Feeding teenagers: the days of control are gone
Jill Castle , The New York Times | Updated: April 24, 2014 17:40 IST
I had better control of my teenagers and their eating years ago. When my four children were younger, I was the woman in charge. I made the meals, packed the lunches and decided what snacks would be eaten after school. I manned the schedule and scheduled the meals. I closed the kitchen and opened it. I approved and refused food. I was the food manager.
That was a time of structure and great control.
Research shows that structure helps children and teenagers eat the right amounts, be in touch with their appetite and limit eating for emotional, habitual or other external reasons. Yet, eating with structure is one of the hardest things to achieve with the teenager.
We also know that teenagers have some of the worst diets on the planet, thanks to surveys like the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey and the Healthy Eating Index. They have higher rates of nutrient gaps like calcium, vitamin D and iron (and more), while common eating habits like snacking and skipping meals undermine good nutrition. All the while, teenagers are growing at astronomical rates and planting the health patterns of the future.
My plan with my children was to be flexible with food while having a grip on what I considered some of the most important things about feeding a family -- home-cooking and regular mealtimes, menu preparation and food shopping, and eating in the same place with a relaxed attitude about eating performance. I practiced authoritative feeding, letting structure, boundaries and reasonable choice lead the way for healthy eating.And it worked -- then. Routine family meals, family-style food service and a happy atmosphere at the table served us well for many years.
But then it all began to change. My three oldest girls hit adolescence and the control I had started to vanish.
They refused to take a lunchbox to school. They ate in their room while doing homework, watching TV on their computer and texting with their friends. They went out to eat -- a lot. They bought extra cookies in the cafeteria. They drank coffee despite my discouragement. Simply put, they tested and crossed all of the household food boundaries.
I had moved from getting toddler girls to sit still for a 15-minute dinner to texting busy teens to make sure they joined us at the meal table. I traded encouraging them to try new foods for taming their newfound food freedom.
Picky eating morphed into something different, too. Forget the episodes of "I won't eat that because I don't like it" picky eating, I was dealing with "that's too plain and I want something more involved," or, "I don't feel like eating that now" food fussiness.
True, my teenagers were becoming more independent. They had their own schedule, their own way of doing things and peculiar (sometimes ridiculous) timing. Although I knew this was part of the normal developmental stage of this age, it didn't alleviate my frustration.
My children weren't following my lead -- I was following theirs. I didn't make the conscious decision to give up control over what my kids ate, when they ate, or how often we gathered around the family table. It just happened.
I still make that big meal most nights, especially during the school week. I still go to the grocery store and load the cart with all the family favorites. I still announce dinner and the menu of the night. And I still request that everyone be there.
I am putting my faith in those early years, where structure, family meals and nutritious food ruled our daily life. I believe that I did the food and meal thing right when my children were young. And even though my teenagers stray today, I think they will return to those wholesome, balanced meals around the family table as their point of reference in the future.
Has feeding your kids changed since they became teenagers? How do you handle it?
Jill Castle is the co-author of "Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters From High Chair to High School" and a childhood nutrition expert who speaks, consults and blogs at Just the Right Byte.
© 2014 New York Times News Service
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