Now that farmers markets are in full swing and summer grilling season is here, it’s a great time to encourage nutritious eating and drinking habits that can benefit your teen year-round.
Teenagers need a healthy balance of nutrients—proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, and minerals—to support their growth and development, provide fuel, and promote digestion and skin health. Good nutrition can help protect against obesity, osteoporosis, cavities, and chronic conditions down the road. Eating well can also help teens feel better right now.
We know youths in this country don’t eat enough vegetables and fruits and consume too much sugar, salt, and processed and fast foods. Researchers from the National Cancer Institute found that grain desserts (such as cakes and cookies), pizza, and soda are the top sources of energy for young children up to 18 years old. And many teens, especially girls, don’t come close to meeting their calcium needs during these prime bone-building years.
Here are some ideas for putting a wholesome spin on these warm summer months:
- Sip sensibly: Staying hydrated is essential, but watch out for sugary beverages like soda and energy drinks; a typical can of cola has about 150 calories, or the equivalent of 10 teaspoons of table sugar. Diet soda may seem like a better choice, but there’s mounting evidence that artificially sweetened beverages raise people’s risk for diabetes, heart disease, and other medical problems—and even contribute to weight gain. Experts believe sweet-tasting drinks, no matter how they’re flavored, make us crave sweets even more. As a healthier option, registered dietitian Stacy Kennedy, MPH, RD, CSO, LDN, suggests perking up your own water bottle with a squirt of fresh lemon or lime or a small splash of 100 percent fruit juice.
- Eat breakfast: Family routines change in summer, but breakfast is still the most important meal of the day—even though as many as one-third of U.S. adolescents usually skip it. Research suggests eating a morning meal with healthful carbs, protein, and fat may help teens perform better in school and sports and control their weight. A wholesome teen-friendly summer breakfast might feature a piece of whole grain toast topped with natural almond or peanut butter and banana slices, or a bowl of whole grain cereal garnished with fresh fruit and low-fat milk.
- Snack well: Take advantage of summer’s bounty to stay hydrated and energized. Make a smoothie with fresh fruits and vegetables, which are low in calories and contain natural health boosters called phytonutrients. Serve strawberries or watermelon chunks (both high in nutrients like the antioxidant lycopene, which gives them their red color) or raw veggies with a dollop of hummus or yogurt-based dip like tzatziki. And keep healthful bite-sized snacks in plain sight so your teen reaches for the cherries instead of the chips.
- Shop wisely. Read nutrition labels carefully—the sodium and sugar levels may alarm you—“and avoid foods that contain ingredients you don’t recognize,” says Tonya Londino, MS, RD, LDN, a nutrition teacher at Newton South High School in Massachusetts. “For example, choose a banana over an energy bar before a workout.” Each meal should have a balance of high-quality protein (such as grilled fish or poultry), complex carbohydrates (preferably whole grains like brown rice or whole wheat pasta), and healthy unsaturated fat (such as nuts, avocado, or olive oil). Every meal should also feature ample vegetables and/or fruits of assorted colors.
- Nourish the skin: Along with wearing sunscreen and avoiding peak sunburn hours, eating fruits and vegetables helps enhance our skin (an organ especially important to teens!). Cucumbers, for example, reportedly have properties in their peel and flesh that promote clear complexion, and research indicates that carotenoids—the colorful pigments plentiful in carrots, cantaloupe, and other produce—“give your skin a healthy hue and glow,” says Kennedy, who practices in greater Boston and recently co-opened Stacy’s Juicebar in Needham, MA to deliver the type of nutritious products she recommends to patients.
- Relish family time. Encourage your teen to help with shopping and meal prep. “Being able to follow a recipe and being comfortable in the kitchen is an important life skill for teenagers to learn,” Londino notes. And dine together whenever you can. “Studies show that family dinners have many benefits, including lower rates of obesity and depression and higher grade-point averages and self-esteem,” she adds. “They also provide a time for families to bond.”
- Let yourselves linger: Teens are used to racing through meals to get to class, activities, or homework, but the summer provides an opportunity to eat at a more leisurely pace. Experts say there’s a benefit to eating slowly, as your brain has a chance to register fullness and you don’t overeat. Other “mindful eating” strategies include using a smaller plate, taking a modest first serving, chewing thoroughly, and avoiding munching while watching TV, driving, or otherwise distracted.
- Think big picture. Eating a nutritious diet, getting enough sleep, and staying physically active are key ingredients for teenagers’ health. Parents are their kids’ best role models, so don’t forget to pay attention to your own eating, sleeping, and exercise patterns—as well as to the marketing messages aimed at children and teens. Establishing healthful habits have important, long-lasting benefits for your teen—and for you.
Resources for Healthful Eating
- BodyWorks: A federal program to help families eat better and exercise more: www.womenshealth.gov/bodyworks
- Weight-control Information Network’s (WIN) Take Charge of Your Health; A Guide for Teenagers: win.niddk.nih.gov/publications
- Dietary guidelines from the U.S. Government: www.choosemyplate.gov
- Harvard School of Public Health: www.hsph.harvard.edu
- Sugary drink FACTS from Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity: www.sugarydrinksfacts.org