Teenagers are notorious for their terrible eating habits. They typically eat only what tastes good or what's within reach. Since their bodies are still growing and developing, good nutrition during the teen years is crucial to preventing diseases like cancer, heart disease, and osteoporosis.
Preparing healthy meals at home will help teens set good eating habits that will follow them throughout their lives. "The foods moms make at home have to be full of super nutrition," says Janice Newell Bissex, author of The Moms' Guide to Meal Makeovers (Broadway Books, 2004). Superfoods -- foods that are loaded with powerful nutrients -- are the best way to get all the vitamins and minerals they need.
More than any other age group, teens need a lot of energy. Energy comes from calories and on a daily basis, teenage boys need about 2,500 to 3,000; teenage girls need about 2,200 calories. The good news is that most teens have no problem acquiring them. But parents should note how the calories are being consumed. A bag of potato chips with a 44-ounce Big Gulp will add calories quickly, but fatty snacks and sugary soda drinks contain very little nutrients. So obviously this typical teenage meal will contribute only to weight gain, and not to your teen's overall health.
Calcium and iron are two essential nutrients for teens because they help build strong bones and reduce the risk of osteoporosis. Teen athletes especially need calcium for maintaining muscle tissue and a regular heart beat. Iron helps red blood cells transport oxygen throughout the body, giving kids energy. Signs of weakness and fatigue usually translate to a shortage of iron in the diet.
Teenage girls are especially concerned about body image, so they tend to avoid fatty items like dairy products. Bissex says they are hurting themselves in the long run by doing this. "Teen girls are missing out on good fats like omega-3 and monounsaturated fats," she says. Omega-3 fat is good for healthy skin, hair, and the immune system. It's also been shown to reduce depression.
Of course, the most important thing to remember in preparing food is taste. "Taste is number one," says Bissex. "You can have the healthiest food in the world but if it doesn't taste good, then nobody will eat it." Here are 17 superfoods -- teen-tastebud approved -- that should be added to every teen diet to help them get all the vitamins and minerals they need for their active lifestyle.
To a teen, there is no such thing as snacktime. Snacks are fair game any time, any place. There is nothing terribly wrong with snacking now and then, says Bissex. She says it's okay for teens to eat as much as six times a day, and three of those times can be for snacking. The following snacks are great for breakfast, lunch, and after school, or for teens who are always on the go.
Most veggies have virtually no calories but plenty of nutrients. A couple of carrots a day will not only provide double your teen's daily beta-carotene requirements, but it'll also lower his cholesterol. Like broccoli, it will reduce the risks of cancers like lung, throat, stomach, prostate, and breast cancer. Celery lowers blood pressure and cauliflower adds cancer-fighting glucosinolates.
Add flavor to these crudites by dipping them in homemade avocado and tomato guacamole for an appetizing snack. Avocado is an excellent source of vitamin E along with many other vitamins and minerals.
Recommended Serving Size: 1 1/4 cup of carrots, 35 calories 3/4 cup of celery, 7 calories 1 cup cauliflower, 34 calories 2/3 cup broccoli, 33 calories 1/2 avocado, 145 calories 1/2 large tomato, 17 calories
Granola bars are a solution to the no-time-for-breakfast excuse. Some form of breakfast will help kids be more attentive and therefore do better in school and excel in sports, as well as prevent them from hitting the vending machines right after homeroom. Add a glass of skim milk for a fat-free calcium boost -- a quarter of the recommended daily allowance (RDA). The nuts, dried fruit, and seeds in granola bars make them high in fiber and omega-3 fats and an excellent source of energy. It's wise to avoid granola that is high in saturated fats.
Recommended Serving Size: 1 granola bar, 200 calories 8 ounce glass of milk, 80 calories
Plain low-fat yogurt is an excellent source of calcium; an eight-ounce cup fulfills 45 percent of the RDA and has protein for the immune system. Low-fat or nonfat frozen yogurt might not have all the benefits of regular yogurt, but it tastes great and it's a much better alternative than ice cream.
If your kids like nuts, sprinkle on some cashews and walnuts. Most nuts contain high amounts of iron, zinc, and magnesium and the fat is mostly unsaturated. It's good to eat fresh, plain nuts, not salted.
Recommended Serving Size: 1/3 cup of cashews, 287 calories 1/4 cup walnuts, 177 calories 8 ounce cup of yogurt, 190 calories
While your teen is on the computer, playing video games, or watching television, slide a bowl of freshly sliced mangoes and some firm grapes in her direction. It'll keep her out of the kitchen for sodas and chips until dinnertime.
You can't compliment a mango enough. This delicious tropical fruit provides 150 percent of the RDA for the cancer-fighting nutrient beta-carotene. It's loaded with fiber and potassium. Plus it'll fulfill a day's requirement of vitamin C. Grapes help reduce heart disease.
Recommended Serving Size: 1 mango, 107 calories 2/3 cup of grapes, 60 calories
Kids tend to experiment with vegetarianism in their teenage years. But that doesn't mean you need to worry about them missing the nutrients found in meat or fish. "You can eat as a vegetarian and eat a very healthy diet," says Bissex.
Hummus -- a chickpea puree -- is a common vegetarian spread with lots of iron and magnesium. Spread some on whole wheat pita bread (for fiber) and it'll make a satisfying snack or lunchtime food.
Recommended Serving Size: 2 tbsp. of hummus, 83 calories 1 piece of whole wheat pita bread, 195 calories
Peanut butter, like peanuts, is high in fat and calories. But the good news is that the fat is unsaturated and your kids need a lot of calories anyway. Plus peanut butter is packed with iron. Sandwich peanut butter between some graham crackers and add slices of apples for a satisfying after-school snack.
Recommended Serving Size: 1 1/2 tbsp. peanut butter, 156 calories
Soon your teen will be preparing meals for himself. Before he graduates from high school, teach him how to prepare these healthy meals. Bissex says that showing your teens a healthy eating style will likely help them maintain the habit. "If you've established it early in life, teens will first veer off a little, but they'll come back to those healthy eating habits," she says.
Studies have shown that one weekly portion of fish can help prevent heart attacks in later years. Salmon is a good fish to get your teen hooked on because it contains heart-healthy omega-3 polyunsaturated fat. Along with its disease-fighting capabilities, omega-3 helps reduce the risk of depression and minimizes arthritis symptoms.
Instead of tossing chicken into a salad, try it with salmon. When making salads, the general rule is the darker the green, whether it's lettuce or spinach, the better. One cup of romaine lettuce provides 20 percent of the RDA of beta-carotene. You would have to eat a whole head of iceberg lettuce to get the same amount.
Recommended Serving Size: 3 1/2 oz. salmon, 180 calories 2 cups spinach, 25 calories
Even though carbohydrates are a big no-no these days, teens still need them. And face it, they love carbs, especially pasta-addicted college kids. Get in the habit of buying whole-wheat pasta instead of white pasta. It has twice as much iron, more fiber, vitamins, and minerals than regular pasta.
Pasta is best topped with fresh tomato sauce. Tomatoes are a good source of beta-carotene, vitamins C, and E, and they're rich in lycopene, an antioxidant that helps prevent heart disease and cancer. Lycopene is actually more rich in a tomato sauce than it is in raw tomatoes. For added flavor, mix some garlic into the sauce or add some to toasted bread. Garlic lowers blood cholesterol and prevents clotting.
Recommended Serving Size: 3/4 cup whole wheat pasta, 162 calories 1/3 cup fresh tomato sauce, 16 calories
Broccoli -- more than anything -- is a disease fighter. It contains compounds like beta-carotene that fight cancer and reduce tumor growth, especially in the breast. One spear of broccoli will give you plenty of calcium, fiber, and potassium, and twice the RDA of vitamin C.
Serve steamed broccoli with quinoa, a low-fat, high-fiber substitute for rice. Quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah) looks and tastes like grain, but it's a seed that can be found in the grain section of your local supermarket. Quinoa is an excellent source of iron, potassium, vitamin B, and especially protein. In fact, the World Health Organization has stated that the quality of protein in quinoa matches that of milk.
Recommended Serving Size: 2/3 cup broccoli, 33 calories 1/2 cup quinoa, 318 calories
Tanveer Badal is a writer living in New York City.