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The #1 Nutrition Mistake with Teens

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If you’ve got a teen, you may think you’re in the homestretch–at least from a nutrition standpoint. But you may be making a nutrition mistake with feeding you teen. 

You’ve fed your teen healthy foods, supported sports and activities along the way, and even taught him about nutrition while you were at it.

And here’s where the #1 nutrition mistake with teens are made.

You think adolescence is the perfect time to give your teen more freedom–for cruise control, right?

Not so fast.

Today’s parents spend a lot of time fretting about nutrition: when to start solid food, why their toddler is a picky eater (and how to change it), or the assault of school lunch on their school-agers eating habits. By the time adolescence hits, parents are ready to sit back and enjoy the ride.

The freedom ride.

Freedom from over a dozen years of shopping, organizing meals, cooking and getting food on the table, and worrying about nutrition. Isn’t adolescence the time for a break from all the worry and effort? Time to let your teen be in charge of feeding himself?

After all, your teen is entering ‘launch from the nest’ mode, and needs to practice doing the food thing alone. Right?

That’s what Mary thought. She was excited when her son Jimmy got his driver’s license. He was already pretty independent, but she was admittedly relieved to shift the driving responsibilities to him, and didn’t really mind that he ate outside the home. But, she didn’t expect his frequent absence from the dinner table and the excuse “I already ate.”

While most parents wouldn’t let a child figure out how to swim without lessons, the same rings true for releasing teens into the world of food and nutrition. Letting teens “figure out” what to eat, how to do it, and navigate the complicated world of food (which many adults have difficulty maneuvering), is the most common practice and mistake I see parents making today with teens.

Giving teens food freedom without nutrition knowledge (and going on cruise control) serves up its own consequences.

What Too Much Food Freedom Causes

Lack Luster Food Choices

When teens make independent food decisions, they base them on what they like (and what they know). Taste preference and availability are drivers of food choice.  Knowledge of nutrition can influence choice also, but motivation to act on ‘eating what’s healthy’ may be missing. The reality? Teen eating trends indicate teens snack frequently (23% of daily calorie intake), skip meals, and are consuming 34 teaspoons of sugar each day–hardly what most parents want for their teen’s health.

Click Here to Grab 85 Healthy Snacks for the Teen

Missing Nutrients for Health & Development

Teens need a variety of important nutrients including iron, calcium, fiber and vitamin D for normal, healthy growth and development. Yet these are low in the teen diet, according to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Teens need food guidance from mom and dad to assure critical nutrients are available. The simple task of stocking nutrient-rich foods so they are available for eating can have a tremendous impact on nutrient intake. Remember, teens aren’t terribly discerning about food—if it’s there, they will often eat it!

Pressure, and Lots of It

Let’s face it, between social pressures to fit in, media pressure to appear fit and trim, and a tenuous, developing, self-concept, today’s teens are under a lot of pressure. And when there’s a lot of pressure, support is needed. Not the hovering, overly concerned, too-much-empathy type of support, but rather the ‘I’m here if you need me’ kind. An engaged, steady parent presence can help teens manage the pressures of the 21st century.


When teens are left to navigate mealtime alone, a missed opportunity presents itself. What’s lost? The opportunity to download with loved ones: connect, talk, disagree, or agree. Teens who connect with their parents (and family) may experience stronger family cohesion, and this has been associated with healthier eating.

Taking a hands-off approach to feeding during the teen years is potentially a big mistake that serves up it’s own risks. Adolescence is not a time to go on cruise control with nutrition, nor a time to be over-bearing.

It’s a time for sensitivity, involvement and daily interaction. Use feeding as a tool to connect with your teen, improve food choices, cover key nutrients and managing outside pressures.

What’s the hardest thing about feeding your teen?

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  1. I appreciate that this post focuses on the care and feeding of teenagers. Most teens do not have even a basic understanding of nutrition and the value of healthy eating.

    Parents need to continue to encourage family meals and regular meals. Teens frequently skips breakfast and/or lunch because they lack time or to “help” manage their weight. It may help to offer meals and snacks that are grab and go foods for breakfast or between classes such as an egg sandwich, smoothie, yogurt, fruit (sliced apples and oranges are better than whole), graham crackers with peanut butter, package of flavored nuts, string cheese, carrots with Ranch dressing or hummus, etc.

    Providing nutrition education is important in schools. I recently used our High School program that includes student booklets that are free in CA along with the downloadable presentation at It was very well received and I later heard that at least a few students during lunch decided to eat the fruit rather than throw it away. Raising awareness is a good first step with this age group. Combining a good food environment at home and school along with education may encourage students to make better choices longterm.

    1. Trina,

      Thanks for sharing the presentation! I agree, we don’t give this pediatric population enough attention–rather they get more attention for the “bad” things they do. My experience is that teens are hungry (no pun intended) for information about nutrition–good nutrition. There is a growing interest for eating healthier, managing weight successfully, and cooking. I think if nutrition ed was back in the MS and HS curriculum, educators would be surprised to see how popular the class would be!

  2. Jill, you are right on target! Continuing to serve family meals is key. Our rule, if I made a healthy dinner and they wanted to go out with your friends, then they paid for dinner. If I didn’t cook, then I’d cover the cost of their meal (date night out for mom and dad). That would keep them coming home for dinner (and inviting their friends). I became expert at scaling the meal up or down depending on how many showed up at meal time.

    The other trick is to keep staples like milk, bananas, baby carrots and nuts on hand for quick snacks. My kids played water polo so calories weren’t an issue, I just wanted to be sure they got the nutrients they needed to be healthy.

  3. I so agree Jill. I still like to make my teenagers lunches. I’ve packed vegetables in my kids lunches since grade school and now my two teenagers enjoy a big sandwich bag of vegetables in their lunch. Their friends often ask for a cauliflower, carrot or tomato. My son tells me that his lunches are famous as Mrs. Plotkin’s lunches (although my husband helps me pack them too). At the end of the day we are all still connecting around the dinner table. I feel confident that my kids will continue to be good eaters because of the eating environment that we have maintained.

    1. Carol,
      It sounds like you’ve done, and are doing, a great job! I feel that the tween and teen years are sort of forgotten as an opportunity to continue to cultivate nutrition knowledge, and I don’t think we as a society serve this population well. Keep on having those family meals and packing those lunches!