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Your teen (or tween) is not a baby anymore. With age, they have gained maturity, independence, and hopefully a good sense of healthy eating principles. You’ve spent years teaching them about nutrition and health, but now it’s up to your teen to put these ideas into practice.
But have you thought about what they are up against? As we have heard since the 1990’s, our children live in an obesogenic environment. This means that our current surroundings tend to promote obesity in individuals or populations. It is important to teach your teen strategies to avoid falling into unhealthy eating “traps” that exist all around them.
Teens spend a large portion of their time at school, where they are surrounded by their peers. The need to fit-in with these peers can strongly influence food choices. Whether healthy or unhealthy, teens will tend to eat in the same way as their friends. Teach your child healthy habits, and help them influence their friends to eat healthier too. Here are some common school-related environments your teen may find themselves in, and helpful tips to help them stay healthy throughout the school year.
School Lunch – Thanks to the recent Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act,the USDA has updated nutrition standards for the first time in 15 years. The new standards make it easier for our children to eat a healthy lunch at school. Students are now required to take a fruit and/or vegetable with their school meal, and grains, protein, and low fat dairy must also be available. To make a complete meal, students must select at least 3 out of the 5 available components. The new standards also have requirements to offer a wider variety of fruits, vegetables, and legumes, and fewer added sugars, to ensure the kids get the vitamins and minerals they need without the empty calories. Drinking water must be offered for free in dining areas to help kids stay hydrated, and for the first time, all snacks sold at schools must meet nutrition standards. These new regulations will help kids eat healthier at school and nourish their bodies with whole foods instead of empty calories.
Off Campus Lunch – Some schools have open campus policies that allow students to leave campus at lunchtime. This allows kids to travel to nearby fast food restaurants or corner stores. Studies have shown that fast food restaurants are 3 to 4 times more concentrated around schools. Instead of completely banning fast food from your kids in the name of health, visit the fast food chains with your child. Talk to them about the available options, and how they can make healthier choices. If it’s French fries that they absolutely love, then how about getting the salad or grilled chicken item it instead of a cheese burger. Another choice is to skip the soda and ask for water or low fat milk instead. Soda is the number one source of energy and added sugars in the diets of teens! This one small change can help prevent weight gain and improve health. At corner stores, teens can find nuts, dried fruit, and snack bars that will satisfy them much more than chips and candy. Try to help them steer clear of giant cans or bottles of sugary drinks and seek out some healthier options like flavored mineral water. If you have educated your teen about healthy options, at least you know they have knowledge base to select the healthiest items anywhere they go. By visiting these establishments with your teen, you are giving them the opportunity to practice achieving balance in their diet. For more information on staying healthy while eating out, check out our interview with Hope Warshaw, MMSc, RD, CDE, author of Eat Out, Eat Right: The Guide to Healthier Restaurant Eating.
After School – When kids come home from a long day at school, they need some time to decompress. It can be harder and harder to find this time with sports, activities, clubs, jobs, and homework, during teen years. Often, teens want to grab a bag of chips and plop down on the couch. This scenario lends itself to mindless eating while zoning out in front of the TV. It also exposes them to even more junk food advertisements that feature high calorie, high fat, low nutrient, and low fiber foods. Try to encourage your child to decouple eating from decompressing. It has been shown that kids eat less when they have a snack before watching television, rather than eating while watching TV. Keep healthy snacks on hand that are satisfying and nourishing, like sliced fruits or vegetables with dip. Great options include apples and peanut or almond butter, carrot sticks and hummus, bell pepper strips and ranch dip. Whole grain crackers with cheese, pretzel sticks, and fruit also make quick and easy, yet tasty snacks! For even more healthy snack suggestions, check out “50 Healthy Snack Ideas for You and the Kids to Love.”
Studying – Has your teen mastered the art of procrastination, as mine have? Sometimes I notice them digging in the refrigerator just to get a break from their homework. Studies show that healthy eating is associated with academic success, but teens often seek out junk while studying. The consumption of sugary drinks and salty snacks has been associated with decreased academic performance, so share with your teen that making healthier choices can help them stay energized and focused, rather than weighed down and sluggish. Physical activity also leads to higher academic achievement, so encourage them to take mini breaks to walk around the block or do jumping jacks in the living room. Work with your teen to come up with healthy snack ideas or other activities that can give them a much-needed mental break from their homework. A quick stretch or walk outside can provide the same amount of distraction in a much more productive manner. Moving around will help them feel refreshed and ready to focus in on their studies again so encourage your kids to be physically active.
You’ve spent years teaching your teen healthy eating and lifestyle habits. Now it is up to them to put these ideas into practice while at school and with their friends. Talk with them about obstacles to healthy behaviors, and come up with solutions together. By encouraging your teen to take ownership over their behavior, you can be more confident in their ability to make the healthy choice in any environment. For more tips on teaching healthy habits, check out Teaching Your Teen How to Stay Healthy While Out with Friends.