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Food. Glorious Food.

Teens eat. A lot.  I have two active kids with raging metabolisms and a huge grocery bill to show for it. I know what they look and act like when they don’t eat nutritious food on a regular basis.  Like toddlers, they need to eat often – every two to three hours in my house.

These days,  they don’t whine or cry or toss things on the floor when they are hungry.  They get sullen, cranky or behave like a ravenous monkey let loose in the market.  If you look closely and (without judging or taking it personally),  it’s so obvious when the need nutrient-rich, tasty food.  You can lead a horse/teen,  to water/food  but you can’t make him drink/eat.

I’ve met several food coaches, nutritionists, foodies, therapists and moms who simply claim sweeping the pantry and frig can solve those problems. Maybe for them, but that did not work in my house. That quiet heckler on my shoulder blamed myself for the lack of compliance when I purged all junk. First came the moans. Then the sighs and complaints. Then the self-transport to Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks.  (Some serious economics lessons there if one feels he has $5 for a smoothie, right?).  Worse, were the grumpies and lethargy when they went on a hunger strike.

I was not up for the power struggle.  I fueled myself with juices, which provided a secondary benefit of my juicer raging at 6 a.m, and kept plotting.  As I shooed the heckler, I figured I had to be more elastic and buoyant in my approach.  My friend and nutritionist Lisa Consiglio Ryan talks about the 80% rule – eat healthy 80% of the time and don’t worry so much the other 20%.  At first, I was hoping for a 50/50 split.  It’s a process, not a quick fix. And we slip, but we persist.   Just as with other aspects of parenting, it was time to play coach – to provide the training, to model, and to convince them healthy eating is not only a good idea, but it’s their idea.  Slowly, the “junk” reappeared in smaller quantities or a slightly better nutritional rendition. And the conversations began.

When they’re little, you can offer them good food and eventually, they’ll eat it  or perhaps like Peter Hatcher in Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing,  dump a bowl of cereal on someone’s head.  The goal is to build understanding and intrinsic motivation, not to black list Oreos, milkshakes, and  fries  (but some might eventually see granola, smoothies and sweet potato fries are good, too!).

By the teenage years, kids are bombarded with marketing and sales of fast food.  You’ve got to counter that jabber.  Here are 4 strategies:

  1. Ask and Listen:  Asking why they like certain foods and how they feel after turns to decision-making back to them.  Ditto on when they are run down.  They may not like the conversation or even mock you, but persist with humor, levity and then get to the real questions and answers.
  2. Go Under Cover:  Find  nutrient rich moles to  sneak into foods  – not the rodent, stuff like ground chia seeds or flax, chopped spinach or kale.  Sure, this strategy was eventually discovered at my house, but after they had eaten stuff and liked it, I reminded them it was a win/win (they liked, I felt better about healthier foods in them). See what you can find to slip in to their favorites.  Try shredded veggies in chili, sauces, tacos, chia or flax seeds in cookies, oatmeal, smoothies, omelets?
  3. Serve Them:  As an olive branch, I started making big breakfasts (yes, plural) so that everyone leaves with a full belly.  Sure, it took me years to do this as had delegated breakfast my kids years ago, so I’m a bit late to the table.  After getting into the “solid” breakfast routine, they’ll do it themselves as the need arises.  I packed, prepped or “noticed” plenty of easy to grab snacks to tote to school and activities.  Have the stuff handy and accessible and I believe they’ll eat.  And  plan for that special treats, too!
  4. Teach:  A bit of simple logic and science helps.  Just as with other cause-and-effect relationships, if we talk to our tweens/teens about what they eat and how they feel, they’ll slowly start to see the benefits of eating regularly and with health in mind.  Our bodies simmer down at night, hormone levels are low and they’ll need protein to fuel them back up for the day. Carbs and sugars don’t do that. With a basic understanding of science, explain why they need protein in the morning and mid-afternoon, is progress. Offer choices, require a decision on their part about which choice.

Help them make good choices and discuss the cause and effect relationship between intake and output. It’s not a power struggle but lessons about healthy choices and self-care. Be a role model and be a patient guide.  Keep cooking, keep offering, keep ‘em filled up.

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