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 she needs. But you’ll notice she has a bigger appetite, which is her body’s way of telling her 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:

  • vegetables
  • fruit
  • grain foods
  • reduced-fat dairy or dairy-free alternatives
  • protein.

It’s important for your child to eat a range of foods from across all five food groups. This gives your child all the extra nutrition and energy he needs to grow and develop properly.

Fruit and vegetables

Fruit and vegies give your child energy, vitaminsanti-oxidantsfibre and water. They 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 the skin on, because the skin contains nutrients too.

If your child doesn’t like eating a lot of fruit and vegies now, it doesn’t mean she’ll never like them. Your child is more likely to try more fruit and vegetables if you do too. Keep encouraging your child to make healthy choices by including lots of fruit and vegies in your family’s meals and snacks.

Grain foods

Grain foods include bread, pasta, noodles, breakfast cereals, couscous, rice, corn, quinoa, polenta, oats and barley. These foods give your child the energy he needs 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 her feeling fuller for longer.

Reduced-fat dairy foods and dairy-free alternatives

Key dairy foods are milk, cheese and yoghurt. These foods are high in calcium and also protein.

In puberty, your child needs more calcium to help him 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 her to eat dairy-free foods that are rich in calcium – for example, tofu, broccoli, 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

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:

Protein-rich foods from animal sources have zinc and vitamin B12 too.

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 yearsillustrated 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 avoid

Your child should mostly avoid ‘sometimes’ foods. These foods include fast food 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 are high in salt, saturated fat and sugar, and low in fibre and nutrients. Too much of these foods can increase the risk of teenage overweight and obesity and conditions like type-2 diabetes.

Your child should avoid 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. They can cause weight gain, obesity and tooth decay. These drinks fill your child up and can make her less hungry for healthy meals.

Foods and drinks with caffeine aren’t recommended for older children and teenagers, because caffeine stops the body from absorbing calcium well. 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.

The same goes for dessert at the end of a meal. Sliced fruit or yoghurt is the healthiest option. 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 avoid or limit sometimes foods. It’s best to save these foods for special occasions.