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 more 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 – bread, pasta, breakfast cereals, rice, corn and so on
  • reduced-fat dairy – milk, cheese, yoghurt and so on – or dairy-free alternatives
  • protein – meat, fish, chicken, eggs, beans, lentils, chickpeas, nuts, tofu and so on.

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.

The healthy food groups

Fruit and vegetables
Fruit and vegies give your child energy, vitaminsanti-oxidants, fibre and water. They help protect your child’s body against all kinds of diseases.

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 breakfast cereals, oats, breads, rice, pasta, corn and more. 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. Try to avoid refined grains like white flour, because they’re lower in fibre and other nutrients.

Reduced-fat dairy productsand dairy-free alternatives
Dairy products 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, salmon (with bones) and calcium-fortified foods like cereal, soy milk and bread. Not all brands of soy milk, bread and so on are fortified with calcium, though, so make sure to read the label.

Protein is important for your child’s growth and muscle development, especially during puberty. Foods with lots of protein include meat, fish, chicken, eggs, beans, lentils, chickpeas, tofu and nuts.

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.

Nutrition for teenagers on vegetarian diets

Teenagers who choose vegetarian diets need to work a bit harder to get nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids, iron and vitamin B12, which they would otherwise get in protein-rich foods like meat.

Flaxseed and walnuts are good vegetarian sources of omega-3 fatty acids.

Good vegetarian sources of iron include:

  • dark green leafy vegetables like spinach
  • legumes like beans and lentils
  • wholegrains and fortified cereals.

If your child is a vegetarian, also encourage him to eat foods high in vitamin C – for example, red capsicum and oranges. This will help him absorb iron better.

Your child can get vitamin B12 from eggs and milk if she eats a vegetarian diet that includes these animal products. Fortified breakfast cereals can be a great source of vitamin B12  if your child avoids all animal products.

If your child is thinking about trying a vegetarian diet, it might be a good idea for him to speak with his GP or a dietitian. These health professionals can help him make sure his diet is well balanced and gives him all the nutrients he needs.

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.

Milk is also a good drink option for teenagers. It’s rich in calcium, which is good for bone development.

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. These foods and drinks include coffee, tea, energy drinks and chocolate.

Foods to avoid

Your child should mostly avoid ‘sometimes’ foods (sometimes called ‘discretionary’ foods). These 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. Eating a lot of these foods can increase the risk of teenage overweight and obesity and conditions like type-2 diabetes.

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 Dietary Guidelines say that children, teenagers and adults should limit how much sometimes food they eat. It’s best to save these foods for special occasions.