A guide to surviving with teenagers at your dinner table

Teenagers…. We don’t have the pleasure of them living in our home yet but having two young kids it is (hopefully) an unavoidable inevitability! When parents are in that situation, how do we best feed these stroppy lodgers? We want to feed them organic eggs with avocado, smoked salmon and kale for breakfast… they want bacon and tomato ketchup flavoured crisps.

The answer is that as parents, there‘s lots that we can do but at the same time there is nothing that we really need to do. Confusing? Let me explain.

First of all, let’s briefly try and understand the issues. Clearly, even with the best of intentions, teenage diets are bonkers. Walk past a group of teenagers these days and you can see that what kids choose to eat outside of their homes is enough to make most adults have a heart attack, both metaphorically and physically; massive cans of caffeine, crisps, chocolate, anything from Greggs…. but it is all part of growing up. They experiment and take risks with their nutrition. They use their new found freedom from their parents to take the opportunity to eat and drink all those things we frown upon but that they enjoy. They also eat a lot due to a peak in calorie requirement. Infancy and adolescence are two peak nutritional requirement periods. So it is almost inevitable that teenagers are going to eat lots and most of their choices will be nutritionally worthless.

What does all this mean as a parent? Thankfully, whether we realise it or not, most of the hard work should have already been done, result. Control over what and how are kids eat will continue to decline as they become adults but, hopefully, we will have installed positive food habits in them as they have grown up. Most of these (and many other) life lessons will be totally disregarded by teenagers but we can be confident that as life becomes more stable these ethics will return. Phew…. but there are other things that we can do right now.

As lives become increasingly busy and kids become more independent it is easy to forget that we, as parents, are very important to our kids, even the ungrateful teenage ones. They may be verbally disrespectful…. and actually disrespectful as well…. but we must remember that we are still parents, still in control of our kitchens and we are still role models. We have to set an example through our eating ethics and habits. Don’t worry, this is not the part where we have to go and eat all the chocolate digestives in the cupboard (we would never throw them away and waste them!) and promise never to replace them. But we can have more healthy snacks than unhealthy snacks in the house and we can have a healthy eating routine in place. We kind of lose any authority we have if we try to tell kids not to eat junk with a mouth full of Monster Munch…. nothing kids dislike more than a hypocrite.

As much as teenagers might hate it, deep down inside we all love a bit of routine! Meal times are so important throughout any family’s life. Not only is it a brilliant chance to get nutrients into our kids (especially the ones that their massive cans of caffeine are not providing) but it is also a great time to be social and find out what is going on in each other’s lives. Now, don’t expect every meal to be like a Bisto advert but do try to serve good food, if it doesn’t taste good you are fighting a losing battle! If your kids are picky about what they eat, then the suggested strategy offer combinations of foods that they like and dislike. If they don’t like peas then put them in a stir fry that they do like and keep doing it. Let them eat the bits they like and leave the bits they don’t. Research shows that it may take up to 20 offerings for a child to eat a new food. Don’t give up (or let them win… depending on how you look at it)! Whatever you do, don’t hide the veg! We hide things that are bad and hiding veg sends all sorts of bad messages.

Let the kids decide what they want to eat (of the food you serve) and don’t get upset if they eat nothing, just the bits they like or if they don’t make it home for dinner at all…. but there should be an expectation that they are there!

Meal times should be relaxed with the responsibility given to our kids. That is the mantra of most nutritional experts these days. Pressure around food leads to anxiety around food…. which can lead to much worse things. We should have healthy food available at home and should not concern ourselves with what is being eaten outside of the home, let’s be honest, that is beyond our control so let’s not stress about it. We should educate our kids about nutrition, if this has not already been done at school, and let them take responsibility. The experts advise not teaching nutrition at the dinner table, no one wants to be told how nutrient rich their quinoa is whilst they are eating it, all kids are really interested in is taste and satisfaction… not lectures on dietary sources of iron. We have to remember that kids with responsibility over their food will do a much better jobs of their nutrition that if we are breathing down their necks.

Finally, don’t criticise their eating habits, it will only lead to rebellion with food….we don’t want that, let them rebel through the awful music that they listen to. Acceptance in food always has much better results that a battle!

So that is it. Trust in the ground work you have already laid, give the kids control over what they eat whilst providing good food options in a positive food environment and don’t stress out about it all. Simple, huh.

P.s. We must prepare ourselves for a couple of things. This is going to be expensive. I have yet to experience it myself but I have been reliably informed that in general, boys eat volume, big volume…. empty half the fridge within an hour or two of the weekly shop being done kind of volume. Girls? They eat less… but they tend to eat the expensive stuff.

Also, no matter how much food you provide, how good it is and how much variety is on offer they will always complain! Always.

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