*Trigger warning*

Meal time.

(Just breathe… You’ve got this.)

Parents of full-grown adults still flinch decades later when they hear this word as memories of the begging, pleading, fighting and love-filled, wasted meals come flooding back.

It’s a noble, age-old battle that moms have been enduring for millennia.

So if you have a picky-eater or a teen who would live off of 2-minute noodles and pizza if they had it their way, it can be challenging – to put it lightly – if you’re trying to instill healthy nutritional habits in them.

Being a parent to a teen is hard enough. But when you’re the parent of a tricky-to-feed or snack-obsessed teen, it takes parenting difficulty into a league of its own.

A moment of silence for all the moms struggling out there.

When I recently asked a mom what meal times are like with her two teenage boys, she responded with, “Meal time? Oooooh, you mean battle time!”

Says it all, doesn’t it?

Sun Tzu, famed military strategist, general and author of The Art of War, wrote, “Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first then seek to win.”

In this spirit, here are 3 battle-tested strategies to help you win your first victory when it comes to your teen’s nutritional habits.

They’ll help you make Tiny Tweaks – 1% changes that slide past your young one’s radar – more effectively and persuasively. That way, you can rest knowing they’re eating everything they need to grow, fuel their brain development, improve their mood, strengthen their immune system and sharpen their concentration levels.

 

  1. Modeling

No, not the Instragram and Tik-Tok way. Although, you may wish it was…

You know the whole “do as I say but not as I do” strategy?  Turns out, it’s not really that effective. Kids, even teens, are more monkey see, monkey do.

A survey of 550 families by the European Food Information Council, found that parental consumption of fruits and veggies was still the largest indicator of how often teens ate those same foods.1

In other words, you’re still the leading role-model for your teen’s fruit and vegetable intake. And this is also the case when it comes to many other healthy habits.2

This is both good news and bad news. Bad news first…

You’re always modeling behaviour for your young one – whether you’re aware of it or not. Think screen time, cigarette and alcohol consumption, how you manage stress, exercise and how you treat others. Damn!

Now, for the good news.

You have some serious influential clout here. The first step towards encouraging positive behaviors in your teen is to exhibit those positive behaviors yourself.

By setting a good example with your eating habits, you’ll be a stronger, more persuasive role model for them. Here are a few things to consider:

  • What are you eating?
  • What are you snacking on in between meals?
  • What are you buying at the supermarket?
  • What is your choice of food when you stress eat, comfort eat or emotionally eat? How do you treat yourself afterwards?
  • Where are you contradicting yourself with regard to your expectations of your teen’s eating habits? Teens are allergic to contradictions.

Obviously, this is easier said than done. It’s a big responsibility but it doesn’t have to be done perfectly. When it comes to increasing persuasive power, minimizing push-back from your young one and making tiny tweaks to their nutritional habits that stick, this is one battle-proof strategy you can count on to bring about that first victory.

 

  1. Invite your teen into the decision-making process

I know, wild! Maybe too wild?

Trying to get your teen to make a decision on anything important can elicit the “argh, I don’t know mom, stop being such a rash” response. Slow, deep breaths…

The other option is to tell your teen what they can and can’t eat and deal with the “you can’t make me”, “it’s my life, not yours”, “yeah but you don’t” or a common favourite, “why should I?”

Music to your ears, right?

If the goal is to improve your teen’s eating habits without the constant fights, nagging and wasted energy, there may be a more strategic way to achieve this.

Teens are at an age when they’re exploring and affirming their own authority.3 It’s a very natural, healthy – albeit often infuriating – stage of development where your young one is becoming more and more independent.

Instead of pushing up against this, secure your first victory by using it to your advantage. Teens long for empowerment and are more likely to eat something if they pick it out themselves or have some say in the decision-making process.4

Here are some subtle tactics you can use that the strategic Sun Tzu would approve of:

  • Give them a choice between replacement options e.g. if you’re no longer going to buy sugar-loaded cookies, ask them what they’d like instead by offering two other fun but healthier alternatives. This honours their need for autonomy but with some wise and gentle motherly guidance.
  • Bring them shopping with you. Instead of going down the junk food isle, take them down the health isle and ask them what treats they’d like. It ticks the autonomy box and it avoids the backlash of restricting treats and increasing your teen’s appetite for taboo foods.

  1. Empower instead of shaming your teen

Teens have access to practically any food they want. There are food delivery companies, restaurants, fast-food outlets, supermarkets and canteens at schools. And when they’re out the house you have zero control over what they eat.

Inside the house, you can restrict what they eat. But we’re now learning that food restriction is actually associated with binge eating, sneak eating, emotional eating, weight gain and full-blown eating disorders.5 So in terms of helpful strategies that one’s out the window.

What about shaming your teen out of eating something you don’t approve of? Most of us were brought up this way and we turned out just fine, right? RIGHT?

Here’s what food-shaming can look like:

  • Are you really going to eat ALL of that?
  • You’re not going to get another helping, are you?
  • You eat like a bird.
  • You’re constantly stuffing your face.
  • You know where that goes.

Recognise any of these from your teen days?

Food-shaming focuses on:

  • How much your teen eats e.g. too much or too little.
  • What they’re eating e.g. junk food, sugar, calories or only carbs.

We do this to help those we love because we think it’ll lead to a healthy change. But rather than bringing about the intended behavioural change, all we succeed in doing is humiliating the person and making them feel ashamed of their appetite and desires.

Ouch.

Another problem with shame is that it’s associated with a string of unintentional consequences – eating disorders, substance abuse and many behavioral addictions.6, 7 It also successfully tears away at a person’s sense of self-worth and self-esteem, which is incredibly painful.

I’m guessing this isn’t what you’re going for?

So, with all this access and temptation, how do you help your teen make healthier food choices?

Empower them – build them up instead of breaking them down.

For starters, time to put the shaming stick away and throw the overly-restrictive strategy out of your tool box. It doesn’t work in the way you want it to.

To secure your first victory, follow the Tiny Tweaks approach, patiently engage your teen in the purchasing process, make a few nutritious fun foods available and do your best to model healthier habits around food and snack choices.

Over time, this will help your teen learn the art of self-regulation, fuel their independence, improve their decision-making abilities and gently teach them what it means to live a healthier lifestyle.

The ultimate victory.

And please, dear Warrior Mom, be gentle – on yourself and your teen. You’re both doing your best and learning together.

 

References

  1. org. 2012. Parental Influence On Children’s Eating Habits. [online] Available at: <https://www.eufic.org/en/healthy-living/article/parental-influence-on-childrens-food-preferences-and-energy-intake>
  2. Alonso-Stuyck P. Parenting and Healthy Teenage Lifestyles. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020 Jul 28;17(15):5428.
  3. Pickhardt Ph.D, C., 2022. Adolescence and parental authority. [online] Psychology Today. Available at: <https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/surviving-your-childs-adolescence/201105/adolescence-and-parental-authority>
  4. Divechka Ph.D, D., 2017. Teenagers Might Have a Problem With Respect But It’s Not the One You Think — Developmental Science. [online] Developmental Science. Available at: <https://www.developmentalscience.com/blog/2017/11/29/teenagers-might-have-a-problem-with-respect-but-its-not-the-one-you-think>
  5. Loth KA, MacLehose RF, Fulkerson JA, Crow S, Neumark-Sztainer D. Are food restriction and pressure-to-eat parenting practices associated with adolescent disordered eating behaviors? Int J Eat Disord. 2014 Apr;47(3):310-4. doi: 10.1002/eat.22189. Epub 2013 Sep 18. PMID: 24105668; PMCID: PMC3963280.
  6. Troop NA, Redshaw C. General shame and bodily shame in eating disorders: a 2.5-year longitudinal study. Eur Eat Disord Rev. 2012 Sep;20(5):373-8. doi: 10.1002/erv.2160. Epub 2012 Feb 8. PMID: 22318918.
  7. Gaba, S., 2019. The Link Between Addiction And Shame. [online] Psychology Today. Available at: <https://www.psychologytoday.com/za/blog/addiction-and-recovery/201904/the-link-between-addiction-and-shame>