Our latest guest blog comes from Sarah, who is a family mealtimes mentor.
Fostering positive mealtimes with teens
No matter how old our children are, there’s always something which, as parents, worries us. What I’m learning with my own children is that it doesn’t get harder or easier, it’s just different!
As teens they’re growing more independent in all aspects of their lives. But it can feel like we’re losing control over what they’re eating. They’re making food choices we’re not happy with and they seem to be forgetting everything we’ve taught them about how to look after their bodies through food. Oh, and what about the volume of food they’re consuming – that weekly shop now just lasting a day or two!
So, when you’ve spent all those years role modelling, encouraging positive eating behaviours, teaching them about food and enjoying family mealtimes together, how do you continue to foster positive mealtimes with your teen, as their desires to start to cut ties and learn to live their own lives evolve?
It’s not just food
It really is important to remind ourselves regularly that there is more to eating than just the food. Eating is a way of developing social skills, building connections and strengthening relationships. It’s about experiencing joy, learning balance, understanding our body and the effect food has on it. Mealtimes are a time to role model preferred behaviours, to learn about cultures and create memories.
It may feel like they’re pulling away from you but everything you’ve done throughout their childhood, and continue to do now, is setting them up for the future. It may seem like they’ve forgotten everything you’ve taught them, but they will come back to it. The building blocks are there.
When they leave home, it’ll be your home-cooked meal that they crave. When they find a partner, it will be one of the meals you taught them to cook which they prepare for a special meal. If they have a child of their own, it’ll be the mealtime skills you taught them which they remember and continue to use with their own family.
As with any stage of feeding children, we need to be consistent and we need to persevere.
Boundaries and routines
We all need routine in our lives. Try to live without it and we can find ourselves all at sea. We invest huge amounts of time when our children are little establishing and maintaining routines, so let’s continue them as they grow.
Alongside routine, boundaries are important. Boundaries allow children of any age some independence within our defined and safe limits.
Boundaries and routine often form part of our family values. They’re set around what is important to you as a family. And as our children grow, we might stretch the boundaries, but we might also maintain some family non-negotiables. Talking to your teen about your family values and your wishes will help you to maintain those boundaries, will help them understand why they are important to you and get their buy in.
One of those boundaries around mealtimes might be that you have always eaten your evening meal together as a family and want to continue to do so. Mealtimes are incredibly valuable for children and this continues into the teenage years. As we’re increasingly ships passing in the night, it’s often the only time we can come together and connect as a family. Having that one constant meal of the day when you are together as a family (or with whoever is home at the time) is really important – whether that’s your teen eating with you or just sitting with you. This might feel like quite the stretch, but perhaps you can define one day a week when everyone is around the table and maybe that is the night that your teen cooks – because knowing how to cook is a key life skill for them to learn too.
A positive relationship with food
It’s very easy to get hung up on the nutritional aspects of the food our teens are eating and forgetting about supporting them to enjoy a positive relationship with food.
At the heart of the work I do with parents of young children is the model of the Division of Responsibility in Feeding, developed by a highly renowned nutrition expert, Ellyn Satter. The model supports us to understand our responsibilities when feeding our children (when and where they eat and the food on offer) and the responsibilities of our children when it comes to eating (what and how much of that food they choose to eat).
Now, our responsibilities shift as they get older, but it is helpful to remember these basic principles which help our children respond to their hunger and fullness cues, as well as the messages their bodies are telling them about the types of foods it needs right there and then. This gives your teen the chance to really trust themselves – and given the amount of misinformation available through social media and the internet as well as the constant bombardment with diet culture messages, this trust and self-esteem it creates is incredibly important.
The general idea with teens is that our parental responsibility is to provide regular meals and snacks, in particular the main meal of the day. Their responsibility is to eat the amounts that they need and be given the autonomy to make those decisions.
Eating you out of house and home
The amount of food teens eat can be alarming for parents but eating as much, or even more than, you is completely normal. Teens are going through a phase of massive growth and development, and they need a lot of food, regularly, to maintain their energy needs.
Breakfast remains important for them to start the day well, to support their growth, learning and activity as well as reduce cravings for high fat and high sugar foods later in the day. Having something to grab and go if they don’t eat at home, such as a wrap with peanut butter and banana, a sandwich, a fruit muffin, a cereal bar or overnight oats is helpful.
Teens also need snacks and water with them when at school or out and about. We get out of the habit of catering for these needs as our children grow but a teen’s need for snacks rivals that of a toddler. Thinking of snacks as mini meals (carb + protein and/or dairy + fruit + veg) and encouraging your teen to think in this way when preparing something for themselves will mean their snacks are more sustaining and balanced.
At home we can facilitate access to snacks which are quick and easy to grab, also ensuring the more nutritious options are in sight and appealing. We can guide them down the right path but allow them the independence to make their own choices, making food available to them when they need it. Having foods you’re happy for them to eat labelled, in a specific cupboard or in an area of the fridge that they know they can dive into, can be helpful.
In terms of snack food, think about leftovers, pasta and instant noodles to which they can add cooked chicken or fish and frozen veg, bread products with a variety of filling or topping options (eggs, nut butters, houmous, avocado, marmite, cheese), breakfast cereals (lower sugar) with milk or yoghurt which they pimp up with nuts, seeds and fruit and batch cooked items such as fruit and savoury muffins, fruit and nut flapjack, energy bars and balls, trail mix or fruit loaf.
Food on the go
Having absolutely no control or knowledge of what our teens are eating when out with friends or walking home from school can be extremely concerning. Bags of sweets, doughnuts, fast food, all those foods you’ve encouraged them to eat only on occasion are suddenly featured highly in their intake.
Be reassured that having set your teen up well at home with the mostly nutritious food you offer and make available for snacks, you can worry less about the junk they’re accessing when out.
We can see it as just another phase in their development, growth and need for independence and self-learning from which they will move on.
A time to work on ourselves?
As we grow with our teens, perhaps this is a time to reflect and consider our experience of eating as we grew up and our own relationship with food as well as our thoughts about our bodies and the words we use to describe food, addressing what we’d like to hang onto or let go of, so that we are really well placed to support them to foster a positive connection with food and with the family.
Suggested experts for teen nutrition support
Performance canteen: https://www.instagram.com/performance_canteen/
Claire Moran Nutrition: https://www.instagram.com/claremoran_nutrition/
Sarah Alder of Kitchen Titbits is a family mealtimes mentor; helping parents transform mealtimes from stressful to stress-free.
Sarah specialises in working with parents on the practical aspects of family mealtimes. She will help you to support your fussy eater to develop a love of food and your child to eat a wider variety of foods, but also work with you on how the whole family can have fun at mealtimes and enjoy quality family time together whilst sharing food or cooking together.
She combines this with teaching key skills around meal planning and reducing food waste to help you feel more organised and in control in the kitchen, making best use of your time, energy and ingredients. Whilst her cookery sessions build confidence and her recipes provide inspiration, helping you answer that age old question of ‘what’s for dinner?’!
To find out more about Sarah, her courses, workshops and online courses, visit her website.
You can also follow her on social media:
And she shares her tips and advice in her free Facebook group:
Thank you so much, Sarah, for this helpful advice on fostering positive mealtimes with teens.
If you enjoyed this, you might also like our recent blog on teen-friendly ways to eat healthily.
Louise & Anna x