Following is an article that I wrote that was published in the March 2016 issue of Northeast Ohio Parent Magazine.
Many parents know that in order to have teens with healthy eating habits, it’s most effective to take measures to establish those practices early on in your child’s life. But what do you do when your teenager eats poorly? How can you help guide them back toward healthy habits without it literally turning into a food fight?
Struggles with food among teens is common and normal. Our emotional first reaction might be to try to take charge, throw away their favorite snacks, lecture them on proper nutrition and closely monitor everything your child puts in her mouth. But experts say that by trying to control their diet, you will likely end up doing more harm than good.
“Food is another example of developmental changes in teenagers,” says Tira Stebbins, PhD, Clinical Psychologist from Chagrin Falls. “One main purpose of adolescence is learning independence,” she says. Like friend and clothing choices, food choices are an area where teens want to express themselves and exert their freedom.
Stebbins says she commonly sees instances where parents who eat very healthy and have very high standards become overbearing in their approach at helping their child eat healthier. “Well-meaning parents who model healthy eating sometimes try to control what their teens eat, but this backfires and a power struggle may result,” says Stebbins.
Nitpicking and expecting perfection from your child can also lead to dangerous food habits. It may result in a child shutting down, feeling criticized or rebelling and sneaking food. Stebbins says to pick your battles. A more subtle approach will be much more effective than a pushy one.
Show your child that you have confidence in them by giving them the independence they are seeking. While it seems counterintuitive, it can be an effective method of reverse psychology. “Your child may end up learning more through their own trial and error than by being told what to eat,” says Stebbins. You can bet that at some point they will make a bad choice, eat too much junk, discover how they feel after and learn on their own to make a better choice next time.
Do As I Do
While it may seem as though your teen wishes to ignore everything you say and do, they are indeed still learning from your habits and modeling your behavior, whether they’d admit it or not. “Teens are observing what their parents eat and drink,” says Jennifer Fritz, Registered Dietitian. If you want to see your child eat healthier, take a look at what’s on your own plate. Even without saying anything at all, over time they will learn to eat healthy by watching you eat healthy. If it seems like that will never happen at your house, keep at it and be patient. “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
But be careful you aren’t inadvertently steering them the wrong way. Being too fussy about your own diet and appearance won’t set any good examples for a body conscious teen who is constantly bombarded by photos of too thin models and muscular athletes via social media. If you are constantly dieting, obsess over counting calories and your weight and are overly focused on body image, you are not modeling healthy eating behavior for your children. “What children and teens hear and observe others saying about their bodies is what they will think and say about their own bodies,” says Dr. Stebbins. Focus should be on being “healthy” and “active” not on appearance.
“Lead by example,” says Shawna Napolitano, a Bentleyville mother of three. “They see what you do, not what you say.”
Family Meal Time
You’ve heard it before, but it’s so important that it needs to be repeated. Study after study shows the importance of sitting down to eat dinner (or other meals) together. According to “The Family Dinner Project” (a program created by Dr. Anne Fishel, clinical psychologist and Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School), regular family meals lower the rates of obesity and eating disorders in adolescents and children.
“Make mealtime a priority,” says Jennifer Fritz, RD. “It may be impossible to have dinner together every night, but try to eat as many meals at home as you possibly can,” she says. “If you don’t have a plan, then it will never happen,” says Dr. Stebbins. “Try to find a middle ground.” The message in itself is important. Essentially your saying, “We want to be together with you to connect.”
“Eating in instead of at restaurants allows parents to have more control over what is consumed than what is ordered outside the home,” says Fritz. And just by sitting and eating with your children, you are doing perhaps the most important and effective job you can do to help your teen eat healthier without saying a single word. You are modeling good eating behavior, showing them what a healthy meal looks like, and that you enjoy it.
Everything in Moderation
Local parent of two teens and teacher, Betsey Gregoire, says she let’s her children have all things in moderation. “Too many rules actually ends up encouraging kids to make unhealthier choices when they are on their own.”
Experts agree that it is actually wise to offer less healthy foods now and then. It teaches your children how to self-moderate and keeps treats from becoming the “forbidden fruit.” If you always forbid certain foods, when your child does have access to them they end up overindulging.
Enlist Help from Influencers
Without being pushy try to help remind your child that food is fuel. If your child is an athlete and you’re concerned that they aren’t receiving the nutrition they need to meet their goals, consider asking their coach to talk to the team about how healthy eating habits will improve their performance.
If your child struggles with skin problems and you can see that it bothers them, think of asking their dermatologist to talk to them about how a proper diet can contribute to skin trouble.
Make Small Changes
If you feel you can make positive changes without creating conflict, don’t preach, just make subtle changes at home. Rather than trying to jump in and overhaul their whole diet, help your family make small modifications in habits gradually. Slight adjustments will be beneficial over time.
Here are some tips from Jennifer Fritz, Registered Dietitian.
- Eliminate convenience and snack foods from the pantry. If they aren’t there, they can’t access them.
- Instead keep whole fruits and vegetables in grabbing range. Don’t hide them in the drawer of the fridge.
- Replace breads and cereals with 100% whole grains.
- Read labels and look for hidden sugars.
- Put out only small portions of foods higher in fat and calories at meal time. For example, on taco night only put out a small bowl of cheese and sour cream. When it’s gone, it’s gone.
- Keep those items off the table too. Getting up to get more will be inconvenient.
- Go heavy on the vegetables when making soups and stir-frys.
Reversing poor eating habits is difficult, but with time and effort you can help your child make positive changes to their diet, without it becoming a power struggle. Here are a few other general reminders about establishing healthy eating habits for children of any age.
- Never force your children to eat any foods or even taste them. Your job is to provide a variety of healthy foods at each meal. Let your child decide which ones they want and how much.
- If they don’t like something you serve, don’t make a big deal about it and try not to take it personally. Say things like, “Oh you didn’t like it yet? You might like it next time.”
- Keep meal time positive.