As your child turns into a teenager, they gain independence and you lose control — which can be scary to experience. One of the many aspects of daily life they want more say over is their food. Since you can’t control them anymore, encouraging healthy eating can be tough. How do you navigate it?

For tips on handling this difficult conversation with your teen and on your own, we spoke to Anna Lutz, MPH, RD, LDN, CEDRD-S at Lutz, Alexander and Associates Nutrition Therapy. She specializes in eating disorders and pediatric/family nutrition, and also runs a blog, Instagram, and podcast called Sunny Side Up Nutrition.

What healthy eating looks like for a teen

It’s important to have a clear picture of what “healthy eating” looks like for a growing teen. According to Lutz, healthy eating is more than just eating fruits and veggies — it combines eating enough, eating a diversity of foods, and having the right mindset.

“Healthy eating looks differently for all people, including teens. First and foremost, when we think about food and health, eating enough is the most important thing. After adequacy, we think about balance and variety,” Lutz said. “However, healthy eating isn’t just about what we eat; it’s also about how we eat and how we think about food. If a teen is focusing on food too much, this can affect their overall well-being.”

Tips for talking to teens about a healthy diet

Your conversation with your teen about healthy eating can entail more than just talking. Your actions around food as the parent can also play a significant role in how your teen eats.

Be a good role model

“First, I would say that modeling taking care of yourself and eating well is the best way to teach children and teens about healthy eating. We all learn better from watching or experiencing than just being told what to do,” Lutz said.

Define healthy

Second, Lutz suggests talking about what “healthy” means for you and your teen. “If a teen has questions about healthy eating, I would listen and ask clarifying questions about what they are asking. 

The word ‘healthy’ can mean different things to different people. It’s important to remember that teens are still developing and growing, and eating adequately and not dieting are the very healthiest things they can do as far as their food goes,” she said.

Tips for handling the lack of control over what your teen eats

When facing the fact your teen may eat differently than you want them to, Lutz invites parents to work on accepting that. “I encourage parents to think about food and teens just like other areas teens are gaining independence in as they grow up. You don’t want to take down all the support all at once, but you want them to have opportunities to make choices on their own,” she said.

To do this, Lutz suggests encouraging healthy eating through questions and modeling. “You may ask your teen questions about how they are going to fuel themselves when they are outside of the house for several hours.”

You might keep house rules in place, like ‘don’t eat in front of a screen’ or ‘you need to eat at the table’ and continue to have regular family meals, Lutz recommended.

Ultimately, remember your teen will learn more about what feels right for themselves and their body as they grow.

 “As parents, remember you need to allow your child to ‘mess up’ when it comes to food — sometimes eating ‘too much’ or ‘too little.’ We all learn best from real life experiences,” Lutz said. Dietitian Ellyn Satter backed this up when talking about what “normal eating” looks like.

Beware of diets 

“Dieting is a significant risk factor of eating disorders. So, when parents are thinking about ‘healthy eating,’ consider if it’s through the lens of dieting,” Lutz said. 

“Also, so often we conflate weight with healthy eating. We need to separate out the two and focus on what are healthy eating behaviors. Consider behaviors like taking the time to stop and eat, fueling up every few hours, eating a variety of foods, listening to hunger and fullness, and enjoying food with family and friends. Weight is not a behavior and needs to be taken out of the discussion,” she said.Remember that teens are growing and need food to fuel them. By focusing on that and neglecting any diet culture talk, parents can provide a safe and healthy space for their teens to grow and feel good.

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About Ashley Broadwater

Ashley Broadwater is a freelance writer and graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media. She's been published in POPSUGAR, Medium, and more. You'll find her writing about body positivity, relationships, mental health, and entertainment regularly.

View all posts by Ashley Broadwater