In a culture where fast food and convenience often overshadow other food choices, the health of teenagers is becoming an increasingly important focus.
According to a 20-year study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) American teens (12- to 19-year-olds) now get over two-thirds of their calories from ultra-processed foods. Ultra-processed foods, like frozen pizzas, ready-made meals and packaged snacks, are less healthy and have more sugar and salt with less fiber.
Nutrition is very important in adolescence. It is a time of rapid physical growth, especially in height, weight, muscle development and puberty.
“Teens who don’t take in adequate calories and nutrients can have issues with stunted growth, problems with their periods, delayed puberty and more,” said Tyler Florek, a registered dietitian with Banner Health.
But here’s some good news: Involving your teen in planning meals can make a big difference. It’s not just about home-cooked meals. It’s about teaching them how to make smart choices that can stick for life.
In this article, we’ll explore the importance of including your teen in the kitchen and provide practical tips to make meal planning enjoyable for the whole family … and yes, even your teen!
The benefits of including your teen in meal planning
Because you’re already feeding your teenager, you might as well get them involved. From planning and prepping to cooking and clean-up, here is why it is always a good idea for them to help out:
- Develop lifelong skills: From creating shopping lists and budgeting to understanding nutritional values, introducing your teen to meal planning is a fantastic way to teach them essential life skills.
- Make healthy choices: Teens empowered to cook and prepare food are less likely to reach for less nutritious food items and develop unhealthy eating habits.
“Teenagers are at a very crucial stage when it comes to developing food and nutrition patterns and a better chance of avoiding health problems later in life,” Florek said. “Involving them in meal planning can help establish lifelong healthy habits and better understand their nutrition needs.”
- Greater sense of self: Including your teen in planning and preparation can help give them a sense of autonomy regarding what goes on their plate. Something as simple as having them help select sides or prepare vegetables gives them a sense of freedom and personal responsibility.
“Teens -- and children in general – are more likely to try new foods when their hands helped to create that meal,” Florek said. “They have more of a personal investment when they get to participate.”
- Quality time as a family: Meal planning with your teen is a great way to spend some quality time together without the distractions of phones or TV. It provides an opportunity for conversation, teamwork and the chance to teach valuable life skills.
Tips for getting your teen involved
The following tips are simple yet impactful strategies that will help create space for shared experiences and lifelong skills.
- Start with your child’s favorites: Start the meal planning journey with some of your teen’s favorite dishes. This will capture their interest and encourage them to share their preferences and ideas.
- Create a meal planning calendar: Plan out the meals for the week and involve your teen in the decision-making process. Talk about what meals to prepare, the list of ingredients you need, your food budget and individual preferences.
- Grocery shop together: Take your teen along for grocery shopping trips. Teach them how to read nutritional labels, compare prices and choose fresh, wholesome ingredients. This hands-on experience will develop their decision-making skills and enhance their awareness of dietary choices.
- Build on responsibilities: Give your teen responsibility in the preparation and making of a meal. Start small, and slowly give them more responsibilities as they develop their skills. For example, they can start planning a side dish and later plan whole meals. Or they can begin by preparing the side dish, then move on to making the entire meal.
- Model healthy habits: Children, including teens, learn by observing. When parents actively participate in the process, they model healthy habits and a positive attitude toward food. “Your active participation is crucial in this process,” Florek said. “You will greatly influence their involvement and enthusiasm as the parent.”
- Encourage creativity: There is a lot of freedom in meal planning and preparation, so let your teen get creative and have fun. Let them explore new food combinations. Allow them to try things on their own and make mistakes.
“The best learning comes more often from mistakes rather than successes,” Florek said. “Support them, be actively involved, but give your teen space to make those decisions and mistakes.”
Meal planning with your teen is more than just home-cooked meals. It can lead to many other skills that your teen can use in the kitchen – and life. Plus, it is a great opportunity to spend more quality time together.