By Ashley Weingart
What do you do when your teenager eats poorly? How can you help guide them back toward healthy habits without it turning into a food fight? Struggles with food among teens are common and normal. As parents, the first emotional reaction might be to try to take charge, throw away their favorite snacks, lecture them on proper nutrition and closely monitor everything they put in their mouths. Experts say by trying to control their diet, you will likely end up doing more harm than good.
“Food is another example of developmental changes in teenagers,” says Dr. Tira Stebbins, clinical psychologist from Chagrin Falls. “One main purpose of adolescence is learning independence.”
Like friend and clothing choices, food choices are an area where teens want to express themselves and exert their freedom.
Stebbins says she commonly sees instances where parents who eat very healthy and have higher standards become overbearing in their approach.
“Well-meaning parents who model healthy eating sometimes try to control what their teens eat, but this backfires, and a power struggle may result.”
Nitpicking and expecting perfection from your child also can lead to dangerous food habits. It might result in a child shutting down, feeling criticized or rebelling and sneaking food.
Stebbins says to pick your battles.
Show children you have confidence in them by giving them the independence they are seeking. While it seems counterintuitive, it can be an effective method of reverse psychology.
“Your child may end up learning more through their own trial and error than by being told what to eat,” Stebbins says. You can bet that at some point they will make a bad choice, eat too much junk, discover how they feel after and learn on their own to make a better choice next time.
Do As I Do, Not as I Say
While it may seem as though teens wish to ignore everything parents say and do, they are indeed still learning from your habits and modeling your behavior, whether they’d admit it or not.
“Teens are observing what their parents eat and drink,” says registered dietitian Jennifer Fritz. If you want to see your child eat healthier, look at what’s on your own plate. Even without saying anything at all, over time they will learn to eat healthy by watching you eat healthy. If it seems like that will never happen at your house, keep at it and be patient.”
However, be careful you aren’t inadvertently steering them the wrong way. Being too fussy about your own diet and appearance won’t set good examples for a body-conscious teen who is constantly bombarded by photos of too-thin models and muscular athletes via social media. If you are constantly dieting, obsessing over counting calories and are focused on body image, you are not modeling healthy eating behavior for your children.
“What children and teens hear others saying about their bodies is what they will think and say about their own bodies,” Stebbins says. The focus should be on being “healthy” and “active” — not on “appearance.”
“Lead by example,” says Shawna Napolitano, a mom of three in Bentleyville. “They see what you do, not what you say.”
Betsey Gregoire, a local teacher and parent of two teens, says she lets her children have all things in moderation. “Too many rules actually end up encouraging kids to make unhealthier choices when they are on their own.”
Experts agree that it is wise to offer less-healthy foods now and then. It teaches your children how to self-moderate and keeps treats from becoming the “forbidden fruit.” If you always forbid certain foods, when your child does have access to them they end up overindulging.
Enlist Help from Influencers
Without being pushy, try to help remind your child that food is fuel. If your child is an athlete and you’re concerned that they aren’t receiving the nutrition they need to meet their goals, consider asking their coach to talk to the team about how healthy habits will improve their performance.
If your child struggles with skin problems and you can see that it bothers them, think of asking their dermatologist to talk to them about how a proper diet can contribute to skin trouble.
Family Meal Time
You’ve heard it before, but it’s so important that it needs to be repeated. Study after study shows the importance of sitting down to eat dinner (or other meals) together.
According to The Family Dinner Project (a program created by Dr. Anne Fishel, clinical psychologist and associate clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School), regular family meals lower the rates of obesity and eating disorders in adolescents and children.
“Make mealtime a priority,” Fritz says. “It may be impossible to have dinner together every night, but try to eat as many meals at home as you possibly can.”
“If you don’t have a plan, then it will never happen,” Stebbins says. “Try to find a middle ground. The message in itself is important. Essentially you’re saying, ‘We want to be together with you to connect.’ ”
“Eating in instead of at restaurants allows parents to have more control over what is consumed than what is ordered outside the home,” Fritz says. By sitting and eating with your children, you are doing perhaps the most important and effective job you can do to help your teen eat healthier without saying a single word. You are modeling good eating behavior, showing them what a healthy meal looks like, and that you enjoy it.
f you feel you can make positive changes without creating conflict, don’t preach — just make
subtle changes at home. Rather than trying to jump in and overhaul their whole diet, help your
family make small modifications in habits gradually. Slight adjustments will be beneficial over time.
Here are some tips from Jennifer Fritz, registered dietitian.
Eliminate convenience and snack foods from the pantry. If they aren’t there, teens can’t access them.
Instead, keep whole fruits and vegetables in grabbing range. Don’t hide them in the fridge drawers.
Replace breads and cereals with 100 percent whole grains.
Go heavy on the vegetables when making soups and stir-fry.
Read labels and look for hidden sugars.
Put out small portions of foods higher in fat and calories at mealtime. On taco night only put out small bowls of cheese and sour cream. When it’s gone, it’s gone.
Reversing poor eating habits is difficult, but with time and effort you can help your child make positive changes to their diet, without it becoming a power struggle. Here are a few other general reminders about establishing healthy eating habits for children of any age.
Never force your child to eat any foods or even taste them. Your job is to provide a variety of healthy foods at each meal. Let your child decide which ones they want and how much.
f they don’t like something you serve, don’t make a big deal about it and try not to take it personally. Say things like, “Oh you didn’t like it yet? You might like it next time.” Keep mealtime positive.
Worried About Fast Food with Friends?
Here are some ways to include your teens
and their friends in smarter food choices, which will
be good for your teen’s health — and your wallet
Movie night: Offer SkinnyPop popcorn in place of theater popcorn with heavy butter, and fruit smoothies instead of soda.
Pizza night: Invite their friends over to make their own mini pizzas. Offer whole wheat crusts and lots of veggie toppings.
Cookout: Prepare oven-baked fries in place of the deep-fried fast food version, and offer sliders with lean grass-fed beef or ground chicken. Whole wheat buns and veggies will make for a well-rounded meal.
Taco night: Replace high-fat and high-calorie fast food tacos with lean ground turkey, low fat cheese, corn or whole wheat tortillas, black beans and brown rice.
Ashley Weingart is the director of Communications & Community Outreach for The Forest City — Weingart Produce Company. She is the mother of three, a marathoner, a vegetarian and a blogger. She writes about her adventures as a“mom on the run” at runningwithskissors.com.