Having a teen is a bit like trying to feed a tantrumming toddler. Suddenly they turn their noses up at their favourite go-to foods and start making their own choices. Instead of spitting out their food and spreading it all over the walls they have their own teenage version of refusal. They avoid calls to come down to dinner, eat at their friends’ houses instead, violently reject healthy packed lunches in favour of a conveyor belt of crisps, chips, pizzas, pasta dished out at school and/or whatever their friends are eating.
‘It’s not cool to have homemade stuff, Mum!’ ‘Why do I have to eat that, no-one else does !’ Or they may become vegans, vegetarians, pescatarians or whichever way of eating is diametrically opposed to your own. If you have more than one teen in the house you may end up with the mammoth task of cooking meals for a variety of eating ideologies and fads.
But don’t worry! It’s all good. It’s apparently an important developmental stage in their progress towards full independence when their peers’ choices take centre stage and they begin to experiment and look outside the family food ethos for their own way.
The problem is that the teen years, perhaps even more so, or in a different way to the early years, toddler and young child stage, when are children were a tad more compliant, and do what you say more readily; is that the teen years are such a critically important time to eat well.
As soon as girls get to secondary school, about age 10, and boys, perhaps a couple of years later, age 12, they hit a hormonally driven storm of growth and development. Flooded with emotions, mood swings, urges, pubic hair, spots and an Olympian physical spurt which sees them moving from shoe size to shoe size at a rate of knots.
Typically, at puberty girls need to be eating 2,200 - 2,500 calories by the time they’re 16. Whilst boys need from 2,800 – 3000 calories and more if your teens are very physically active. We all know that our kitchens and freezers can look like a swarm of locusts has landed after your teen and his mates have had a sleep over. Their appetites seemingly bottomless pits. But not all calories are equal. Yes, teens are hungrier. And they need to eat more. But what they need are home-cooked meals full of lean protein – fish, seafood, chicken, turkey, red meat, lentils, beans, tofu and nuts and seeds and complex or Low GI carbohydrates - brown rice, wholemeal bread, quinoa, butternut squash and sweet potatoes and less of the High GI, refined carbs like pizza, pasta, chips and highly processed, sugar-laden, fatty snack foods – crisps, biscuits, cakes, fizzy drinks and sweets which they are exposed to at school, in vending machines, at parties and via multi-million advertising campaigns.
So, the difficult task is how to make sure they get the right kind of calories. As independent as they might want to be they will still need to support to make the right choices. Not skipping breakfast is important. Try and get them to have a hardboiled egg, scrambled egg on wholemeal toast or mashed avocado or nut butter with protein bread or buckwheat pancakes if they’re vegan. If they prefer cereal make sure it’s protein dense – a granola, a muesli or porridge with added berries, nuts, seeds and a dollop of Greek or coconut yoghurt. At weekends make wholemeal, brown rice or coconut flour pancakes or mushrooms, tomatoes, eggs, veggie or tofu sausages and spinach.
Some teens feel too rushed to eat in the morning. Stress and anxiety can reduce their appetite first thing. Just encourage them to have a mouthful or two and finish the rest off at breaktime or on the bus to school. Just get something in to kick start their digestion and after a week or two they’ll be ready to finish off the whole bowl. If they’re still opposed to eating first thing make them a protein-packed breakfast smoothie.
Smoothies are a good way to get fruit, oats, protein powder ( hemp, whey, rice or pea) nuts and seeds – it’s basically a liquidised bowl of porridge and it will fill them up. Smoothies are better than juice as they still contain the whole fruit including the fibre. Teen diets are often low in fibre. Fibre helps slow down the release of glucose into the blood stream and protects against obesity, heart disease and diabetes later in life. The fibre from fruits, vegetables and wholefoods also feeds our good bacteria. Keeping our teens microbiomes abundant and well stocked. Healthy gut bacteria protect them from colds, flu and the teen curse, glandular fever. A run down, overworked, anxious and undernourished teen can be knocked off track during peak exam time by debilitating viruses like glandular fever that can set them back for months and sometimes years.
Smoothies can be finished off on route to school and because they are sweet-tasting most teens will be keen to have one. Smoothies are also ‘trendy.’ The likes of food writer, Ella Woodward of Deliciously Ella and teens, Alessandra Peters, blog The Foodie Teen or Saskia Gregson-Williams’ blog Naturally Sassy are good your teens to cook with you, for you or for themselves. By encouraging their natural desire to be independent and follow their peers’ ideas over and above yours buying them teen cookery books and getting them to choose recipes from teen bloggers sites can help them learn how to cook for themselves.
My teen, and teens I work with, don’t seem to choose the healthiest cooked school meals. Teens tell me they don’t have time to queue for cooked food at lunchtime. The queues are too long. They had to go to netball, football, chess, choir or stay back for detention. So, by the time they have queued there’s no hot food left. Or more often than not, it seems to me, they’re surrounded by too many, other, less healthy temptations refined, sugar, salt and carb-laden, fibreless and fatty foods like chips, crisps, pizza, biscuits, cakes and fizzy drinks.
Better then, if they’re not eating a cooked a healthy hot meal or salad at school - send them off to school with a packed lunch or hot soup, stew, casserole or other leftovers in a food flask. Or buy an Indian-style tiffin lunch box with several layers or a non-plastic lunch box with compartments for salad, a homemade buckwheat wrap, fruit, hummus, mashed avocado and carrot sticks or lightly salted tortilla chips. Make a batch of tuna and bean salad, egg salad, chicken salad or potato salad to last several days. Add chopped carrot, red pepper, cucumber and a pot of cottage cheese, thin sticks of cheddar cheese, hummus, mashed black beans with olive oil, salt, pepper and chilli.
Focus on getting your teens to eat 7-10 portions of fruits and vegetables daily – add salad to sandwiches, add side salads and main salads to meals even in Winter. Have extra vegetables with main meals. Make smoothies. Use courgettes to make courgetti and cauliflower to make cauliflower.
Girls once they’ve started their periods tend to need more iron, B6, magnesium, iodine, zinc and vitamin C. Encourage them to have lean red meat once or twice a week – lasagne, moussaka, meat balls or bean stews, lentil dahls, nuts and nut butters, dried fruit – like apricots and whole grains – like brown rice, quinoa and buckwheat also provide iron and magnesium. Zinc and iodine is found in seafood, fish and seaweed – homemade sushi can be fun to make at weekends. Eating iron rich foods with salad or fruit and fresh fruit juice also helps the absorption of iron from the foods they eat.
As boys and girls approach puberty they also need more calcium in their diets than at any other times in their lives. A combination of exercise and good diet helps bones reach peak bone density through the teen years. Organic full fat dairy products – cheese, yoghurt, milk and dark green leafy vegetables are the best sources. But calcium is also found in white beans like butter beans or cannelloni beans, tinned salmon and sardines, dried figs, kale, pok choy, molasses, almonds, oranges, sesame seeds (tahini) and tofu. Vitamin D found in dairy, oily fish and added to fortified vegan and vegetarian nut milks combined with K2 and magnesium from dark green leafy vegetables and wholefoods helps dietary calcium to be deposited as bone.
If you feel your teen under eats, eats poorly or does a lot of sport or has a lot of exam or personal stress and anxiety a good teen multi is a good insurance policy. Extra vitamin C, zinc and magnesium during the Winter or when under extra pressure at school is also a good idea. A general multi high strain probiotic is also always a good bet.
The same rules apply to snacks as to main meals. Think protein. Think wholefoods. Eat a rainbow of colours every day. Think fresh and colourful to maximise the antioxidants and nutrient content in your meals and snacks. Tortilla chips, homemade popcorn, quinoa and lentil crisps, mashed avocado, energy balls and homemade flap jacks, oat cakes and tray bakes made with vegetables can be fun to make after school or at weekends with your teen.
Dinner should in theory be easier. It’s the meal where most of us get to sit down together. Keep it protein based. Rather than centred around even more carbs. No pasta or pizza then as it’s 99.9% likely your teens have already had more than enough carbs already for breakfast and most probably lunch. Best not to give them another plate of the same. Keep it meat and two veg. Or the 2020 version plant-based protein – tofu, beans and 3-4 vegetables and a salad. around protein. Protein keeps us fuller for longer. It releases sugar into the blood stream in a more sustained way. Reducing refined carbs and sugars from our teens diets and focussing. Cook extra so leftovers can be taken to school the next day.
Colourful stir fries – with courgette noodles or buckwheat or rice noodles. If they like fries make your own oven chips. Slice several organic white or sweet potatoes in half and then length ways, skin still on, into large slices, parboil for 2 minutes then drizzle with salt and olive oil and place in a hot over 180-200 centigrade until golden brown. Oven bake a few large baking trays of vegetables ( fennel, sweet potato, butternut squash, orange, red, yellow and green peppers) to be used in lunches throughout the week. Make extra quinoa, brown rice or couscous to add to lunch boxes. Roast a large chicken and use it for several meals and lunches. Have a homemade salad or coleslaw with a selection of cooked vegetables every night even throughout the Winter.
Healthy fats are vital for brain and emotional health. Fats are good. They help us absorb fat soluble vitamins like vitamin K, D, A and E. They also help teens make hormones. Oily fish like salmon, anchovies and mackerel plus olive oil and flax seeds, flax oil, ground flax meal, walnuts and chia seeds are the best sources of Omega 3 Fatty Acids. These are the ones we need. We tend to have too much Omega 6 Fatty Acids in our diet from nuts, seeds, grain fed meats and poultry. If your teen is a vegan or vegetarian or not eating oily fish two to three times a week it’s a good idea to supplement with a good quality cod liver oil or fish oil and an algae-based Omega 3 supplement if they follow a plant-based diet only. Healthy Fats also include avocado oil, olive oil, sunflower and sesame oils as well as saturated fats for cooking and baking in moderation like coconut oil, ghee and grass fed butter.
Turning your teen onto healthy food and away from fast food and refined food gives them a chance to get involved with their own health and wellbeing at the same time as it sets them up for a healthy transition to young adulthood away from home and hopefully a lifelong love affair with healthy and inspiring food.