by Casey Keane-Miller, RD, CSSD

Casey Keane Miller, RD Lead Dietitian Lead Dietitian at The Healthy Teen Project

We all are familiar with the old adage “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day,” but what about the other meals?

Teenagers are notorious for having irregular eating schedules. They like to sleep in, yet need to be at school at the crack of dawn. (There goes breakfast!) They prefer to buy lunch at school. (A bag of chips and a soda will suffice, right?) And they are involved in so many extracurricular activities that dinner is often consumed late at night while simultaneously finishing homework.

So, that begs the question: what IS the most important meal of the day? The answer is, they’re all important.

Adolescence is a period of rapid growth and development in which nutrient needs are high. Teens need a variety of food groups at each meal in order to meet their daily nutrient needs. The USDA’s MyPlate is a good representation of what teens need at each meal, however it falls short in the fats category, as they are not represented on the plate itself. As a society, we are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of dietary fats. The human brain is nearly 60% fat1 and your teen’s brain needs dietary fat to grow and develop.

It is also important to recognize that each teen has different nutrient needs based on age, height, weight, gender, and activity level. Therefore, a “one-size-fits-all” approach doesn’t work. This leaves most parents scrambling to understand what their teens need to eat.

As a parent, you are your teen’s guide and despite what you may think, your teen is watching you and learning from you. Model good eating for your teen. Set a meal and snack schedule at home so that he or she can learn to eat at regular intervals rather than graze throughout the day. This will allow your teen to become a more conscious eater, paying more attention to what and how much he or she eats. Provide a variety of grains, proteins, fruits, vegetables, dairy, and fats at each meal. Encourage your teen to sit down at the table, ideally with the whole family present. And avoid distractions such as TV, iPhones, and iPads at the table whenever you can.

Involve your teen in the planning, shopping, and preparation of meals so that she will learn how to take care of her needs on her own. Ask your teen about meals he has at school or out with friends to learn what choices he makes when he is not with you. This can help you fill in the gaps during meals at home.

Lastly, be aware of any ways that your teen may be purposely altering his or her diet to lose or gain weight. With all of the fad diets and gimmicky diet aids out there, it’s easy for teens to buy into possibly detrimental food behaviors. If you have any concern, seek guidance from your teen’s physician or from a registered dietitian.

And remember, mealtime is a perfect opportunity to get to know your teen. Keeping the conversation open and inclusive will encourage your teen to be a participating member of the family meal.

1 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20329590