How Teens Eat—And What You Can Do About It

By Jean Antonello, RN, BSN, obesity and eating disorders specialist and author of The Great Big Diet Lie, How to Become Naturally Thin® by Eating More, Breaking Out of Food Jail and Naturally Thin® Kids,

You might be thinking, there is nothing I can do with my teens. They eat their own peculiar way and there is no influencing them. How can I possibly affect their eating habits? Carefully, that’s how.

Because teenagers, and especially girls, are so vulnerable to eating disorders and unhealthy eating patterns, it is extremely important that adults gingerly address the issue of diet and eating behavior. Actually, it’s best if you solicit information from your teen before offering any information or advice. Teenagers, both boys and girls, can be especially sensitive to perceived criticism or rejection. Find out where she (or he) is with her diet—whether she cares much or is courting an eating struggle. Reassure her that your interest in her diet is simply that you want to make sure she is getting enough decent food often enough to be healthy and energetic. It’s usually less threatening to kids, especially sensitive teens, if you talk in terms of improving the whole family’s food quality and availability. We’ll talk more about the “The ‘Do It Yourself” approach.

Although parents can teach any age kid that it’s important to listen to your body and always eat when you are hungry, there’s a big advantage in training older kids. You can explain to them the principles of why it is so important to stay tuned in to their bodies. You can teach them about their unique adaptive potential and their individual famine sensitivity. (These concepts are described at length in Naturally Thin® Kids.) You can tell them about the symptoms of the Feast or Famine Cycle to make them more aware of their own bodies’ signals of distress. When teenagers really get a hold of this information, as my daughter Genevieve did when she was thirteen, they can set sail for a lifetime free of weight and eating troubles.

But what if your adolescent totally resists this information? Not to worry. As you make changes to improve the overall food quality at home, you’ll set a new standard, and this will certainly affect their eating at home. And your own eating choices will be

demonstrating what the better quality foods are. Kids usually learn more from example than indoctrination. Don’t wage a war. It’s not worth it and you will lose. Simply make the changes you know are good for your family and everyone’s eating will improve as the food improves.

If your kids vehemently resist changing the quality of food in their diet, then there is one message they may still be able to hear: Eat on time—right away when you get hungry, whenever possible. Understanding the importance of eating on time is the most basic and crucial if kids are going to stay in touch with their bodies’ fuel needs. Delayed eating and then doing poor-quality make-up eating is rampant among our children and teens, and this is the crux of their rising obesity rate. If we can simply get them to tune into their hunger signals and eat even fairly decent food every time their bodies request fuel, we will have conquered much of the weight struggles we have among our kids.

Eight ways to encourage children and teens to eat on time

  1. Make sure there is enough time for kids to eat as much as they want in the morning, every morning.
  2. Make sure plenty of real foods that kids like are available for breakfast.
  3. Troubleshoot mid-morning hunger times by making sure quality food they like is available them.
  4. Interrupt smaller kids at play two hours after meals and offer them real-food snacks and drinks.
  5. Offer all school-age children real food they like after school, whether at home or
  6. If you know your kids haven’t eaten for a while, ask them if they are hungry or thirsty. If they are, feed them real food or drinks.
  7. Send quality snacks and beverages with kids who have sports practice or other activities after school.
  8. Provide high-quality foods for lunch and supper at regular times.

Here’s a little something for your refrigerator. The commandments are for everyone in the whole family. Even the dog.


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