Teach Your Teen To Make Good Food Choices

Young group of friends hanging out in the cityAs a high school track and cross-country coach, I interact with 50-60 teenagers almost every day. The food I catch these teens eating is usually an energy bar specially formulated for athletes, and most of the time they’re drinking water.

When we went to our running camp last summer in preparation for cross-country season, however, I was horrified by the pile of “snacks” they brought, about 95% candy. The “refreshments” they brought were several 2-liter bottles of high fructose corn syrup-laced sodas. Seeing this nutritional nightmare prompted me to present a session on healthy eating to add to our other programs.

As parents, we need to understand some nutrition basics, and the US Department of Agriculture does an excellent job of breaking that down for us. It turns out that basic nutritional recommendations (i.e., for the macronutrients carbohydrates, fats, and proteins) for people aged 4-18 are almost identical to those for people 19 and older. These are 45-65% carbohydrates, 25-35% fats, and 10-30% proteins. It may be surprising to see such a high percentage of “carbs,” unless you know that fruits and vegetables fit into that category. Check out the details at

But what can we, as parents, do to get our children to eat a healthier diet? For teens as well as younger children, I have found that there are a few simple concepts that seem to “work.” By “work,” I mean that they understand and accept the concepts, which is a huge first step.

If there’s one thing to emphasize in food for young people, it’s this: the more the merrier when it comes to fruits and vegetables. An afternoon snack can just as easily be a juicy, ripe pear or a big crunchy apple as a couple of cookies. Packing a handful of baby carrots and snap peas in their lunches is another way to add a serving or two of vegetables.

Breakfast is an easy meal to add some fruit by drinking a glass of fruit juice (NOT fruit-flavored juice with added sugar) and including, say, a banana and some berries. Dinner? Always include a couple of servings of vegetables – try serving both a salad and some cooked vegetables.

Nutrition labels are intended to be understood by anyone, so make the effort to read some with your teen. One thing to look for is sugar, especially if it’s in the form of high fructose corn syrup. If any kind of sugar is in the first 3 or 4 ingredients (which are presented in descending order of quantity), it’s best to put it back on the shelf.

Also, look for unrecognizable chemicals, especially within the first few ingredients. I recently showed one of my teen runners the difference between the bag of flavored chips he was eating (with monosodium glutamate as the second ingredient!) and another brand that had ingredients that were completely natural. The third important thing to check in a label is the fats to make sure the food is not loaded with saturated or trans fats.

Finally, it’s often perceived as too difficult to completely cut some type of food or drink completely, so it’s usually best to change in gradual steps. I tell my teens that fast food is really not good for you, but if you only eat it a couple times a month instead of a couple times a week, then you’re moving in the right direction. As parents, if we make the effort to provide healthier food most of the time, our kids will ultimately conclude that they prefer that healthier stuff anyway.

Written by: Marty Beene, Owner of Be The Runner


About the Author

Marty Beene, Owner of Be The Runner, holds certifications from USA Track & Field (Level 2 Endurance Coach) and from the National Academy of Sports Medicine (Personal Trainer, Fitness Nutrition and Senior Fitness Specialist). He coaches adult runners of all abilities individually and in groups, and is an Assistant Coach for track and cross-country at Alameda High in Alameda, CA.

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