As parents, we all know that our teenagers need to eat well. Their bodies are still growing, their brains are still changing, and their hormones may be taking a toll on their moods and energy levels. Yet we also know that teenagers are prone to eating irregularly, and 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. But parents have more influence and capacity to affect their teenagers’ diets positively than they may think they do. The keys to positive change in the arena of diet and nutrition are positive attitude, planning, and preparation. These keys are already in your hands.
Parents have a particularly strong advantage in this arena because, generally speaking, parents have higher incomes than teenagers, and teenagers would rather spend more of their incomes on clothing, music, movies, and other entertainment, and as little as possible on food. Teenagers with Asperger’s syndrome are not much different; the only real difference may be that appropriate diet and nutrition may be even more important to help them keep improving 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 Asperger’s to fall into difficulties in important social situations. Once he or she has created a “social storm”, such as a rift with a friend, or opposition to a teacher, the teenager with Asperger’s often has more trouble than other teenagers navigating the troubled waters and reaching a safe shore.
Using the keys to positive change in the arena of your teenager’s diet and nutrition is not difficult. The following outline gives many examples of simple and direct changes you can make. A separate article on this website will cover special issues, including how to assess and manage food allergies, and co-occurring medical conditions.
Most of us yearn to have peace at the dinner table and in the home; we would like to provide healthy food, and have our children eat it with appreciation and without complaints. Yet we may forget that 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 to eat each day. In much of Africa, families still eat all their meals together and in 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 more of a luxury, or may be offered only in small quantities. Soft drinks and sugary desserts are also luxury items, and a regular component of the diet only for relatively wealthy people. 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, and may refuse to eat, or don’t eat well at prepared meals with their families, because they have a confusing array of other choices. They often do not view making daily decisions about what is and is not nutritious as their job, 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 by limiting the supply of non-nutritious foods available.
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; it is one activity that we all have in common, no matter what culture we are from! Our first job, therefore, is to return a sense of pleasure and even joy to family mealtimes, and to eating in general, if it isn’t already there; our second job is to plan for food that is appropriately nutritious, even planning some meals with our teenagers; our third job is to prepare the food with a calm attitude and with 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:
- Ask family members what their favorite dinners are, and either prepare those meals yourself or allow them to prepare those meals, once a week.
- Get family members to take turns helping to 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, and use color contrasts to make the meal appeal to the artist in your teen.
- Do not make meal times a time to criticize or moralize; try to open the conversation to everyone, and avoid topics that exclude some people, or are boring for children or 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 that he or she especially likes.