How To Improve Your Teen's Nutrition

Before heading out to the grocery store, do your adolescents ask you to buy them “good snacks?” Not the healthy ones…the “good” ones. You’re not alone--- 40% of an adolescent’s daily calories come from “empty calories” eaten from added sugars and solid fats. Approximately half of these empty calories come from six sources: soda, fruit drinks, dairy desserts, grain desserts, pizza, and whole milk.

Here are some strategies for upping your teen’s nutrition game.

Don’t Force the Issue

Pestering your teen about what they should or shouldn’t eat will only make the situation worse. You don’t want it to become a power struggle, or it might backfire.

Explore Different Options

Take some time to explore a wide variety of nutritious foods you may not normally purchase, until you find some your teen actually likes. Also, take their suggestions, when possible, regarding foods to prepare at home, and consider experiment with foods outside your own culture.

If there are foods you don’t want your teens to eat, avoid bringing them into the home. Rather than candy, cookies, chips, French fries, onion rings, and sugar-sweetened beverages, keep your house stocked with nutritious foods. Oftentimes, teenagers will eat whatever is convenient.

Timing is Critical

Make sure teens have access to food frequently enough throughout the day. I recommend eating at least every 3-4 hours, and definitely don’t go more than 5 hours without food.

If your teen becomes too hungry, they’re more likely to eat anything and everything, resulting in large portion sizes. Eating large quantities of food at once leaves your teen feeling sluggish and low in energy.

Being overly hungry also increases cravings for high-sugar, high-fat types of foods. The sugar cravings are due to a drop in blood sugar levels from waiting too long to eat. The fat cravings happen because the body thinks it’s “starving,” and fat is high in calories.  

Don’t Skip Meals

Missing meals often leads to overeating at later meals because it messes up meal timing, as mentioned above. Having food available and eating regularly through the day will help control portion sizes, and keep your teen’s energy levels more stable.


--Pack healthy snacks in your teen’s backpack.

--Keep nutrition bars in your teen’s car.

--Keep the pantry stocked with high calorie, nutritious snacks at home.

Sleep Matters!

A sleep-deprived brain may be fueling a junk food habit. Skimping on Zzz’s is a fast way to increase hunger levels and hinder our ability to make smart choices about food. Sleep deprivation actually messes with the body’s hunger and fullness hormones—leptin and ghrelin, respectively, so a person feels hungrier.

On the flipside, people who sleep more tend to eat less and have fewer cravings than those who log less time in bed. In research, participants who slept an additional 1.6 hours had a 14% decrease in overall appetite, and a 62% decrease in desire for sweet and salty foods! What a difference! The researchers attribute it all to brain chemistry because sleep deprivation actually alters your brain and you end up craving higher-calorie foods.

As a parent, what can you do to promote better sleep for your teen?

Drink Water

As a parent, try to avoid buying and keeping high-sugar drinks in the house. Fruit juice can have a lot of calories, so limit your adolescent's intake. On the other hand, whole fruit is always a better choice so keep those readily available for your teen. Your teen may also like adding fruit, veggies, or herbs to their water to change up the flavor, such as lemon, lime, cucumber, orange, mint, etc. Limit soda, sports drinks, flavored milks, and specialty coffees. 

Small changes in eating habits can help your teen feel good, look your best, and have lots of energy. It’s not about being perfect, or changing every habit right away. Small changes make a big difference.

In Health and Happiness,

Kelly Harrington, MS, RDN

Registered Dietitian Nutritionist for Healthy Goods



The Insomnia Blog. The Sleep Doctor. Short on sleep, junk food looks even more tempting. 7/3/12.  

Taheri S, Lin L, Austin D, Young T, Mignot E (2004) Short Sleep Duration Is Associated with Reduced Leptin, Elevated Ghrelin, and Increased Body Mass Index. PLoS Med 1(3): e62. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0010062

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