clear that you’re comfortable with your teen making his or her own food choices outside of the house. You want them to understand that you’re not trying to control every morsel they eat, which ironically can lead them to choose less healthy options more often out of rebellion.

5. Live a little!

While it’s certainly important to make your home a place where healthy options abound, it’s just as important to demonstrate that treats are a part of life, too! So pass that buttered popcorn during movie night and enjoy desserts on birthdays, holidays, and “just because.” Having such treats available from time to time and witnessing you partake in them, too, will help your teen realize that such foods are part of life and fit into a diet that balances mostly healthy options with fun foods, too.

Teen Girl Complete

What Not To Do

And of course keep in mind what’s best to avoid doing as well:

1. Lecturing your teens on nutrition

Simply put, knowing that a food is healthy does not motivate kids to consume it. Certainly skip the nutrition lecture, but also keep in mind that interjecting nutritional tidbits such as “Brussels sprouts are an excellent source of vitamin C!” are likely to fall on dead ears. Go with the positive instead: “Can you pass the Brussels sprouts? They are so good roasted like this!”

2. Telling them what to eat outside the home

Choosing foods outside the home is kind of like dating. You just have to let your kids make their own mistakes, especially when they’re spending their own money. Allowing your teens the freedom to experiment a little once they’re making their own food choices is an opportunity for them to indulge a little and learn how certain foods make them feel.

3. “Getting” them to eat anything

Pretty much any persuasive tactic you try is bound to backfire on you. Even well-intended comments such as, “You should really eat something before you leave for school!” can come off as controlling. The best course of action is to create a healthy eating environment in your home as outlined above and then trust your child to be the one to choose healthy foods more often than not. Seek help if you truly suspect disordered eating, but beyond that, let them fly!

Most importantly, remember that building healthy habits happens over time and any given meal your teenagers choose to eat is not as important as their overall dietary pattern and the habits they’re developing. Do what you can to create a healthy environment and remember, food is something to bond over!

You can show Diana some love on Instagram @dianakrice, on Twitter @dianakrice, and on Facebook.

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Posted on December 1, 2017