Nutrition and Teens: A Guide for Parents

Young women's version of this guide

Son helping father to prepare

Family members play an important role in helping teens improve or maintain healthy eating habits and a healthy relationship with food. It’s much easier to cook, shop, and prepare tasty and nutritious meals and snacks when everyone is working towards similar health goals.

Here are some nutrition and wellness tips for you and your family:

  • Be a role model. Teens are influenced by what they see, so it is important for family members to model a healthy relationship with food. If the entire family is eating a variety of foods, moving their bodies in ways they enjoy, and demonstrating a healthy relationship with food and their bodies (e.g., not dieting), teens are more likely to follow. Begin modeling healthy behaviors as early as possible. If you find that you struggle with your relationship with food and your body, working with a mental health professional and registered dietitian may be helpful.
  • Keep a variety of foods in the house, including healthy choices. If a variety of foods are available, your family members are more likely to get all of the vitamins and minerals needed. Stock the kitchen cabinets, refrigerator, and freezer with nutritious foods that your family enjoys such as fruits, vegetables, dairy products (yogurt, cheese, and milk), lean proteins (chicken, fish, tofu, and beans), healthy fats (hummus, nuts, and seeds), and whole grains (brown rice, whole grain cereal, and whole grain bread). Consider keeping a bowl of fresh fruit on the kitchen table and placing healthy snacks in an easy-to-reach place in cabinets. If you’re concerned about being able to afford nutritious foods, you can learn more about the government nutrition assistance program here.  Also, try to keep “fun” foods in the house that might not be as nutritious as others. Model enjoying these foods together and at appropriate times. This will help to teach your teen that all foods fit into a balanced healthy lifestyle and no foods are forbidden or need to be secretly consumed.
  • Grocery shop together. Plan a trip to the grocery store with your teen. Start by making a list of the foods you will need to buy. Try to include items for breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and snacks. Choose foods from all the food groups (fruits, vegetables, grains, proteins, dietary fat, and dairy). If possible, let your teen choose a new fruit or vegetable to try. This way, your teen will play a role in purchasing ingredients for healthy eating.
  • Cook meals together. Learning how to cook is an important life skill. Let your teen choose a new recipe and involve your teen in preparing meals to encourage them to try new foods. Try preparing foods by baking, grilling, air frying, roasting, sautéing, or steaming, which are healthier than some other preparation methods such as frying.
  • Eat meals together. Eating together may be challenging because of family members’ busy schedules and commitments, which may occur during meal times. However, try to prioritize this as much as possible since eating together can have positive impacts on academic performance, self-esteem, sense of resilience, and eating behaviors. Additionally, they may help to lower the risk of substance use, depression, teen pregnancy, disordered eating behaviors, and eating disorders.
  • Focus during family meals. Talking and connecting with your teen is an important part of family time. Try putting phones, electronics, and other distractions aside during meals. If scheduling requires eating at different times, try to at least sit with your teen while they are eating.
  • Demonstrate listening to and honoring your body’s needs and checking in with your hunger and fullness cues. Is your body sending you signals to let you know that you’re hungry? Full? Craving a certain food? Encourage your teen to trust their body and honor their body’s needs. Many people base their eating off of external cues rather than internal cues. This can lead to people eating more or less than their body needs, regardless of level of hunger. Try serving a well-balanced meal that includes fruit or vegetables, protein (e.g., beans, tofu, meat, eggs), and whole grains (whole-wheat pasta, brown rice, quinoa, or whole-wheat bread for example). If your teen is still hungry, then they can have an additional serving of the foods provided. The USDA suggests balancing meals by making half the plate fruits and vegetables and the other half protein and grains; however, your growing teen may need larger portions of certain nutrients. If you are concerned that they are consistently consuming more of one nutrient than others, consider meeting with a registered dietitian.
  • Don’t comment on your teen’s weight or body shape and size. Help your teen learn to appreciate their body for being unique and for allowing them to do the things that they love (e.g., playing sports and spending time with friends and family). Focusing on weight can be harmful and even lead to disordered eating or an eating disorder.
  • Select snacks and meals that have a variety of nutrients. Help your teen choose meals and snacks that they enjoy and will provide them with the energy and nutrients they need to do all of the things that they love to do. Choosing foods from the different food groups (fruits, vegetables, grains, proteins, dietary fat, dairy) will help them to meet their nutrient needs. Eating 3 meals and 2-3 snacks per day will help to maintain energy levels, can help to prevent from getting over hungry, and can help to tune into hunger cues. Try to ensure that snacks have some protein (dairy, nuts, nut butter, beans, meat, etc) and some fiber (fruit, vegetable, whole grain, etc) for lasting fullness.
  • Eat the foods that you enjoy. Following a weight loss diet can be dangerous, and despite how it is advertised, is not effective for long-term weight control. Healthy eating involves eating a variety of foods, and no food should be completely off limits. Having fun foods in the house is a way to help your teen learn that while different foods provide
    different nutrients, there is no “good” or “bad” foods.
  • Make small behavior changes that are focused on health. Long-term, sustainable changes in health happen with small steps, not dieting or quick fixes. Focus on making small, specific changes, such as eating more fruits and vegetables at dinner, trying different types of whole grains at lunch, finding an alternative drink to soda, or moving your body in an enjoyable way at least a few days per week. Think about what you can add, rather than what you can take away. Making small changes together as a family can lead to greater success for your teen.
  • Pay attention to your teen’s attitudes towards food. If your teen is skipping meals, no longer interested in foods that they previously liked, restricting entire food groups, and preoccupied with losing weight, they may be at risk for an eating disorder. Seek help from a medical provider if you think that your teen might be attempting to lose weight in an unhealthy way.

Other helpful resources:

Prioritize helping your teen foster a  healthy relationship with food. If your teen needs extra support, you can seek guidance from a registered dietitian or a mental health provider.