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Nourishing Your Growing Teenager

Ask the average adolescent to describe her perfect meal, and she’s liable to say, “A double cheeseburger with large fries,” or maybe, “Pepperoni pizza—as many slices as I can fit on my plate.”

For a teenager with a weight problem, however, those may not be the optimal choices, as popular as they may be. No matter how your own teenager would describe her ideal meal, there’s no doubt that nutrition is crucial at this time of life. She’s going through puberty and growing rapidly and, particularly if she’s heavy, she needs to become conscientious about eating a healthy diet.

  • Teenagers need to eat foods from all the major food groups and rely more often on lower fat choices. That means grilled chicken sandwiches more often than a cheeseburger and consuming meals with vegetables and fruits as well as pasta, rice, and a variety of other foods.
  • Serving sizes for teenagers should be about the same as they are for adults. Rather than putting serving dishes on the dining room table and letting family members help themselves, prepare everyone’s plate away from the table to keep from tempting your overweight adolescent to help herself to seconds—and thirds.

As you use this information as a guide, there are some obstacles that your teenager may face when trying to eat in ways that support effective weight management. Following are some examples.

Skipping Meals

Adolescents are renowned for skipping meals— most often, breakfast and/or lunch—and this can throw their entire nutritional programs off-kilter. According to a recent poll, about one half of all boys and girls aged 9 to 15 years said that they didn’t eat breakfast on school mornings. Your teenager may tell you that she prefers to sleep a little later, even if it means leaving for school on an empty stomach.

Even if your adolescent believes that those extra minutes of sleep are just too precious to sacrifice, there are ways to still keep her well nourished. Why not spend a few minutes in the evening preparing a breakfast-to-go for the following day? Perhaps you can slice a bagel that can be quickly toasted in the morning (use peanut butter rather than cream cheese as a spread). Hard-boil an egg that can be eaten in the car. Put some nuts and raisins in a plastic bag for her to nibble on. Let her feast on a container of yogurt or an apple. All of these choices may be enough to tide her over until she’s able to sit down for a well-balanced meal later in the day.


For the average teenager, snacking seems to be a way of life. In fact, one third of the caloric intake of adolescents comes from snacks. Yet too often, their preference of snack foods is a little suspect. Given the choice, many teenagers would rather grab a handful of potato chips than grapes.

Keep in mind, however, that when it’s time for a snack (which, for many adolescents, is most of the time), they’ll reach for what’s available. For that reason, make an effort to keep your refrigerator and pantry stocked with healthy snacks. That means choosing foods like low-fat cheeses, nonfat frozen yogurt, applesauce, air-popped popcorn, and baked potato chips.

Eating Away From Home

Because teenagers eat many of their meals outside the home, adult caregivers aren’t there to keep an eye on what they’re putting on their plates. Not surprisingly, some of their choices fall short of what they should be.

At school, some adolescents will settle for a stop at the vending machine at lunch and consume a bag of cookies and a soft drink before their next classes. If they’re eating at a fast-food restaurant or a pizza shop with friends, they may decide that fitting in with their peers is more important than making healthy food selections.

When your teenager is away from home, you can’t reasonably ask her to avoid fast-food restaurants, particularly when that’s where her friends go on Saturday night. But you can ask her something like, “Can you think of anything you could order besides a large hamburger, large fries, and a shake?” Remind her that it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition, and if she’s open to suggestions, perhaps you can guide her toward making healthier decisions (“How about choosing a smaller burger or a chicken sandwich, plus a salad with low-fat dressing?”) If she’s going out for pizza with friends, remind her that while she can certainly have a slice of pizza, why not balance it with a salad? She might also develop a taste for thin crust vegetarian pizza instead of thick-crust pepperoni pizza with double cheese.

Remember, this is a learning process, and you can’t expect your teenager to always make healthy choices. Over time, she’ll get better at it. Also remind her that when she’s out with friends, she doesn’t have to eat the entire time. Often, just hanging out with her buddies is enough. For example, ask your adolescent, “Can you suggest something else to do with your friends besides going to a restaurant? Maybe you could go bowling or to the batting cages?” On the other hand, she might tell you, “I’m going to feel funny if I don’t eat something when all my friends are ordering food.” She may be right, but she can still be more selective in the food she buys and puts on her plate.

The Lure of Fad Diets

Sometimes, it seems as though teenaged girls talk as much about diets as about boys. Particularly if they’re preoccupied with their weight (and what adolescent girl isn’t?), they can probably hardly wait to share the newest quick-fix eating plan they’ve found, latching onto one crazy diet or another with little attention paid to how poor its nutritional value might be. One month, they might be trying a low-carbohydrate diet, then a high-carbohydrate diet the next. Or they’ll become hooked on a grapefruit diet one week and a fruit-free diet the following week. They probably won’t stay on any of them for very long, but as they hopscotch from one to another, good nutrition may fall by the wayside. These diets are usually too restrictive and too unhealthy. With weight loss in mind, they won’t work over the long run, either.

Endless Hunger Pangs

Does it seem like your teenager is always hungry? Since she entered and began moving through puberty, have you noticed that the refrigerator and kitchen cupboard doors are getting a real workout, hour after hour, day after day? Does it seem like shortly after a trip to the supermarket, it’s time to go back because the cupboards are becoming bare again?

As part of adolescence, your child’s appetite may be soaring off the charts as her need for calories escalates to support normal growth spurts. Nevertheless, despite her constant craving for food, you and your youngster don’t have to give up the battle against her weight problem.

Here’s a basic principle to keep in mind—as long as you’re providing your adolescent with well-balanced nutrition and high quality foods, and she’s eating 3 reasonably sized meals per day plus 2 snacks, her weight should be just fine. If she’s still telling you with regularity that she’s absolutely famished, and if it’s also a time when she’s growing, feed her, but make sure you’re giving her nutritious food, not a couple of candy bars. When you stick to healthy foods from the major food groups, her weight will take care of itself.

Last Updated
A Parent's Guide to Childhood Obesity: A Road Map to Health (Copyright © 2006 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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