7 Healthy Foods for Teenagers to Start Adding to Meals Today
Helping teens meet nutrient needs is challenging. You're busy, they're busy, they often have easy access to less-healthy food options, and they often prefer the unhealthy option. These seven superfoods for teens will help them get more of the nutrients they need deliciously. No "weird" foods required.
Teenagers are notorious for eating only what tastes good or what's within reach. But their bodies are still growing and developing, and so good nutrition is crucial. Proper nutrition can help prevent future diseases like type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and osteoporosis. But it is also important to develop healthy eating habits and a natural inclination for good-for-you foods establish a lifetime of good eating habits. Here you'll find some of the best foods beneficial for teen nutrition that are all recognizable by name as well as enjoyable to eat.
Nutrition for Teens: The Key Nutrients
More than any other age group, teens need a lot of energy. Energy comes from calories. So how many calories should a teenager eat, anyway? On a daily basis, teenage boys need about 2,500 to 3,000 calories; teenage girls need about 2,200 calories. “In fact, early adolescence is the most critical time for calorie intake in a person's life,” says Holley Grainger, M.S., R.D., of Cleverful Living with Holley Grainger. The good news is that most teens have no problem eating plenty of calories. But teens and their parents should pay attention to the quality of calories consumed. A bag of potato chips with a 44-ounce soda will add calories quickly, but refined carbs and sugary drinks contain few nutrients. This “meal” will contribute calories (and potentially weight gain), not health.
Calcium and iron are two essential nutrients because they help build strong bones and reduce the risk of osteoporosis. Teen athletes especially need calcium for maintaining muscle tissue and a regular heartbeat. Iron helps red blood cells transport oxygen throughout the body, giving teens energy. Weakness and fatigue can indicate a shortage of iron in the diet.
Teens, especially girls, may be especially concerned about body image and as a result avoid fatty—yet healthy—items like dairy products, red meat, oily fish, avocados. Skimping on or skipping these foods though means teens miss out on healthy fats and other key nutrients. For example, omega-3 fats (which are in oily fish and some oils and nuts) are good for healthy skin, hair, and the immune system. Omega-3 have also been shown to reduce depression.
“When teens attempt to lose weight by skipping meals, dramatically cutting calories, or eliminating food groups, they significantly lower their intake of important nutrients like iron, protein, calcium, fiber, potassium, and vitamin D that are vital for growth,” Grainger says.
Top Foods for Teens
The foods we make at home should be full of as much nutrition as possible as often as possible. So with nutrient-packed at-home options top of mind, here are seven superfoods to help teens eat as healthy as possible (at mealtime or snack time).
1. 100% Orange Juice
Despite popular belief, there’s no link between drinking 100% orange juice and weight gain in teens. Plus, as kids age, they drink fewer nutrient-rich beverages like orange juice and milk and instead up their soda, coffee, and sports drink consumption, which can add empty calories to teens’ diets. “A single (8-ounce) serving of 100% orange juice daily contributes significant nutrients to a teen's diet, including vitamin C, folate and potassium. Plus, teens can get powerful antioxidants like hesperidin from OJ, which supports cardiovascular, brain, bone, and immune health,” Grainger says.
2. Wild Blueberries
Tasty and versatile, wild and regular (aka cultivated or highbush) blueberries have both earned superfood status. “But tiny wild blueberries are a real antioxidant powerhouse for teens,” Grainger says. Wild blueberries contain anthocyanins (an antioxidant that boosts brain health and promotes healthy vision) as well as other antioxidant-like compounds, which help protect against inflammation. Regular blueberries contain these same good-for-you compounds, but the wild ones deliver about twice as many, making them a great choice for teens needing more nutrition. Look for them in the freezer aisle of your grocery store. “Because they’re stored in the freezer, it’s easy for parents to keep them on hand for smoothies, baked goods, and sauces,” Grainger says. One cup of wild blueberries also contributes over 20% of the daily value for fiber (twice that of regular blueberries) and 200% of the daily recommendation for manganese, which is a nutrient that helps heal skin problems and maintain blood sugar, according to Grainger.
3. Peanut butter
Peanut butter is high in calories, but teens need a lot of calories and peanuts are a great source of healthy unsaturated fats. Plus, peanut butter is packed with iron and is a good source of plant-based protein. Of course, you can sandwich peanut butter between slices of bread (preferably whole wheat), but it’s also delicious between some graham crackers or on slices of apples for a satisfying snack. Or bulk up a smoothie or oatmeal by swirling in a tablespoon or two of peanut butter. There are plenty of surprising ways to add peanut butter to your diet too. See what new ideas you can cook up.
Yogurt, as well as other dairy foods like milk and cheese, is important for healthy eating. “While many parents credit the calcium and vitamin D in dairy as important to bone health (which it is), there are many other nutrients—such as protein, potassium, riboflavin (B12), and phosphorus—to help with growth and development,” Grainger says. Yogurt also provides good-for-you probiotics to aid in gut health and bolster the immune system. “Parents can encourage their teens to eat more yogurt by blending it into a smoothie or smoothie bowl, serving parfaits with berries and whole grain granola, or packing a container for lunch or snack,” Grainger says.
Research suggests that, unfortunately, depression is on the rise in teenagers. There are many reasons for this increase, such as social media use, technology, and lack of sleep, but diet also plays a role. “A recent study published in the journal Nutrients found that walnut-eaters tend to have lower prevalence of depression symptoms,” says Chris Mohr, Ph.D., R.D., an ambassador for California Walnuts. “More specifically, the study found those who ate just about ¼ cup of walnuts daily had significantly lower depression scores.” That puts walnuts in the win column when talking about simple and nutritious ways to feed teens. Work walnuts into their diet by adding the nuts to homemade granola or baked goods like healthy muffins, sprinkling them on yogurt or oatmeal, topping a salad or frozen yogurt with them, blending them into smoothies—the options are endless.
Teenagers love carbs and snacks, and popcorn checks both of those boxes. And did you know that popcorn is a fiber-rich whole grain? It’s a great way to get teens to eat (and reap the benefits of) whole grains and fiber in a subtle and delicious way. Keep it as healthy as possible and make your own at home to keep the butter and salt in check. Mix popcorn with dried fruit, nuts, cereal, etc. in various combinations for a nutritious snack your teen will love.
An easy source of protein (plus the yolks have eye-healthy nutrients), eggs are a nutritious teen breakfast food, and research shows that kids who eat breakfast do better in school. Eggs are also easy for teens to learn to cook themselves. Keep a stash of raw eggs in the fridge, or buy a bag of precooked hard-boiled eggs for a grab-and-go breakfast or snack as kids rush out the door.
Remember, good teen nutrition is not only about superfoods. “Parents should ensure that their teens are eating a balanced diet from a variety of food sources, such as fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, lean protein, whole grain carbohydrates, and dairy food,” Grainger says. It’s helpful to know that it's OK for teens to eat as much as six times a day, and three of those can be snacks. And, finally, let’s be realistic and remember that indulgences are OK and can be a part of a healthy teenage diet.