Parents: Help Your Pre-teen/ Teen Relate to Food in a Healthy Way
Apr 06, 2022
Maybe you have a picky eater or one who has a strong desire for treats and sweets. Maybe you have even noticed your pre-teen or teen sneaking foods (which can be a common thing)…. possibly you are finding wrappers in their room. You may be experiencing power struggles around food with your teen. The pre-teen / early teen years is the timeframe when the opportunity arises to give more wiggle room and independence in making food choices. Food control lessens. This is where you can foster an EMPOWERMENT SHIFT around food.
Or you might be the parent who just doesn’t know what to say as you see their weight moving upward or notice less body confidence in your child. At this age teens usually become more concerned with looking a certain way and there’s a good chance they will begin to heavily experience “diet culture” – it’s everywhere and becomes very noticeable at this age.
Below are some helpful tips to foster a healthy shift of responsibility to your kids moving towards trusting them to make their own best nutrition choices. Also, some guidance on how to navigate “diet culture” and to gently support body confidence and a healthy way to relate to food.
Time to foster an EMPOWERMENT SHIFT around food.
- It's developmental for kids to push for more freedom and control at this age.
- Focus on creating independent eaters: so they can self-regulate on their own.
- At this age we truly cannot control what they eat – we can’t win this parent dynamic because they ultimately choose what goes in their mouth. If we don’t begin to foster this shift – kids may instead hide the foods they eat or may feel shame.
- Find ways to empower this age to make their own choices. Help them feel like you are trusting them more and more to make reasonable (not perfect) choices for their own health.
- Make it seem like you’re open to their influence around their nutrition ideas.
- Give them a couple of healthy choices and let them decide. It gives them some power / empowerment to have choices.
- Categorizing food or anything as 100% “bad” or severely restricting can make food more alluring and the tendency is to push back and want it even more.
- Keep in mind at this age modeling your own behaviors will begin to becomes the larger influence in parenting (verses what you actually say) – especially true for the upper teens.
- What about treat foods – decide together, hear their input. Could decide 1 daily or a few times a week depending on where you are starting.
Begin to practice FOOD NEUTRALITY in their presence.
- At this age kids are exposed heavily to diet culture – it’s everywhere, the lunchroom, on their sports field, at extended family gatherings, on tv, and especially all over TikTok and Instagram. Downplaying diet, weight, or restriction talk at home will even out the percentage of how much they are inundated with it away from home. (It’s everywhere!)
- In general power struggles can arise at this age either outwardly or subtly – this age is a time to reduce the struggle around food by "downplaying its power" – which is the meaning of FOOD NEUTRALITY.
- Instead of saying a “straight up no” to a food – which creates a scarcity feeling of never – adjust and say “we will see” or “maybe we can have that tomorrow”. Avoid explaining what might be inside your mind about the unhealthfulness of a food- thoughts like “you’ve already had enough sugar today” or “that’s got way too much fat”. Instead, at this age, less discussion and a “side-step” is better.
- If a sibling, parent, grandparent, or family member is dieting or dissatisfied with their body – try to avoid exposure to it. (Keep it on the “down-low” and not obvious in front of them). Kids who witness family members struggle with weight and dieting are more at risk for food relationship and weight issues. Take a moment to reflect on what "dieters" they are noticing - minimize their exposure.
- Food neutrality does NOT mean dismissing nutrition all together and only serving treats all day. Proper nutrition is crucial to a child’s ability to grow, develop and thrive. As parents we can serve a variety of nutritious foods throughout the day so they will have plenty of opportunities, exposure, and modeling to enjoy and explore foods.
BODY CONFIDENCE and RELATING TO FOOD in a healthy way
- Body confidence is how a person feels about the way they look. When we have body confidence we accept, and are happy with, how we look and what our bodies can do.
- Kids who relate to food in a healthy way can self-regulate with sweets & treats and can trust themselves with all kinds of foods (beginning now and in the years to come).
- Pre-teens and teens begin to pay more attention and may begin to equate eating bad foods = bad person. Diet culture is the culprit. At this age with hormone shifts/etc. kids sometimes harshly judge themselves in their inner world or harshly judge others with disgust for food preferences and may develop harsh disgust for "overweight-ness".
- Some kids may not eat what they internally desire and will feel shame eating foods diet culture says are unhealthy.
- Over focus on food can create a situation where kids are internally labeling themselves as “good” or “bad” based for what they’re eating. Long-term it can lead to food sneaking or hoarding, emotional eating, and disordered eating.
- Over-eating food (or opposite) over-focus on label reading & restriction can become accidentally addictive to someone who is highly driven, prone to perfectionism, or desires more freedom or independence (something they can control). Another high-risk factor is anxiety. Parents can help their kids struggling with anxiety, isolation or lack of connection, or negative inner self-talk to help avoid any type of addictive behavior down the line (including disordered eating behaviors).
Model and “lightly encourage” MINDFUL EATING
- Eating when hungry and stopping when full. Goal is for them to learn to trust their body.
- Learning strategies that build mindful eating means less likely to binge on foods. Working with a dietitian who can teach these strategies can be very helpful.
- Being calm around sweets & treats.
- Decide together how many treat foods would be a good compromise
- Instead of weight talk shift these conversations about how food makes our bodies feel:
- Energy verses fatigue
- Fueling a sport
- Fueling focus, memory, and good moods
- Too full or uncomfortable from eating too much at once.
Avoid talk about PRECISE AMOUNTS of foods and nutrition numbers.
- Allow wiggle room around numbers – for example if a food is higher in sugar but also has some goodness involved like protein, fiber, iron, or other nutrients – there is indeed a benefit for kids bodies and brains even if a food doesn’t seem “perfect” .
- Keep in mind kids at this age often need a lot more calories in the form of carbohydrates than parents do. If they notice you eating less of these - tell them they need more than you do.
- Encourage balance instead of avoidance of food. If kids at this age are interested in calories or carb counting (diet culture influence) instead encourage balance by guiding them gently to look at labels for protein and fiber – the more the better….. Grocery shop for 5 grams of protein + fiber. This is an easier number to share with kids since its more about balance and what to add verses what to restrict.
- But you ask….what are the numbers (for parents only just to give perspective)
- Think in terms of 80% good foundational balance and 20% fun.
- Kids need 50-60% of calories coming from CARBOHYDRATE (where adults often aim for 40-50% or less if on a trending diet). The best way to get this is with 3 meals daily and snack – where carbohydrate are spread out over the day.
- 10-30% of calories coming from PROTEIN – depending on activity. Another way to look at this requirement is .5-.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight for this particular age group.
- Behind the scenes – 25-30 grams of ADDED SUGAR is a healthy recommendation. Kids can easily get confused about added sugar verses natural sugar – and can get caught up on exact numbers – so a gentle look at this number with wiggle room again.
- 25-40% of calories coming from fat – total fat amount is not really a focus to be concerned about usually for kids that is why it’s such a big range – fat supports their brain and hormones. Going easy on fried and breaded is a better approach since its more about going easy on saturated fats for health verses total fats.
Kids may be interested in NUTRITION POWDERS & SUPPLEMENTS at this age
- If kids like smoothies and you want to make it more balanced with a protein and fiber – powders can be used but at a lower serving than for adults.
- Keep protein powder amounts at ½ the suggested serving size. This might mean 1-2 TBSP in a recipe or 10-15 grams max of a protein powder daily. Ask your dietitian to give you specifics if you think more protein is needed in your teen’s life. This may not be recommended to be a daily thing as its better to get protein from a variety of sources – but could be a daily recommendation if not getting enough otherwise. The whey protein is a more complete protein but can cause some gas or constipation for some if too much. Upper teens may need more specific guidance with this amount with more variables.
- Their brains do benefit from micronutrients when it comes to focus, energy, and good mood brain chemical. Poor nutrition + hormonal changes…yikes! This dietitian absolutely supports an effective multivitamin for this age – especially if any anxiety or focus challenges. Ask about a good brand that has absorbable micronutrients. Meet to discuss potential deficiencies or specific supplements to support focus, ADD/ADHD, or anxiety.
What if my teen/ pre-teen is OVERWEIGHT and my heart aches for them?
- Know that people can be healthy at any size - it't indeed better to focus on overall health.
- You can grocery shop behind the scenes – to keep food focus neutral.
- Try to set up their environment for success so they have more healthy foods to choose from at home.
- Encourage balance by focusing more on what to ADD instead of what to take away (foods and carbs with protein and fiber).
- Encourage activity – if they are laying around a lot – maybe they’re bored. Encourage not with words though but finesse this proactively by signing them up for things or inviting them to go somewhere. Be ready with ideas or an alternative to replace gaming or laying around (otherwise it feels like nagging just telling them to get off their phones and move).
- Encourage good sleep – since they grow tall with the release of growth hormone during sleep.
- Pop/soda: usually, no foods are completely off limits – but behind the scenes experiment with potential replacements for sugar pop, juice, and sugary sports drinks. Allow them to try lots of different options so they can find a beverage they are happy with. As teens get older caffeine can be helpful for focus and temporary energy – this is individual so discuss with your dietitian.
- Model balance and eating every 3-5 hours.
- Super important at times - so you can stay more neutral – enlist a dietitian or counselor to empower your teen to eat healthier and move more. The same good ideas you have may be better received from a stranger than from a parent. Set up an appointment without a focus on weight loss but on energy or brain health or fueling their sport. Avoid weight as the reason.
Written by Jen Sletten RD, MA (A Registered Dietitian with a Masters in Counseling Psychology)