Children and Teens - Create a Healthy Food Environment

As the mother of a toddler and a preschooler, I am right in the thick of THAT parenting ‘zone’… you might know the zone: It is when hours are devoted to turning wholegrain peanut butter toast into a teddy bears face, or make a ‘vegetable man’ with broccoli hair, just to encourage a ‘healthy’ intake.

Fast forward 12 years and the focus has often shifted… A lot of things happen to our children during their teenage years. Choosing healthy food and snacks is often not one of them! I have worked with teens a lot and they are hormonal, fiercely independent, somewhat argumentative AND they tend to drift between ‘forgetting to eat’ and eating much more processed food than they have before.

Another thing happens to our teens - They gain approximately 20 percent of their height and 50 percent of their weight. There is a huge focus on their bodies and a lot of comparison going on with their friends. It is a super important time for them, physically and psychologically.

So what can we do? As parents and carers, it is important to put a similar amount of energy into your growing child and teens nutritional intake, as you did when they were a toddler (I know, they not nearly as cute!).

I have two hot tips:

1. Be a positive food role model (one of my favorite sayings: ‘lead by example’):

▪       Have regular family meals. Knowing dinner is served at approximately the same time every night and that the entire family will be sitting down together is comforting and enhances appetite. Breakfast is another great time for a family meal, especially since children and teenagers who eat breakfast tend to do better in school.

▪       Watch what you say. Avoid describing food as ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘naughty’ and so on. You could try the terms ‘everyday’ and ‘sometimes’ foods instead.

▪       Remain balanced yourself. This might mean enjoying your favorite treat – takeaway, chocolate, cake, whatever it is – every now and then, but not all the time.

▪       Don’t insist your child cleans the plate! and - never use food as a reward or bribe. From toddlers to teens: Parents provide, children decide. It is our responsibility to provide the meal, but up to the child how much they eat.

There needs to be rules around behavior at mealtimes (ie. staying at the table, with the family for the duration of the meal), but no pressure at all to eat all the meal.

2. Create a healthy food environment:

▪       Make a variety of healthy snacks available. Keep plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grain snacks, as well as milk and chilled water around and easily accessible so children and teenagers become used to reaching for healthy snacks instead of soft drink or chips.

▪       Cook more meals at home. Eating home cooked meals is healthier for the whole family and sets a great example for children about the importance of eating fresh and in season foods. This is also a great opportunity to talk about preparing and cooking food.

▪       Get Children and teens involved. Believe it or not, they may actually enjoy helping adults to shop for groceries, selecting what goes in their lunch box, and preparing dinner.

We need to remind ourselves that it is not all about the here and now, its about educating, nurturing and setting them up for a lifetime of habits and choices. Remember that healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes, and mature at different rates. Puberty is not an easy time and our job is to remain positive and create a happy and healthy environment with plenty of fresh, wholesome food choices, and the occasional treat. And keep our own sanity in tact. There is wine for that.

My favorite snack ideas to fill up after school:

▪       Wholegrain toast with peanut butter OR Raisin toast with honey or ricotta cheese

▪       Fruit smoothie with any type of milk, natural yoghurt and blended fresh fruit

▪       Try making a savory muffin with grated carrot and zucchini

▪       Heat pita bread in the oven until crispy and serve with some hummus

▪       Boiled egg with wholegrain toast

▪       Small can of Baked beans


Written by our friend and Accredited Practicing Dietitian and Accredited Nutritionist Kathryn Hawkins. 

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