Admittedly, it is easier for parents to encourage healthy eating habits if these healthy patterns were already established during their teens' younger years. Ideally, by the time children reach adolescence they should have already learned to enjoy a varied diet consisting of nutrient dense foods. However, the good news is that it is never too late to adopt a healthy lifestyle. There are several things parents of teens can do to encourage their children to develop healthy eating habits.
In the previous section we reviewed the basic nutritional requirements of a healthy diet so that parents can provide youth the knowledge and information they need to make healthy food choices. However, just as some foods promote health, other foods can be detrimental to health. It is these unhealthy foods that should be limited or avoided. In general, teens should try to limit the amount of "junk" foods they eat. Foods that are deep-fried in unhealthy oils, covered in salt, infused with sugar, dripping in fat, and hyped with caffeine should be avoided as much as possible. This includes many popular favorites such as french fries, potato chips and other fried chips and snacks, cookies, snack cakes, candy, fatty red meats such as hamburgers, sodas and so-called "sports" drinks. These foods are considered "junk" because they add calories to a diet without much nutritive value.
While most people know it is important to limit "junk food" this often easier said than done. Limiting these foods is often difficult to do because many unhealthy foods are often the most convenient and frequently less expensive that their healthier counterparts. In general, the healthiest foods are the ones that are fresh and need to be washed, cut, cooked, and prepared, while some of the unhealthiest foods come in convenient, ready-to-eat bags, boxes, bottles, or pouches. At a time when families seem to be busier than ever, these convenience foods are hard to resist. Fortunately, not all "convenience foods" are unhealthy. Today's groceries stores now carry pre-washed, pre-cut, vegetables, and pre-peeled, cored, and sliced fresh fruits, individually-sized bags of nuts, and even an array of some frozen, but healthy meals and snacks.
Although it is important for parents to educate their youth about diet and nutrition, it is easier for youth to turn this knowledge into action when they are surrounded by quick and convenient healthy food choices in their home environment. There is a great deal of research that supports these assertions (Hearn, Baranowski, Baranowski, et al. 1998; O'Dea, 2003; Neumark-Sztainer, Wall, Perry, & Story, 2003).
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Many times, unhealthy food choices are made simply because these foods are available, quick, and convenient. It is much easier to rip open a bag of chips and chug down a soda when hungry, than it is to cut up vegetables and prepare a healthy dip. For this reason, parents can influence their teens' food choices by making healthy foods convenient and readily available in their home. Quick and convenient healthy snacks should be easy to see and easy to eat. While the crisper drawers in a refrigerator may keep produce fresher for a longer period of time, they also hide these fresh, healthy foods from plain view, and teens are more likely to pick food items they easily see. For example, pre-cut, pre-washed raw veggies and healthy dip should sit in the front of the refrigerator on the middle shelves. Fresh fruits can be similarly prepared. Oranges can be pre-peeled and visible by storing them individual plastic bags, apples can be cored, sliced and stored in baggies as well. Eggs can be hard boiled and pre-peeled. Individually portioned, low-fat, sugar-free yogurt and cottage cheese are another example of healthy foods that provide quick and convenient, nutrient-rich food choices. There are even simple healthy cookie recipes that are high in flavor, fiber, protein without a lot of added sugar and saturated fats (for instance, peanut butter oatmeal cookies). These simple steps ensure these nutrient-rich goodies will be ready to eat whenever teen hunger strikes, and without a lot of mess or fuss. Likewise, junk foods should not be stored in plain view, such as on top of the refrigerator or on a basket on the counter. As a general guideline it is best if families do not buy or store a lot of junk food in the house. As anyone who has ever been on any diet will attest, it is a great deal simpler to avoid having to choose between unhealthy and healthy food by not having it available in the first place! Parents can find naturally occurring opportunities to educate their children about the importance of a healthy diet and to help their youth to practice making healthy food choices. This is particularly important for adolescents because the majority of their meals are often eaten outside their home. A teen who has had practice making healthy food choices at home is more likely to make wise choices when she is standing in front of the menu board at McDonald's® with her friends, or choosing foods from cafeteria line at school.
One such opportunity is the weekly grocery shopping trip. Parents can invite their youth to join them on these trips to the grocery store and encourage their teens' participation in the family's menu-planning, shopping, and food selection. For instance, while shopping and deciding between two similar products on the shelf, parents can encourage youth to use nutritional labels, and to read the ingredients list to aid in the decision. Or when youth suggest adding an unhealthy item to the cart, parents can ask they review the nutritional information to determine if there might be a healthier equivalent. For example, suppose a youth tosses a frozen pizza into the cart, with double pepperoni and sausage on a double thick crust. Such a selection would be very high in saturated fats, and contain large amounts of poor quality, refined carbohydrates. A parent in this situation might gently suggest their teen consider a healthier alternative by asking their youth to compare their selection to a healthier version such as thin crust pizza topped with seasoned chicken and vegetables.
Another opportunity for nutritional education and decision-making practice arises during meal preparation. Parents can discuss nutritional food selection and healthy food preparation techniques as it relates to their children's nutritional requirements by including their teens in decisions about the family's dinner menu. For instance, a parent may ask their teen what vegetables they'd like to serve with dinner while discussing how many vegetables each person should eat per day. Or teens may enjoy looking through a healthy cookbook or magazine (available at libraries and on the internet) and choosing some recipes they'd like to try. These activities also have a very practical application because they prepare youth for the eventual day when they live independently by teaching them healthy meal preparation, and menu planning.
It is important to schedule and prioritize regular family meals. Because today's families are very busy with hectic schedules, it can be difficult for them to sit down together to eat a home-cooked meal. These meals at home ensure at least some portion of the youth's diet includes a wide variety of lean meats or other healthy proteins, whole grains, and fresh produce. As well, spending time together as a family encourages family communication, shared interests, and fosters a sense of inclusion, importance, and love among family members.
As is evident from these examples, in order to assist youth to adopt healthy eating habits, parents themselves must become knowledgeable about nutrition, have available a plentiful array of healthy convenient foods, familiarize themselves with healthy food preparation techniques, and otherwise model healthy eating habits. If teens observe their parents eating donuts and coffee every day for breakfast while heralding the importance of eating oatmeal and drinking milk, the healthy eating message may fall on deaf ears. Teens learn best by example and so they should readily observe their parents and other influential family members regularly preparing and consuming healthy foods.
In summary, there are four key methods parents can use to assist their youth to develop healthy eating habits: 1) Provide nutritional information, 2) provide opportunities to practice making healthy choices,3) model healthy eating habits, and 4) ensure the availability of quick, convenient, nutrient-rich snacks. These actions will help teens establish life-long, healthy, nutritional habits. However, many teens can still find themselves experiencing significant nutritional problems in adolescence, such as obesity, unhealthy dieting practices, and poor diabetes management. These problems can have short-term and life-long consequences for adolescents and are discussed in the following section.