If you think it’s challenging to argue with a four year old about what they should eat, wait til that kid is sixteen.
Teens need strong nutrition as much if not more than four year olds. Entering puberty, kids are entering an explosive growth spurt second only to what is experienced in utero. Not only are pre-teens and teens hitting the steepest part of the growth curve (just look at a growth chart), they are building out organs, tissues, brain capacity, and muscle mass that will carry reproductive, physical, and cognitive capacities for them as adults. You’ve got the vagaries of hormone changes and growing so fast that it can literally hurt, at the same age that kids yearn for independence and lack foresight. One of the easiest ways to express that is through food.
Like never before, teens with some independence have unprecedented access to the emptiest foods. Processed fast food full of high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated or trans fats, simple starches, additives, colorings, and genetically modified dairy, meats, and grains are in everything they may grab. Think pizza dough, tomato sauce, burgers, fries, soda, frappucino’s… or not eating at all as they rush out the door.
Strike a happy medium. Don’t make food a battleground. Your teenager may have all the ferocity s/he did as a toddler for being stubborn and oppositional, but with the mobility and freedom of a young adult. Here’s how to make it work a little better:
1 – Cook real food meals at least twice a week, or as often as you can. Eat together. Make your son or daughter’s favorite meal. Make this a comfort zone. Don’t tackle heavy topics or bicker over homework. Your teen will come back to it, time and again. Though they may never express it, this will build nourishment as well as a sense of safety and security. It will also support their palates for better food than they can buy out with friends.
2 – Make sure breakfast is an option, and include protein. Many kids rush out of the house without any food, once in adolescence. But even a small amount of protein in the morning can help regulate thyroid function, adrenal function, and brain readiness for school (or driving to school, if your teen is doing that). Starchy starts will not prime these pumps as well, so have protein rich snacks or easy to make foods ready for them to grab and eat, or carry:
- Have a pot of hot cereal on the stove like whole grain brown rice, pumpkin with almond flour, or gluten free oatmeal. Add flax meal, ghee, butter, or coconut manna, plus ground cashews, raisins, or macadamia nuts. Cinnamon and stevia or a dash of maple syrup or honey can be plenty of sweetener. Avoid sugary, processed instant versions of hot cereal. For faster cooking, use the blade attachment on an immersion blender to grind whole oats or brown rice cereal to finer texture before cooking. Most of us can’t do this every day, but even once a week is a helpful measure.
- Eggs take seconds to prepare. If even this is too time consuming, hard boil eggs ahead of time so your teen can pack one walking out the door.
- Toast, bagels, or English muffins work best when eaten with some protein. Spread with any tolerated nut butter, add cream cheese and lox, or spread with butter and add cheese. Gluten free versions of all of these are available. To replace cheese, use raw goat milk cheddar or chevre (often tolerated when cow’s milk cheeses are not). Proscuitto slices or spreads with salads made from ham, salmon, turkey, or chicken will fuel the brain and endocrine system better than just grains alone.
- If power smoothies are appealing, you’re in luck. Have ingredients on hand to mix a shake of choice – for your liquid base, use any tolerated milks, including whole canned unsweetened coconut milk, unsweetened almond or cashew milk, or coconut water. Add a healthy fat with ripe avocado, any tolerated nut butter (sunflower, peanut butter, cashew, almond, sesame tahini), a high quality olive oil, coconut manna or oil, or BulletProof Brain Octane (purified MCT oil from coconut). And of course, include protein! My go-to protein powders are grass fed collagen (BulletProof, Zint, or Josh Axe to name a few), ImmunoPro organic grass fed whey protein (if dairy is okay), Apex Glycemovite, Thorne Medibolic, and Systemic Formulas Metabo-Shake or Orgain powder (vegan or dairy based – but this brand does have more sugar than all the others). The goal is to give a morning protein boost that is hypoallergenic, and easy to digest and absorb, with a strong amino acid profile to fuel focus and attention chemistry in the brain. I skip soy protein altogether in my practice; it is problematic for many kids. Fats give this staying power. Fruit-and-greens-only smoothies are less supportive, so always add a fat and a protein to these blends.
- Broths live on my stove at least once a week, when we have finished a roasted chicken or have a ham bone. You can buy bones to cook delicious stocks, or even buy high quality finished broth. Simmer for a day or more (see instructions here) and ladle out a soothing hot drink in the morning that will replenish minerals, some healthy fats, and even a little protein. Drop an egg into hot broth and cook for a minute or two, for an extra boost. Delicious with chopped scallion, cilantro, and a few fresh spinach leaves too. This is a fast food way to get strong minerals, protein and fats.
- There’s always leftovers. If last night’s dinner still sounds good, reheat and eat. No rules about what to eat when, as long as it nourishes and supports.
3 – Support sleep pattern with real food. In adolescence, sleep patterns shift (in case you haven’t noticed!), often in direct conflict with school schedules. “Sleep is food for the brain” – and your teenager’s brain needs food for sleep. You may not be able to get your teen to sleep before 10:30 PM, but you can have light snacks available in your home in the evening. This can support a good night’s sleep rather than fitful sleep, and can ease the brain toward better melatonin production.
- Avoid sugary treats near bedtime like processed breakfast cereal with low fat milk. These will spike blood sugar and disrupt cortisol rhythms during the night, and can trigger wakefulness.
- Hot cocoa may work fine if sweetened with stevia (not sugar), and if a rich milk blend is used instead of low fat milks. Try this recipe, and add a scoop of whey protein or collagen. If not, add a snack of raw almonds, cashews, or even pepperoni slices. Cocoa does have some caffeine!
- Build a sandwich with protein (nut butters, meats, hummus, pesto spread), or have a second (third?) helping of dinner, as long as it offers some protein and is more than just a bowl of noodles. Stir in some meat, egg, quinoa, or frozen peas.
Many supplements can support sleep, but if blood sugar is on a roller coaster during the night either from too little food or too much starchy-sugary food, the only answer may be to change what is eaten during the day and in the evening. Another sleep disruptor is food opiates. Yes, you can make opiates from food! These have many negative effects, from mood disorders to aphasia, insomnia, and constipation. A simple urine test can screen for this problem, and simple diet changes can solve it. See my e book on Milk Addicted Kids for more info.
Food has as big an impact on functioning, learning, sleep, mood and behavior in adolescence as it does for babies and toddlers. Engage interest by appealing to whatever is high on your teenager’s list. From clearing acne, to playing a better soccer game, to getting better grades, to improving anxiety, depression, or fatigue, nutrition can be dramatically supportive. As always, I’m here to help. Contact me to set up a plan for your budding young adult today.
I love this topic as I have a teen and preteen with 3 oter children to follow. I was wondering though if you make suggestions for children with food allergies and intolerances? A lot of the suggestions contain tree nuts or legumes which do not work with my children. One is also vegetarian. I am always looking for helpful ideas for them. They are extremely picky.
Hi Jodie, first I apologize for taking TWO YEARS to reply! LOL! I am sorry I missed your comment. My suggestion would be to do lab work to identify exactly what foods you really need to avoid/prioritize. I do find that it’s nearly impossible when families have to cook different foods for different kids, and I advise against it. Usually there are ways to find meals that work for all.