Busy teenagers are always on the go, and it's hard to monitor their dietary habits when they are at school or hanging out with friends. Knowing what food groups are healthy can help you make better decisions when planning menus for your teenager. Though a food pyramid used to be the standard for diet recommendations, the U.S. Department of Agriculture now uses a food plate with fruits, vegetables, grains, proteins and dairy in colored sections that make it easier for everyone to understand and follow.
Fruits are an important part of a teenager's diet because they provide essential nutrients such as calcium, vitamin A, vitamin C and fiber. If the thought of fresh fruit makes your teenager queasy, serve 100-percent fruit juice, canned fruit, dried fruit and frozen fruit, which all qualify as fruit. Teenage girls need about 1.5 cups of fruit and teenage boys need about 2 cups of fruit per day. If your teen plays sports or is physically active, you can increase the servings by a half cup because your child is burning more calories. Serving sizes vary, but in general, one whole or sliced fruit is equal to one serving. Mix fruit into a smoothie or serve fruit with plain yogurt for a healthy dessert.
Most vegetables are healthy for your teenager, but dark greens such as spinach, broccoli and romaine lettuce are especially good because they contain iron and beta-carotene that boosts your child's energy and lowers the risk of diabetes. Boys need about 3 cups of vegetables per day and girls need about 2.5 cups daily. For convenience, buy pre-cut vegetables such as carrots and celery, and add a light creamy dip for an easy, delicious snack for your teenager. If your teenager doesn't like to eat fresh vegetables, add the vegetables to a pasta sauce, or chop red peppers and mushrooms into a meatloaf mix.
Grains are beneficial because their high fiber content makes you feel full quicker, which helps to regulate weight gain in teenagers, but all grains aren't created equal. Whole grains, such as oatmeal and brown rice, are excellent because they are unprocessed, whereas refined grains like white rice are processed, which removes some nutrients. Teenage girls need 6 ounces of grains per day and teenage boys need 8 ounces. Try to serve half or more daily servings from whole grains, which are healthier. One serving can be a whole-wheat bagel, a slice of whole-wheat bread, a half cup of rice, or a small flour tortilla. Popcorn is an excellent grain snack for your teenager, but limit the salt and skip the butter. For healthier grain choices, substitute brown pasta for white pasta and use whole-wheat flour to make pancakes.
The protein food group is essential for proper physical growth in teenagers, and includes meat, beans and peas, seafood, nuts, and eggs. Some proteins, such as beef, sausage and processed lunch meat, are high in fat. Limit these foods when preparing your meals to reduce the risk of high cholesterol in your teen. Serve your girl 5 ounces of protein per day and increase that amount to 6.5 ounces for boys. A small steak is about 4 ounces and a small chicken breast is approximately 3 ounces. Buy lean cuts of meat to reduce your teenager's fat intake. Choose 90-percent lean ground beef and buy chicken breast instead of thighs or drumsticks, which contain more fat. Use beans and peas as often as possible. Make hummus out of chickpeas and spread it on crackers or bread for a tasty snack for your teenager. Make a dish of rice and beans, or a bean burrito for dinner as an alternative to meat.
Dairy products include milk, cheese, yogurt and ice cream, which provide calcium, an essential nutrient for the development of healthy bones. Teenagers need 3 cups of dairy per day. Choose low-fat or fat-free milk for your teenager, which is low in calories and added sugar. Limit cheese in your child's diet and buy low-fat options such as cottage cheese, which you can top with fresh fruit for an easy, healthy snack or dessert. Limit sweetened dairy products such as chocolate milk, ice cream and frozen yogurt.