By BARBARA ESTEVES-MOORE
If you have a teenager and he or she has had a sleepover, you’ve probably picked through the empty pizza boxes, candy wrappers, cookies, soda bottles and ice cream containers left behind the next morning.
But, as a parent, should you let your teens eat like that all the time?
The answer, of course, is complicated. You don’t want your kid eating Doritos and ice cream at every meal but where does a parent draw the line when it comes to pushing your teenager on food? Or is it just too late by the teen years to be parenting nutritional lessons?
Jill Castle knows a thing or two about teens and food. First, she has four teens – two in college and two in high school. Second, she is a nutritionist.
“There’s good news and bad news,” about food in the teen years, said Castle, who practiced in Tennessee for several years before moving to Connecticut. “A lot of the development in the teen years has to do with food choices. It’s a time of rebellion and that can showcase itself in the food realm.”
The teen years are filled with push-back and separation from parents. These former children are working to gain independence in their lives and control over their lives, so food is an easy target.
“Nagging or pushing a teenager is probably going to backfire,” Castle said.
Teens need nutrition for their growing bodies, but what they don’t need is a parent harping on food, she said. As much as you desperately want to – and boy am I having a hard time with this – Castle says don’t bug your teen about what he or she is eating. In fact, she says don’t even talk about food.
The time has passed when you could force your child to eat certain foods. When a child reaches high school especially, Castle says to back off.
“The better track is to be an excellent role model when it comes to food. Nail down your meals. Make them balanced and attractive,” Castle said. “If you have a bowl of sliced strawberries on the counter when they come home, they may go for that instead of something else and you don’t have to say anything.”
At dinner, Castle said plan your meals to make sure you’ve got your protein, grains, vegetables, fruit and dairy. Then serve the meal but don’t talk about it or whether or not your child is actually eating the aforementioned well-balanced meal you’ve prepared.
“The less you say and the more you do as a parent here has more of a positive impact,” she said. “Lay out the food. Tell them to help themselves.”
Being a good role model and eating well as a parent gets noticed, she said. It becomes a child’s reference point when they get beyond the teen years and they will come back to it. Castle said you must put your “long-game hat on” when it comes to nutrition during these years.
“I can testify to that,” she said. “I have two kids in college and they went through all of that pizza, going to the drive-thru, eating too much junk food and coffee drinks, but they came back to eating well.”
As with many parenting issues, all this comes with a caveat: you still must pay attention.
“Parents strong-arming a child (about food) brings you to a very fine line and can be a very damaging way to grow up for your child,” she said. “It can really disrupt that relationship with food, how they think about it and how it becomes an issue.”
“You want your teen to figure out what it means to eat well for her body and be safe in that process,” she said.
This means even though you’re not talking about food or making it a big point of contention, you are still paying attention to what your child is eating, especially if a child is not eating enough or is a heavy over-eater.
Castle said parents should make sure there are no “outliers” such as binge eating, excessive dieting or self-esteem issues at play. If as a parent, you suspect anything could be getting to serious level when it comes to eating too much or too little, then you do have to step in.
But, you can let your teen experiment with their nutrition and their diet.
“Many times, teens want to try a cleanse or a diet. My daughter wanted to go vegan but it only lasted four days,” she said. “When teens try these things out on their own, then they’ve got some stake in the game and they will probably learn more than if it was coming from a parent.”
“Support your teen by provide guidelines and parameters” when it comes to dieting, she advised. But don’t push diets – or even veggies – on your teen. You can, however, encourage your teen to learn how to cook if he or she is interested. But let them lead with the interest instead of making a big announcement such as, “Thursday night is now your night to cook!”
My daughter loves to bake, which Castle says is a commonplace for children and teens to begin learning to cook. She would encourage a teen who loves to bake to experiment with recipes and see how cookies might taste with a different flour or how you can make the recipe healthier.
“Kids are kids, even if they are a dietian’s kids,” she said, adding that her son used to just get dessert for lunch at school, which she found out after-the-fact. “Teens and eating is like being on a river white-water rafting. There are points where it is really intense and then it calms down then it’s intense again.”
If you’re present with your child and you provide a well-balanced meal and make good meal decisions, then your teen will figure it out.
Q and A with Castle
Of course, I couldn’t let Castle go without asking a few more general questions. So, here are her thoughts on …
Breakfast? Is it OK to let your very cranky, tired teen skip breakfast?
“My senior tells me she doesn’t have an appetite in the morning. So, I pack her a muffin or a granola bar and I tell her she can eat it at nine o’clock when she gets hungry.”
What do you buy for your teens to eat at home?
“Our favorite things are avocadoes. My kids love them on toast with some lemon. Fruit, lots of fruit. I buy cheeses, carrots, hummus, popcorn. They eat cereal with milk or bread with peanut butter for a snack. Sometimes they have sandwiches for a snack. I buy yogurt with granola for snacks. Sometimes they’ll have half a bagel with cream cheese and a tomato slice for a snack.”
Jill Castle is a nutritionist and author of several books. You can read more about her and nutrition at jillcastle.com. In October, she will be giving a TedX talk about parenting and nutrition.
Barbara Esteves-Moore is a journalist, editor and the owner of Two Roads Communications and an editor for Home Page Media. She has been married for 20 years and is the mother of an active, opinionated and very lively 16-year-old. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org