A series of reports by USA Today in 2009 revealed that fast food was healthier in some key measures than school lunches. School cafeterias served students "spent-hen" pet-quality chicken and meats that were safety inspected with far less rigor than the inspections required by fast-food outlets. Add that to the teen tendency to grab a bag of chips, a soda or a candy bar for quick energy and daily lunch becomes a minefield of sugars, trans fats, empty calories and potentially unsafe meals. Be proactive about what your teen eats for lunch by developing tactics to encourage sound nutrition.
The tremendous growth that transforms your teen into an adult demands high amounts of daily calories -- make them valuable ones. Most kids in the United States -- even vegetarians -- get enough protein in their everyday diets. Pack critical carbohydrates for lunch. Whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables provide fiber, vitamins, minerals, energy, antioxidants and other essential nutrients. Fats are important, too, but avoid the trans fats in many commercial baked goods and snacks. Lean meats and poultry, like turkey, are best for salads and sandwiches. A creamy dip or dressing transforms simple raw veggies and sandwiches into teen-pleasing lunch dishes. Low-fat yogurt is very packable and a great source of calcium. Fructose is healthier than sucrose, so substitute fruits for desserts and sugary snacks.
Fast foods aren't all poison, and they can even be nutritious options when chosen wisely. Regard this as part of your child's education and model healthy fast-food restaurant choices when you are with him. Teach him about the delights of low-fat sub sandwiches; grilled chicken instead of deep-fat-fried meat; lean hamburgers on whole grain rolls; and healthy salad bars. Examine the sugars and additives in sodas, juices and shakes to find the best beverages. If your teen's school sells fast food in its lunch program, apply this practical wisdom to a discussion about selecting the healthiest cafeteria meals.
Cut a deal with your teen to bring homemade -- and healthy -- lunches several days each week and to eat cafeteria food only on days when favorites are served. Pack brown bag favorites and include a low-cal or special treat to encourage good eating habits. Wraps with fresh veggies and a low-fat meat or cheese are easy to wolf down and tasty when prepared with a creamy salad dressing. A couple of "mom-made" cookies are better than a bag of chips or a candy bar. School pizza on Friday might give you a heart attack, but it can buy healthier eating the other four days. Talk about good food choices and their weight and health benefits with your teen to inspire a junk-food-free diet.
Breakfast and Dinner
The bookend meals are where you can make the difference in your teen's nutrition. Breakfast should be non-negotiable. Even crazy, late mornings allow a few minutes to squeeze in a quick protein shake or some precooked whole oatmeal, reheated in the microwave. Remind your teen -- in a calmer moment -- that breakfast eaters score better on tests. They also avoid mood swings and the mid-morning hunger pains that can sabotage a diet, and they benefit from an energy boost. Family dinners are your chance to sneak in healthy veggies or a big salad and listen to your kids. Even reluctant veggie eaters will enjoy creamy dips and dressings. You get to serve nutritious food and protect your healthy family relationship with those overscheduled kids who are racing toward independence.