Eating well is especially important—and sometimes tricky—during the teen years. From the beginning of puberty to the end, girls grow about 8 to 10 inches and boys grow an astonishing 10 to 20 inches before they achieve their final adult height. Teens also gain about half of their weight during adolescence, packing on between 70 and 120 pounds on average.
To fuel these changes, teens need to consume about 25 percent more calories, and up their intakes of nutrients including calcium, zinc, vitamin B-12, iron, protein and fiber. “There are two typical patterns of normal growth that I see among my patients,” says Kristi King, RD, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Some kids chubby up right before they hit their growth spurt and then they shoot up, and other kids shoot up first and then fill out. Teens’ social activities tend to revolve around food and although you want your teens to make the best choices when they’re on their own, often they consume food that is high in added sugar, salt, and fat.”
How to compensate? Make the food they eat at home nutrient-dense:
1. Place a healthy snack on the counter. Your teens walk in the door after school and grab the first foods they see? Leave something healthy for them –washed grapes, a bunch of bananas, low-fat granola bars or plain popcorn, for example.
2. Put good foods at eye level. When hungry teens open the refrigerator, they’re likely to grab those foods that are at eye level. “Put the yogurts, string-cheese sticks, sliced fruit and vegetables right at eye level in the refrigerator and that’s what they will grab first,” says King. Do the same with healthy snacks in the pantry.
3. Try flavored milk. If your kids crave sweet drinks, don’t buy soda or sweetened sports drinks. Suggest low-fat milk with a squirt of chocolate or strawberry syrup or “straight up,” on its own. “Milk is rich in vitamin D and calcium, two vital nutrients that most teens don’t get enough of,” says King. “Both nutrients are essential for bone growth and development and adolescence is when you finish building the bones you will have for the rest of your life. Chocolate milk will satisfy a teen’s sweet tooth, but is more filling than drinking juice or soda, so teens will be less likely to overconsume calories.” Milk is also a good source of protein, needed for building muscle and helping teens grow. Other good protein sources: Lean meat, poultry, fish, other dairy products.
4. Fiber Up. Your teens’ intestines grow as they do, so their fiber needs increase to help push everything out that doesn’t need to stay in. Increase fiber gradually by switching to whole grain pastas, crackers, cereal and bread, making fruits, vegetables and nuts handy, even sneaking vegetables into pasta sauces and favorite casseroles.
5. Combine new foods with old favorites. It can take several tries for teens to like vegetables so start them out by combining foods they may be reluctant to try with something they love—melted cheese on steamed broccoli or cauliflower, for example. Or try your teen’s favorite dip with raw celery or cucumbers. Toss their favorite toasted nuts with green beans or Brussels sprouts. Sprinkle a fun spice, like cinnamon, on top of vegetables like carrots or sweet potatoes.
6. Take out the blender. “Teens love to use the blender to make smoothies and experiment with different ingredients,” says King. Two nutrient-packed combos: Put plain yogurt or low-fat milk with ice into the blender and add either bananas and berries, or apples and spinach or kale.
7. Shrink your plates. If your teens take too-large portions, try serving meals on smaller plates. Research, including a new study from Pennsylvania State University, finds that kids serve themselves more when they use big plates. Adults do, too. Eating on smaller plates can mean instant portion control for your teens – and for you, too!
Laura Flynn McCarthy is a New Hampshire-based writer who specializes in health and parenting topics.