Healthy eating for teens

Here are some helpful tips on how to meet the needs of a teen’s growing body.

Key points

  • Teens need extra nutrients to support bone growth, organ and tissue development, including the brain.
  • Teens should eat breakfast, drink water and limit highly processed food, sugary drinks and eating out.
  • Healthy eating habits and physical activity can help lower the risk of obesity.

The teen years are a time of rapid growth. They need extra nutrients to support bone growth, hormonal changes, and organ and tissue development, including the brain. The two main nutrients of concern for teenagers are calcium and iron.​

Calcium

Calcium is important for bone growth. If teens optimize their bone health, they have a decreased risk of fractures and of developing osteoporosis during adulthood. Females are particularly at risk if they do not meet their calcium requirements. Females aged 13 to 17 have a daily recommended intake (DRI) of 1300 mg/day. Males of the same age meet their requirements at about 1400 mg/day. Most teens do not meet these daily requirements.

The following chart lists various dairy and non-dairy sources of calcium:

Food itemServing sizeAmount of calcium (mg)
Almonds¼ cup (50 ml)75
Bok choy, cooked½ cup (125 ml)85
Broccoli, cooked½ cup (125 ml)50
Figs6 dried150
Yogurt, fruit bottom¾ cup (175 g)215 to 280
Yogurt, plain¾ cup (175 g)265 to 320
Cheese50g355 to 435
Milk1 cup (250 ml)300 to 320
Orange juice fortified with calcium½ cup (125 ml)150
Rice or soy beverage, fortified1 cup (250 ml)300
Soybeans, cooked½ cup (125 ml)90
White beans½ cup (125 ml)100
Salmon, canned with bones3oz180
Sardines, canned with bones4180

Iron

Iron is another important nutrient for teenagers. Teens need iron as they gain lean body mass. Females also need iron when they start menstruating. On average, male teens meet their iron requirements with little difficulty. However, females aged 13 to 17 barely meet their requirements of 15 mg per day.

Females should try to increase their iron intake with some of the following suggestions:

Food itemServing sizeAmount of iron (mg)
Soybeans, cooked½ cup (125 ml)4.4
Tofu, firm½ cup (125 g)6.6
Baked beans, cooked½ cup (125 ml)1.7
Chickpeas or kidney beans½ cup (125 ml)2.4 to 2.6
Lentils½ cup (125 ml)3.3
Lima/navy/pinto beans½ cup (125 ml)2.2
Almonds¼ cup (60 ml)1.5
Cashews¼ cup (60 ml)2.1
Cereal, fortified28 g2.1 to 18
Egg, hard-boiled1 large (50 g)0.59
Chicken breast, broiled100 g1.07
Beef, top sirloin, broiled100 g1.73
Apricots, dried¼ cup (60 ml)1.5
Dried figs or raisins¼ cup (60 ml)1.1
Bok choy½ cup (125 ml)0.9
Broccoli or kale½ cup (125 ml)0.6 to 0.7
Potato, baked with skin1 medium (173 g)2.3

Food habits

Along with physical changes, teens become more independent as they grow. Dietary options are one of the first decisions teens start making on their own. However, some teens tend to make poor food choices. Overall, teens tend to fail to meet their daily recommended amounts of vegetables and fruits and whole grains. In addition, teens often have increased intake of highly processed foods and foods or drinks that are high in sugar, sodium and saturated fats (see below).

How can I help my preteen or teen make healthy snacking choices?

There are four major food habits of concern.

Skipping breakfast

Breakfast is an important meal of the day as it helps to ensure daily nutrient needs are being met. It also improves school performance and helps maintain a healthy weight. The majority of teens do not eat breakfast on a regular basis.

Increased consumption of highly processed foods

This includes foods such as soft drinks, snack foods, convenience foods and desserts. Everyone should aim to decrease their intake of these foods. However, for some teens, up to one half of their energy intake is from these other foods. This is of concern as highly processed foods are often high in fat, calories and sugar but are low in vitamins and minerals.

Increased eating outside the home

Eating outside the home has increased, and a lot of the foods consumed in restaurants are high in fat and calories, especially at fast food restaurants. There has been an increased consumption of pizza, cheese burgers, and salty snacks with teens, mostly due to eating out. Teens should aim to eat more food prepared within the home, especially snacks.

Increased consumption of soft drinks 

A study looking at American youths aged 6 to 17 found soft drink consumption increased from 37 per cent in 1978 to 56 per cent in 1998. The increase in soft drink consumption could be attributed to the increase in restaurant eating.

Active teens

Active teens can get all the nutrients they need to play sports by following Canada’s Food Guide. By doing so, they do not need to take supplements. Active teens may need a little more protein than inactive teens; however, this can be accomplished through diet alone. In fact, some protein supplements offer the same amount of protein found in a serving of meat, a half cup of tofu or a cup of milk.

Water is also important for active teens. Physical activity can make a teen dehydrated. Here are some tips on staying hydrated.

  • Drink two to four cups of water one to two hours before physical activity.
  • Drink another two to four cups of water 10 to 15 minutes before physical activity.
  • Drink about a half cup of water every 15 minutes during physical activity.
  • Drink one to two cups of water after physical activity.
  • Remember to keep drinking water even if you don’t feel thirsty.
  • Sports drinks and energy drinks are not usually necessary. For casual athletes, water is all you need.

Healthy eating tips for normal and overweight teens

  • Start by following Canada’s Food Guide.
  • Increase intake of whole grains, vegetables and fruits.
  • Enjoy regular physical activity.
  • Eat three meals every day and enjoy snacks between meals.
  • Include protein-containing foods in meals and snacks.
  • Enjoy a variety of foods.
  • Choose healthy snacks such as vegetables and fruits, or baked snacks instead of fried.
  • Drink water instead of soft drinks, sugary juices or sports drinks.
  • Prepare food at home using whole grains, vegetables and fruits.
  • Limit foods high in sugar, sodium or saturated fat.
  • Eat fast food and processed foods less often.
  • Eat when you’re hungry; stop when you’re full.
  • Pay attention to portion sizes.

Healthy eating for children

One of the most important things you do is to help your children learn healthy eating habits. Children need a balanced diet with food from all 3 food groups—vegetables and fruit, whole grain products, and protein foods.

Children need 3 meals a day and 1 to 3 snacks (morning, afternoon and possibly before bed). Healthy snacks are just as important as the food you serve at meals.

The best foods are whole, fresh and unprocessed—fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, dairy, and meats; and home-cooked meals.

Sugar and sugar substitutes

  • Offer foods that don’t have added sugar or sugar substitutes. Limit refined sugars (sucrose, glucose-fructose, white sugar) honey, molasses, syrups, and brown sugar. They all have similar calorie counts and also contribute to tooth decay.
  • Sugar substitutes, such as aspartame and sucralose, do not add calories or cause tooth decay, but they are much sweeter than sugar and have no nutritional value. They may lead to a habit of only liking sweet foods and make it difficult for your child to adjust to fruits and vegetables. It’s a good idea to limit them in your child’s diet.

Juice and water

  • Offer water when your child is thirsty, especially between meals and snacks.
  • Limit juice to one serving (125 mL [4 oz]) of 100% unsweetened juice a day.
  • Serving actual fruit instead of fruit juice adds healthy fibre to your child’s diet.
  • Sometimes children will drink too much at mealtime or between meals, making them feel full.

Sodium

Sodium is a mineral that maintains proper fluids in your body. It’s also needed for nerve and muscle function. But, eating too much sodium can lead to high blood pressure, which increases the risk of heart disease. Sodium is commonly referred to as salt.

  • Offer your child healthy foods that are low in sodium as often as possible.
  • Processed and pre-packaged foods tend to have high amounts of sodium.
  • Too much sodium in childhood can lead to a preference for salty food, which is associated with obesity and/or disease later in life.
  • Use the % Daily Value (DV) on food labels to compare products. Look for foods with a sodium content of less than 15% DV.
  • Keep recommended sodium intake in mind when choosing foods for your child:
AgeAdequate intake (mg/day) 
(1 level teaspoon of table salt is 2,300 mg)
0 to 6 months110
7 to 12 months 370
1 to 3 years800
4 to 8 years1000
9 to 13 years1200
14+1500

*Data from the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine

What about fat?

Healthy fats contain essential fatty acids like omega-3 and omega-6 that cannot be made in the body and must come from food. Cook with vegetable oils such as canola, olive and/or soybean. Healthy fats are also found in salad dressings, non-hydrogenated margarines, nut butters (e.g. peanut butter) and mayonnaise.

Many fats that are solid at room temperature contain more trans and saturated fats that can raise your risk of heart disease. Limit butter, hard margarines, lard and shortening. Read labels and avoid trans or saturated fats found in many store-bought products, such as cookies, donuts and crackers.

Limit processed meats, such as wieners and luncheon meats, which are also high in fat, sodium (salt), and nitrates (food preservatives).

As the parent, it’s your job to:

  • Set regular meal and snack times that work for the whole family. Share mealtimes and eat with your children.
  • Offer a balance and variety of foods from all food groups at mealtimes. 
  • Offer food in ways they can manage easily. For example, cut into pieces, or mash food to prevent choking in younger children.
  • Help your children learn to use a spoon or cup so they can eat independently.
  • Include your child in age appropriate food preparation and table setting.
  • Avoid using dessert as a bribe. Serve healthy dessert choices, such as a fruit cup or yogurt.
  • Show your child how you read labels to help you choose foods when shopping.
  • Avoiding fast food restaurants shows your children the importance of enjoying mealtime as a family, while eating healthy home cooked meals.

It’s your child’s job to:

  • Choose what to eat from the foods you provide at meal and snack time (and sometimes that may mean not eating at all).
  • Eat as much or as little as they want.

What if my child is a picky eater?

Don’t stress too much if your child refuses a food product or meal. Refrain from giving them something else in between meals just so that they eat. They will eat better at the next meal.

Don’t worry too much if your child doesn’t seem to be eating enough. If their weight and size is on track, they are probably getting what they need. Just make sure to offer your child a variety of foods from all food groups to make sure they are getting the right nutrients. Your child’s doctor will monitor their growth at regular appointments and will let you know if there are any problems.

Children’s appetites change from day-to-day, or even from meal to meal. Because they have small stomachs, children need to eat small amounts often throughout the day. Children know how much food they need and will eat the amount that their body needs.