We all recognise the need to eat and many of us also understand that fuelling our bodies well can help them to serve us better. But let’s face it, eating well or even remembering to eat becomes tricky when life gets in the way. We’ve all missed a breakfast or had to chuck a sandwich down us quickly before heading to the next meeting or eaten nothing but crisps and chocolate for tea!
As our teens grow more independent, it can feel like we no longer have any control over what or when they’re eating and are resented for suggesting that they try to eat well and regularly.
So, how then can we help them to feed their minds and bodies without it feeling like a chore or getting away from that thought that eating well has to take a huge chunk of time out of their day?
We all need routine in our day, without it we’re all at sea, and that’s why we invest so much time when our children are little establishing routines. Part of our job as a parent of teens is to support them to maintain these routines to help them navigate their days.
To support them with their meal routines, we can provide access to regular meals, in particular the main meal of the day, and food for snacks.
How much do they need?
The amount of food teens eat can be astonishing. Eating as much, if not more than you is completely normal! Teens need to eat a lot of food, regularly, to fuel their massive growth, physical activities and brain development.
Whilst we don’t want to be seen to be keeping tabs on what and how much they’re eating, we do need to encourage them to be taking on board enough.
What food can you provide?
We’ve all heard the saying that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but it can also be the trickiest one to consume, especially for teens. They’re often late to sleep but have to be up early for school. They might not feel they have time for breakfast and their tiredness from lack of sleep can mean they don’t fancy eating anything.
But eating breakfast is important to support not only their growth, their learning and their activities but also to reduce cravings for high fat and sugar foods later in the day.
We can help them to eat breakfast by having something ready made for them or that they can quickly grab. Overnight oats can be made the evening before and can also be made in bulk to last a few days. Leftovers make for excellent breakfasts, as do smoothies and smoothie bowls. And there’s nothing wrong with cereal with milk or yoghurt, but you can get them off to a great start to the day by making things like fruit, nuts and seeds available too to pimp up their plain cereal with.
That said, we don’t have to eat breakfast as soon as we get up. Breaking our fast an hour or so later is still hugely beneficial. So, if they don’t eat at home, having something they can take with them will mean they have something to eat before lessons start; a wrap with peanut butter and banana, a sandwich, a fruit muffin, or a cereal bar, for example.
Snacks and water to take to school will support them to eat regularly throughout the day, as will providing access to food at home for after school snacks.
If we make the more nutritious options easy to see and appealing, we can guide them down a path of eating more healthily but allow them the independence to make their own food choices.
Think about having a section of the worktop, a cupboard and an area of the fridge for foods your teen can help themselves to, or labelling foods you’re happy for them to eat (the last thing you want is to head to the kitchen to start making tea and find that the ingredients have disappeared!).
But we don’t want our teens to be continually grazing and unable to eat the delicious tea you prepare so talk to them about how to prepare mini meals for their snacks (a mini meal consists of a carb + protein and/or dairy + fruit + veg). This will ensure their snacks are filling, balanced and sustaining enough to get them from snack time to mealtime without the need for more food.
Again, leftovers are great for snacks, but you could also have available things like pasta and instant noodles to which they can add leftover cooked chicken or fish and some frozen veg. Bread products are great for quick snacks with so many options for fillings and toppings (eggs, nut butters, houmous, avocado, marmite, cheese, the list goes on).
Lots of snacks can be batch cooked to last a week or to have in the freezer for when they need them. Fruit or savoury muffins, fruit and nut flapjacks, energy bars and balls, trail mix or fruit loaf, are all great to have in the house.
If all else fails, there’s always cereal, especially for an after-dinner snack. You might want to stock up!
If they’re taking a packed lunch, encourage them to prepare their own each evening, considering a variety of foods and foods they can eat quickly and easily (there’s little time for lunch at secondary school). Aim to at least include a carbohydrate, a protein, a dairy item, vegetables/salad and fruit in every box.
Sandwiches are great for packed lunches but they’re not the only option. Wraps and pittas, crackers and oatcakes, pasta or noodles, pizza or pastry pinwheels, sushi or scones, vegetable fritters or frittatas, savoury muffins or soups make for great alternatives.
Dinner is the perfect opportunity to strengthen your relationship with your teen and to maintain a connection with them as they start to pull away from you and become more independent. Having that one constant meal of the day when you are together as a family (or with whoever is home at the time) is really important for you all.
It’s also that main meal of the day that you can prepare for them, ensuring it’s tasty, satiating, and nutritious; a chance to fill in any nutrition gaps there might have been that day.
Suggested experts for teen nutrition support
- Performance canteen
- Claire Moran Nutrition
Bio and links
Sarah Alder of Kitchen Titbits is a family mealtimes mentor; helping parents transform mealtimes from stressful to stress-free.
She specialises in working with parents on the practical aspects of family mealtimes. She will help you to support your fussy eater to develop a love of food and your child to eat a wider variety of foods, but also work with you on how the whole family can have fun at mealtimes and enjoy quality family time together whilst sharing food or cooking together.
She combines this with teaching key skills around meal planning and reducing food waste to help you feel more organised and in control in the kitchen, making best use of your time, energy and ingredients. Whilst her cookery sessions build confidence and her recipes provide inspiration, helping you answer that age old question of ‘what’s for dinner?’!
To find out more about Sarah, her courses, workshops and online courses, visit her website.