As parents, we all know that our teenagers need to eat well. Their bodies are growing and brains changing. Hormones may be taking a toll on their moods and energy levels. Yet we also know that teenagers are prone to eating irregularly, sometimes quite poorly, particularly as they distance themselves from parental controls and eat more meals away from home. Pizza, cookies, ice cream, and soft drinks may be the most common foods in their diets at this age.
Parents have more influence on their teenagers’ diets than they may think. The keys to positive change in diet and nutrition are positive attitude, planning, and preparation. Making simple changes using these keys may help change some of your teenager’s unhealthy eating patterns.
Teenagers with autism need a nutritious, healthy diet to help with their social skills and relations with other teenagers and adults. Even slight worsening of moods, or additional absent-mindedness due to low blood sugar from skipping a meal, may cause a teenager with autism to have difficulties in important social situations. Once he or she starts a “meltdown” or “social storm”, such as a rift with a friend or opposition to a teacher, the teenager with autism often has more trouble than other teenagers navigating the troubled waters and reaching the safe shore of restored social connections.
Using the keys to positive change in your teenager’s diet and nutrition is not difficult. Use the following outline and examples of simple and direct changes to help your autistic teen embrace a healthier lifestyle.
Most of us yearn to have peace at the dinner table and in the home. Imagine providing healthy food and having our children eat it without complaints. We may forget a positive attitude about food has to begin with us.
In many countries and cultures of the world, children and teenagers are only too glad to have enough food each day. In much of Africa, families still eat all their meals together. In those rural areas, there is generally a single bowl of food–a grain or root starch with a vegetable sauce–that young and old family members share. Meat is often a luxury offered in small quantities. Soft drinks and sugary desserts are also luxury items enjoyed sparingly. While living and traveling in rural West Africa for four years, I never observed any teenagers complaining about the food or refusing to eat a prepared meal.
In the United States, by contrast, we often have too much food, and paradoxically, much of it is not healthy or nutritious. Teenagers complain about the food provided for them, refuse to eat it, or don’t eat with their families, because of a confusing array of other choices. They often do not view making daily decisions about what is and is not nutritious and they shouldn’t. It is the job of the adults in the community, whether at home or at school, to guide teenagers to eat wisely by providing nutritious food and limiting the supply of non-nutritious foods.
At the same time, eating together is one of the most affirming and basic family-building activities possible. It also links us to other human beings in our own community and other communities. After all, it is one activity we all have in common, no matter what culture we are from!
Our first job, therefore, is to return a sense of pleasure and joy to family mealtimes –and to eating in general–if it isn’t already there. Our second task is to plan nutritious meals, preferably with the help of our autistic teenagers. Finally, we must prepare the food with a calm attitude and thoughtful attention to the needs of our teenagers, whether it be for portable meals, late-night snacks, or a constant supply of pocket-sized nutritious energy-boosters.
Here are several ways to keep positive attitudes circulating in your home:
- Know your family’s favorite meals. Prepare those meals yourself or allow them to prepare those meals once a week.
- Get family members to take turns helping set the table creatively with attractive, even unusual, centerpieces or decorations. Some of these may even help generate conversation with ordinarily taciturn teenagers.
- Start each meal together, at the table, and wait for everyone to be there. It helps to share a moment of silent appreciation, a chosen quote, or a prayer if you are so inclined. Let all family members take turns choosing the opening.
- Offer only nutritious foods at mealtimes. Try to buy as many fresh foods as possible. Use color contrasts to make the meal appeal to the artist in your teen.
- Do not use mealtimes to criticize or moralize. Try to open the conversation to everyone and avoid topics that exclude some people or bore children and teens. In the original book, Cheaper by the Dozen (a true story), family members were allowed to call out, “Not of general interest!” when inappropriate or boring dinnertime conversation topics were introduced.
- Try music and candlelight for a change. Ask your teenager to choose some quiet music he or she especially likes.