Helping Teens Make Healthy Choices



I am not sure where this week has gone.  If someone finds my Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday please let me know.  Actually, you can just keep them!  This week has been a whirlwind and I am looking forward to a nice calm weekend.  I’ve wanted to write numerous times this week, but I have not found the time.  Instead, I’ve been thinking of various topics that I have not yet covered, among them, the topic of teenage nutrition.  I’m not sure how I’ve gone so many months without tackling this one, after all, I spend the majority of my day surrounded by teenagers!

I talk about getting kids in the kitchen and how to make your toddler to eat more veggies, but getting a teenager to examine his or her eating habits might be one of the most difficult tasks we could set out to accomplish in the realm of creating a nutritious lifestyle for our families.  In the early years of high school, I was obsessed with being thin.  Up until seventh grade I had been a chunky kid and I hated it, but in seventh grade I finally started thinning out. By the time I was in ninth grade I had become obsessed with the thought of being skinny.  No, I never stopped eating completely, but I didn’t eat as much as I should have, and I DEFINITELY didn’t eat the things that I should have. My mother always provided us with a good nutritious breakfast and dinner, but I didn’t eat enough of it.  For lunch I would have a little salad or a soft pretzel dipped in fat-free yogurt.  It worked, I got skinnier, but the thought of food never left my mind.

My junior year I didn’t go out for the cheerleading squad or the tennis team, so I started going to the YMCA and taking kickboxing classes to stay active.  I think being out of cheerleading helped with my obsession to be thin, because by the time I was a junior I had regained healthy eating habits and started really thinking about what I was feeding myself.  The combination of going to the gym and eating well really made my junior year more successful.  It increased my work habits in every capacity; at school, the gym, and my job.

So what changed? How did I get back to those healthy eating habits?  Sometime between my sophomore and junior year, my dad went on the Adkins diet, and because I was obsessed with being thin I decided I’d try it too.  I read the book and learned about it before I did it, and it was pretty simple and easy to do.  By the end of my time on the Adkins diet, I had gained 6 pounds or so, but it was 6 pounds of muscle.  My little body had been DYING for the protein and for a break from the large amounts of simple carbohydrates I had been feeding myself.  It responded by feeding my muscle and giving me the energy I needed.  I didn’t stay on Adkins, but I started looking at all of the simple carbohydrates and the quality of the food I was eating.

One day, while ranting about how unhealthy the school lunch was, my friend said to me “Why don’t you go to college for nutrition or something?”  And there, at that very moment, I realized she was right and that was exactly what I wanted to do!  Well, as I’ve written about before, that plan changed but this conversation at the lunch table my junior year lead me to further invest my energy into the area of nutrition.  It would be a few more years until I would really begin researching and gaining a better understanding of nutrition, but from that point on I was always trying to make the best choices for myself.  I still didn’t have the best knowledge, but I had the desire and I was trying to make healthy decisions.  I think this is the difficult part with teenagers; the desire to make healthy choices.

If kids are taught to eat unhealthy things while growing up, these habits are going to spill over into the teenage years, and then carry on into adulthood.  The desire to make healthy choices may not appear until it is too late.  UNLESS something changes, UNLESS an adult in their life intervenes and shows them the easy ways they can make healthy changes.    As adults we are here to set the example, we are here to encourage our kids and teens to make healthy choices.  First and foremost by leading by example, secondly, by encouraging them through words and ACTIONS.

After offering up a suggestion regarding getting a kid to eat more healthfully the other day, I was told “You’ll understand when you have kids,” and I’m sure I will, I have a lot to learn.  I don’t have kids and I can’t begin to understand the difficulties and struggles parents go through to do the best they can.  I can’t imagine how hard it is to be a parent, but I was a kid who had parents who did everything they could to ensure that their children were fully equipped with the knowledge they needed to make healthy choices.  I do understand what that’s like and I can only offer my ideas and experience from childhood.

10 Ways to encourage your teenager to make healthy choices:

1. Provide healthy snacks. They’re going to eat whatever is in the fridge, by keeping unhealthy foods in the house you are ENCOURAGING them to eat it.  After all, why would you buy it if you didn’t want them to eat it?

2. Talk about it. Be verbal about the healthy choices you are making, tell them about the healthy aspects of a meal you’ve prepared.

3.  Pack a lunch. The lines in high school cafeterias can be ridiculously long and some students only have 20 minutes to eat, this does not encourage healthy eating.  Encourage your teenager to pack a lunch, LOTS of kids pack lunches.  They’ll have more time to eat and talk to their friends, instead of wasting time in line to eat an unhealthy, processed lunch.

4. Let them buy their own junk. Growing up, my mom didn’t keep junk food in the house, if we wanted it, we had to buy it ourselves.  Of course we didn’t want to spend our own money on food, so we were much less likely to buy junk food.

5. Have them do their own research. During class the other day, my students and I were discussing Greek food, as we are doing a unit on Greece.  I had them researching the foods eaten in the Greek culture and explaining how the geography affected their eating habits.  During their research I heard a lot of “ewwws” as they read that the Greek culture ate a lot of sheep, as their geography doesn’t allow for huge cattle or pig lots.  I said, “You think that’s gross, you don’t even WANT to know what’s in chicken nuggets!”  They were IMMEDIATELY intrigued, “What’s in chicken nuggets?”  Well, I could have rattled off about preservatives and unknown byproducts, but I simply said “Look it up!”  And the shocking part was THEY DID….and then swore never to eat chicken nuggets again.  We’ll see how long that lasts, but it got them reading and it got them interested in exactly what they were eating.  If your kids wants to eat processed foods, that’s fine, but encourage them to research what’s in it.  Let them make the decision for themselves.

6. Put them in charge. Give them the opportunity to make a healthy meal for the family once a week, or every other week.  Chances are they will want some kind of incentive, so make it a competition; whoever makes the best meal of the month wins–decide what the winner gets as a family.

7. Start a breakfast club. Not the kind of breakfast club that includes dressing up as a ninja turtle and going to the bars at 5 am on game day in 30 degree weather but a HEALTHY breakfast club.  Invite your kids to have their friends over once a month on Saturday morning or early some morning before school to make a healthy breakfast for their friends.  My friends and I did this in high school, it was a great way to get together, and believe it or not, we ALWAYS got out of bed early to make it to someone’s house for breakfast club.   Yes, my parents welcomed my friends with open arms at 6 am on a week day, THAT’S how far they were willing to go to encourage us.

8. Show them the benefits. Leaving work yesterday, I passed 20 kids running in shorts in 30 degree weather, preparing for track in the spring.  That shows JUST how much effort they are willing to give in order to excel in sports, so, why wouldn’t they give healthy choices a try as a way to increase their athletic abilities?  More energy, better endurance, more strength.  Who doesn’t want that?  Show them how professional athletes (the really good ones) pay very close attention to the foods they eat in order to compete.

9. Brain food. Maybe you’ve got an Ivy-League-bound kid in your house, help them make the connection between better eating and better thinking.  Increased brain function, clarity, energy, better recall–ALL of these things are associated with a good diet.  If they really want to take their education seriously, help them bring it full circle, what we eat affects EVERY aspect of our life.

10. Improving mental health. Is your teen on medication for ADHD, Depression, Mood Disorder, or Bi-Polar?  A healthy diet can benefit ALL of these diagnosis. I did not say CURE, but a healthy diet, with the proper medication, exercise, and sometimes therapy can greatly aid in mental health.  Vitamin and mineral deficiencies may be adversely affecting their mental or emotional health.  Teach your teen to eat whole, vitamin-rich foods.  Help them help themselves.

If you’ve got any suggestions that have worked for your teen, PLEASE share them.  I know there are a lot of experienced parents out there who have a lot to teach us!  Have a GREAT weekend, you’ll hear from me soon!


5 Comments Add yours

  1. Lauren, I’m so glad I’ve found your blog. Your posts are so fun to read and inspiring. Today’s hit home with me…I too struggled with my eating and being obsessed with my weight during cheerleading. In college, I was luck enough to be surrounded by friends who too wanted to change their eating habits, together we created some much better eating habits. I love all your recipes and healthy habit builders! Thanks for sharing!

    Jess (Cripe)

    1. Lauren says:

      Jess, it great to hear from you! I think cheerleading had us all a little obsessed, it’s a good thing there is life after cheerleading. Although, I still do a few toe-touches every year to make sure I still got it! I figure I’m not that old if I can still do a toe touch. You’re lucky to have found friends in college to encourage you–most of my friends made fun of me. What were some of the things you and your friends did?

  2. Sara Stclair says:

    I think you pushed my guilt button Lauren. As I see the end of the school year approach I daily wish I had more time to spend with the students on health. At the same time I know I have requirements that HAVE to be completed. Now you had to push my guilt button and I now HAVE to push on and do more before June! Thank you lady for the accountability nudge. I have found that it does not matter if you are an adult or teen there is great benefit in writing down EVERYTHING you eat or drink for 5-7 days. Then together we can look at the strengths/weakness and make a reasonable, successful game plan. What site did you go to for the contents of the chicken nuggets?

    1. Lauren says:

      Well, you know us St. Clair’s run on a steady diet of guilt and obligation! I’ve been getting on this topic a little more often with my students as well, sometimes they don’t even know that I’m actually teaching them nutrition, not history, math, social skills, personal finance, or English! 🙂 When people at the gym want to start cleaning up their diet, Adam has them turn in a food log for the week and he helps them clean it up. It works really well for a lot of people, I did it for a long time….you just gave me an idea, Mom! Thanks! I’ll tell you what it is later.

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