Why older children and teenagers need healthy food and good nutrition
Teenagers go through big physical changes in puberty. They need extra nutrition to fuel these physical changes, which means they need to eat healthy food.
Your child’s level of physical activity and stage of development determine exactly how much healthy food they need. But you’ll notice your child has a bigger appetite, which is their body’s way of telling them to eat more.
What is healthy food for older children and teenagers?
Healthy food for pre-teen and teenage children includes a wide variety of fresh foods from the five food groups:
- grain foods
- reduced-fat dairy or dairy-free alternatives
Each food group has different nutrients, which your child’s body needs to grow and work properly. That’s why we need to eat a range of foods from across all five food groups.
Fruit and vegetables
Fruit and vegies give your child energy, vitamins, anti-oxidants, fibre, and water. These nutrients help protect your child against diseases later in life, including diseases like heart disease, stroke and some cancers.
Encourage your child to choose fruit and vegetables at every meal and for snacks. This includes fruit and vegies of different colours, textures and tastes, both fresh and cooked.
Wash fruit to remove dirt or chemicals, and leave any edible skin on, because the skin contains nutrients too.
Some teenagers don’t like eating a lot of fruit and vegetables. You can help by being a healthy eating role model. If your child sees you eating a wide range of vegetables and fruit, your child is more likely to try them too. And you can encourage your child to make healthy choices by including plenty of fruit and vegies in your family’s meals and snacks.
Grain foods include bread, pasta, noodles, breakfast cereals, couscous, rice, corn, quinoa, polenta, oats and barley. These foods give your child the energy they need to grow, develop and learn.
Grain foods with a low glycaemic index, like wholegrain pasta and breads, will give your child longer-lasting energy and keep them feeling fuller for longer.
Reduced-fat dairy foods and dairy-free alternatives
Key dairy foods are milk, cheese and yoghurt. These foods are good sources of calcium and protein.
In puberty, your child needs more calcium to help them reach peak bone mass and build strong bones for life. So encourage your child to have different kinds of dairy each day – for example, drinks of milk, cheese slices, bowls of yoghurt and so on.
If your child doesn’t eat dairy, it’s important for them to eat dairy-free foods that are rich in calcium – for example, tofu, kale, bok choy, nuts, seeds, tinned fish with bones, and calcium-fortified foods like cereal, soy milk and bread. Not all dairy alternatives are fortified with calcium, though, so make sure to read food labels.
Protein-rich foods include lean meat, fish, chicken, eggs, beans, lentils, chickpeas, tofu and nuts. These foods are important for your child’s growth and muscle development, especially during puberty.
These protein-rich foods also have other vitamins and minerals like iron and omega-3 fatty acids, which are particularly important during adolescence:
- Omega-3 fatty acids from oily fish help with your child’s brain development and learning.
- Iron fuels your child’s muscle growth and increase in blood volume. Girls need extra iron because of their periods.
Try to include a few different food groups at every meal and snack. Have a look at our illustrated dietary guidelines for children 9-11 years, illustrated dietary guidelines for children 12-13 years and illustrated dietary guidelines for teenagers 14-18 years for more information about daily food portions and recommendations. You can also speak to a dietitian if you have concerns about your child’s eating.
Healthy drinks for teenagers
Water is the healthiest drink for your child. It’s also the cheapest. Most tap water is fortified with fluoride for strong teeth too.
Reduced-fat milk is also a good drink option for teenagers. It’s rich in calcium, which is good for bone development.
Foods and drinks to limit
Encourage your child to limit the amount of ‘sometimes’ food they eat. This means your child will have more room for healthy, everyday foods.
‘Sometimes’ foods include fast food, takeaway and junk food like hot chips, potato chips, dim sims, pies, burgers, and takeaway pizza. They also include cakes, chocolate, lollies, biscuits, doughnuts and pastries.
These foods can be high in salt, saturated fat and sugar, and low in fibre. If teenagers regularly eat these foods, it can increase their risk of teenage overweight and obesity and other health conditions like type-2 diabetes.
Your child should limit sweet drinks like fruit juice, cordials, sports drinks, flavoured waters, soft drinks and flavoured milks. Sweet drinks are high in sugar and low in nutrients.
Too many sweet drinks can lead to unhealthy weight gain, obesity and tooth decay. These drinks fill your child up and can make them less hungry for healthy meals.
Foods and drinks with caffeine aren’t recommended for older children and teenagers because caffeine can affect how much calcium the body can absorb. Caffeine is also a stimulant, which means it gives children artificial energy. Too much caffeine can cause sleep problems as well as problems concentrating at school.
Foods and drinks with caffeine include coffee, tea, energy drinks and chocolate.
Healthy alternatives for snacks and desserts
Encourage your child to choose snacks from the healthy food groups. This can include things like nuts, cheese, low-fat yoghurt and fresh fruit or vegetables – for example, carrot and celery sticks, rice cakes or wholegrain crackers with dips like hommus, guacamole o tzatziki.
The same goes for dessert at the end of a meal. Sliced fruit or yoghurt are healthy options. If you want to serve something special, try homemade banana bread. Save the seriously sweet stuff, like cakes and chocolate, for special occasions like birthdays.
The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating says that children, teenagers and adults should limit sometimes foods. It’s best to save these foods for special occasions.