Healthy Eating for Kids and Teens

By — Helpguide
Updated on Nov 11, 2014

Soda leeches calcium from growing bones. Teenage girls, who often live on diet sodas in an effort to stay slim, are four times more likely to break a bone than teen boys. Fizzy water and fruit juice drinks are a far healthier choice.

Good nutrition is the bedrock of lifelong health, and it begins in infancy. Yet all too soon, your kids are bombarded by messages that counteract your efforts. Between peer pressure and the constant television commercials for junk foods, getting children to eat well might seem more futile than fruitful. However, there is a lot that parents—and children—can do to develop and maintain healthy eating habits that last well into adulthood.

Start my child off eating well

Because the childhood impulse to imitate is strong, the best move you can make to start your child off on the right dietary foot is to be a role model, so that when your youngster asks to taste what you're eating, your plate is filled with healthy selections from the new food guide pyramid. If you're asking your child to eat vegetables and fish while you graze on potato chips and soda, your actions will override your good intentions. (See Helpguide's Healthy Eating: Guide to New Food Pyramids and Tips for a Healthy Diet.)

Children will develop a natural preference for what they eat most often and enjoy. The challenge is to make healthy choices appealing. When one resourceful mother called whole-wheat graham crackers "cookies," her daughter considered them a treat. By the time her child tasted a white sugar cookie at a friend's house (at around age 5), the child found it overly sweet and rejected it. (Bonus: as a young woman, she had strong teeth with no decay.)

To promote healthy childhood eating:

  • Have regular family meals. Children need routines. Knowing dinner is served at approximately the same time every night and that the entire family will be sitting down together is comforting, which also enhances appetite, and provides a perfect opportunity for your children to share what's on their minds.
  • Get kids involved. Children enjoy helping adults grocery shop, selecting what goes in their lunch box, and preparing dinner. It's also a chance for you to teach them about the nutritional values of different foods, and (for older children) how to read food labels.
  • Make a variety of healthy foods available. Keep plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grain snacks and healthful beverages (bottled water, milk, herbal tea, occasional fruit juice) around and easily accessible so kids become used to reaching for them when they're hungry.
  • Let them choose. Don't make mealtimes a battleground by insisting a child clean the plate, and never use food as a reward or bribe.

Changing dietary needs

As children develop, they require appropriately-sized portions of the same healthy foods adults eat, along with more vitamins and minerals to support growing bodies. This means:

  • Whole grains (whole wheat, oats, multi-grain, rye, rice, millet, quinoa);
  • Fresh fruits and vegetables;
  • A source of calcium for growing bones (milk, yogurt, or substitutes if lactose intolerant);
  • Healthy proteins (fish, eggs, poultry, lean meat, nuts and seeds).

Refined white sugar and white flour are not necessary to a healthy children's diet—and your child will get enough of these from whatever sweets and fast foods they do eat.

Contrary to what many parents believe, kids don't need large amounts of fat because they're "burning it off" by being active. But the kind of fat they're eating does matter. Butter on vegetables, avocados and corn chips (made with sunflower or safflower oil), pecans or walnuts are far preferable to French fries, donuts, candy bars or cheeseburgers.

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