Content Map Terms

Help Your Teen Make Healthy Food Choices


mom and daughter shopping for fruits and vegetables


In adolescence, food is the fuel for growing and developing. You can help your teen develop a healthy attitude towards food during these years.

Nutrition and food basics

Because of the physical changes happening during puberty, teenagers have greater nutrient needs compared both to adults and younger children.

Food is the fuel for these physical changes.

Your teen’s level of physical activity and stage of development – rather than age – determines how much energy and protein is needed. Most young people have increases in appetite so their bodies can get the extra nutrition they need for growth spurts.

While these physical and nutritional changes are taking place, your teen might also be changing their food and eating habits. In fact, teenagers are likely to choose food for reasons not related to nutrition (for example, peer pressure or social activities).

There’s a lot you can to do to encourage your teen to make healthy food choices and develop healthy eating habits.

Key nutrients for teenagers

Your teenager will need extra calcium and iron during adolescence.

To get enough calcium, your teen needs milk or fortified milk alternatives every day. Getting enough calcium is important to help your child reach peak bone density and build strong bones for life.

Canada’s Food Guide suggests that children and teens between the ages of 9-18 need three to four servings of milk and alternatives each day.

Teens need more iron because of their expanding blood volumes and growing muscle mass. Girls also have extra iron needs because of their periods. Red meat is one of the richest sources of iron. Poultry, fish and seafood are also excellent sources.

A vegetarian diet can provide enough iron too, but vegetarians usually need to be more aware of the foods they are eating to get enough. Good vegetarian sources of iron include green leafy vegetables, legumes (for example, beans and lentils), whole grains and fortified cereals.

Help your teen make healthy food choices

Being a positive role model is one of the best ways to help your teen make healthy food choices. Here are some ideas for creating a healthy food environment:

  • The way you choose food and plan meals sends an important message to your teen. By being thoughtful about food and choosing foods that are both tasty and nutritious, your teen learns that food is something that’s both enjoyable and fuel for the body.
  • The words you use to describe food send messages too. Avoid describing food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
  • Taking a balanced approach to food is helpful. All foods, in moderation, can fit into a healthy eating plan. This might mean having a food that you enjoy that this high in sugar, fat and/or sodium every now and then, but not all the time.
  • Encourage your teen to pay attention to her body’s hunger cues. This is healthier than ‘counting calories’ or eating when you’re bored, or tired.
  • Make time to sit and enjoy healthy meals as a family. This encourages your teen to eat well and helps to keep you connected.
  • Give your child a say in healthy family eating by involving him in grocery shopping and planning and preparing meals. While at the grocery store, show your teen how to read the food labels and look for foods with less fats, sugar and sodium. You could even get your teen browsing recipe websites for you.
  • Young people tend to be motivated by the ‘here and now’ rather than long-term consequences. Encourage your teen to make healthy choices by talking about how food can help with concentration, performance and feeling good. This is likely to be more meaningful to your teen than information about longer-term health risks.
  • Fill your cupboard and fridge with nutritious snacks and meals. Your teen can take these from home when she’s going out so that she doesn’t need to buy food. Purchased food is often less healthy than what we can bring from home. Some ideas are vegetable sticks with dip, fresh or dried fruit, nuts, wholegrain crackers, cheese or yogurt.
  • Reduce the availability of sugary drinks in the house and encourage your teen to drink water instead.

Other things to think about

There are lifestyle and personal choices that may affect your teen’s eating. Here are some important points to consider.

Physical activity
Regular physical activity is great for young people’s health, wellbeing and community involvement. The amount of food your teen will need depends on her energy requirements and level of activity.

Influence of peers on young people’s food choices
Peer pressure increases between childhood and adulthood; at the same time your teen is gaining independence and making his own food choices. This is why it’s important to develop good eating habits early in life.

Vegetarian diets
Many teens try vegetarian diets. They might want to experiment with different foods or a new sense of who they are, or they might be motivated by ethical, moral or economic reasons. People new to a vegetarian diet should seek out reliable information to ensure their diet is well balanced and gives them all the nutrients they need.

Fat, sugar and sodium
Processed snack and takeout foods are often high in fat, sugar and/or sodium and don’t help teens meet their high nutrient needs. Encourage teens to focus on picking a variety of foods that are part of the four food groups instead.

Healthy Weights
Promoting healthy eating behaviours in a sensible way and increasing physical activity are the best ways to maintain a healthy weight. Excess energy intake and minimal physical activity can lead to weight gain and an unhealthy weight. If not addressed, long-term effects include increased risk of developing diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Research shows that dieting isn’t usually successful and any weight a young person loses is usually regained.

Tip: During the growth spurt, boys gain more height and lean body mass than girls. This means their nutrient needs are higher – and explains why teenage boys will raid the pantry before and after dinner and still complain about being hungry.

© Raising Children Network Limited, reproduced with permission.
Last Updated: November 30, 2014