Tips for Feeding Your Teen

Suggestions for optimizing your teen's nutrition with a balanced, healthy diet.


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Feeding your growing teen can be almost as challenging as getting a two-year-old to eat string beans. But a balanced, nutritious diet is the key to fueling growth as well as keeping your teen sharp and alert in school.

If you're feeling frazzled about making the right food choices, we've got tips to help you strike a balance for good nutrition.

Gains from Grains

There are different approaches you might take to making an adjustment to eating more grains. One way is to go grain gourmet, creating dishes such as Risotto Romano or Paella Valenciana, and the like.

But the chances are, your kids will be wary of such exotic fare. Instead, make sure the kids load up on grains in more ordinary -- and easier -- ways. And when possible, opt for whole grain products, instead of the more refined, less healthful alternatives.

For Breakfast: Consider cereal and toast in the morning, or a sturdy pile of waffles or pancakes.

For Lunch: Prepare sandwiches on big kaiser or hoagie rolls.

For dinner: Pasta is always a favorite choice. You can also concoct side dishes that combine rice (or any other grain) with the vegetables and herbs you know your kids like. And serve dinner with delicious whole grain rolls, garlic bread, or a crusty French baguette.

The real key to ensuring a healthy diet for your teen is to provide a variety of foods. Vegetables and fruits also are essential elements of a varied diet. They provide vitamins, minerals, and complex carbohydrates (starch and dietary fiber). And they're usually low in fat!

Most teenagers will gladly dig into potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, corn, tomatoes, and other sweet or mild-tasting vegetables. Just make sure that, over the span of a few days, they eat a variety.

Unfortunately, many kids eat fewer than the recommended number of servings of these foods. (Although some teens will argue that a bag of chips "is, too, a serving of vegetables," or that strawberry gelatin is really fruit.) So be sure to provide your kids with plenty of vegetables and fruits. And avoid the trap of pushing some vegetables over others.

It is true that broccoli is nutritionally superior to, say, cucumbers. But if your kids hate broccoli, but will eat cucumbers -- well, as Marie Antoinette might have said, "Let them eat cukes."

Fiber-Filled Snacks

Snacks can provide a large percentage of a teenager's daily calories, so it's important that you provide the right stuff.

The occasional ice cream float or bag of chips is inevitable. But the mainstays of your snack menu should be grains, fruits, and even raw vegetables. In addition to being low in calories and high in nutrition, fruit, veggie, and grain snacks can provide lots of beneficial fiber.

Fiber, itself, is not a nutrient. However, it affects the way the body absorbs nutrients. Fiber adds bulk to the diet and helps to relieve constipation. It may bind to cholesterol and flush it from the body -- thus lowering the long-term risk of heart disease. And it speeds up digestion.

The snack suggestions below are excellent for teens, especially those who are watching their weight -- foods high in fiber, the experts say, fill you up without filling you out!

  • 1 small apple (3.1 grams of fiber)
  • carrot sticks from one carrot (3.7 grams of fiber)
  • raw celery sticks from 2 1/2 stalks (3.0 grams of fiber)
  • 2 graham cracker squares (1.5 grams of fiber)
  • 1/2 grapefruit (2.6 grams of fiber)
  • 1 small orange (1.8 grams of fiber)
  • 1/2 cup of canned peaches (1.3 grams of fiber)
  • 1/2 cup of strawberries (2.6 grams of fiber)
  • 1 slice of whole wheat bread (2.4 grams of fiber)

Because teenagers are growing so quickly, they need to eat meat and/or other foods in the meat group -- fish, poultry, eggs, peas, and beans. Nutritionists recommend that teenage girls eat two servings each day from the meat group, for a total of 6 ounces. Teenage boys should have three helpings from the meat group, for a total of 7 ounces. Select lean cuts of meat, and then remove any visible fat. When you cook chicken, first remove the skin.

Also try to limit the amount of high-fat processed meats that you buy -- such as sausages, salami, and other cold cuts. When buying packaged meat, be sure to read the Nutrition Facts Label on the package so that you can select the most nutritious brand. Adolescents' growing bodies need meat because of its iron content. This mineral is vital because of the expanding volume of blood in that growing body. Plus, daughters are at some risk of deficiency because of the amount of iron lost through menstruation.

A few nutritional surveys have shown that the average American diet doesn't contain enough iron to meet the demands of puberty. A possible result of eating a diet low in this mineral is iron-deficiency anemia. This condition occurs when the body does not get enough iron to manufacture hemoglobin, the substance in the blood that carries life-giving oxygen to the cells throughout the body. The symptoms of iron-deficiency anemia develop slowly.

One of the earliest symptoms of this condition is fatigue, especially after exercising. If the anemia becomes more serious, you'll notice that your teen looks pale and perhaps has cracking of the skin at the corners of the mouth.

Fortunately, this type of anemia is easily diagnosed with a blood test and also is easily remedied, not only with a good diet but often with iron supplements. (Do not give your teenager iron supplements unless a doctor tells you to do so.)

Teenagers need substantial amounts of calcium to support their growing bones. In fact, both boys and girls in their teen years require 1,200 milligrams of calcium every day.

The Case for Dairy Meeting that requirement means drinking milk and eating dairy foods like cheeses and yogurt. One 8-ounce glass of milk provides 255 milligrams of calcium. Therefore, your child can meet his or her requirement by drinking four glasses (1 quart) of milk a day. And that's a fine and easy way to provide sufficient calcium.

Low-Fat Choices If your child tends to be heavy, consider buying only skim milk or low-fat milk to cut down on calories.

Think Soup If your child doesn't like to drink milk, try making creamed soups -- tomato bisque, New England clam chowder, or cream of celery -- for example.

Stock up on pudding made with milk, as well as low-fat cheese and fruited yogurt. Or offer lots of nondairy foods high in calcium, such as broccoli, soybeans, turnip greens, almonds, and canned fish such as sardines and salmon. (The calcium is in the tiny bones, which should always be consumed.)

Lactose Intolerance If your teen has lactose intolerance -- the inability to digest milk and dairy products -- buy acidophilus milk, or add a product such as Lactaid instead of regular milk.

Keep Fat to a Pat

Most doctors recommend that a diet should contain no more than 30 percent of calories from fat. They make this recommendation because a diet that contains more than 30 percent of fat can lead to high cholesterol (yes, even in teens!), obesity, and an increased risk of heart disease in the future.

The greatest risk comes from eating saturated fats, which should be kept to only 10 percent of the daily diet. These are found mostly in meat, milk, and milk products. To keep saturated fat levels down, consider switching to low-fat or no-fat dairy products.

The remaining fat calories should be made up of vegetable oils, specifically olive oil and canola oil. These are called monounsaturated fats. Polyunsaturated fats -- found in most other vegetable oils, such as corn and safflower oil -- can complete the picture.

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