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.
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?
Written by: Jill Castle, MS, RDN
Published on: March 8, 2013
Updated on: January 19, 2017