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Healthy Eating for Teens

What is healthy eating?

Eating healthy is an important part of a healthy lifestyle and is something that should be taught at a young age. The following are some general guidelines for helping your teen eat healthy. It’s important to discuss your teen’s diet with their healthcare provider before making any dietary changes or placing your teen on a diet. Discuss these healthy eating recommendations with your teen so they can follow a healthy eating plan:

  • Eat 3 meals a day, with healthy snacks in between.

  • Increase fiber in the diet.

  • Decrease the use of salt.

  • Drink water. Try to stay away from drinks that are high in sugar, including soda and sports drinks. Fruit juice can have a lot of calories, so limit your teen’s intake. Whole fruit is always a better choice. 

  • Eat balanced meals.

  • When cooking for your teen, try to bake, broil, roast, or grill instead of fry.

  • Make sure your teen watches (and decreases, if necessary) their overall sugar intake.

  • Choose fruit or vegetables for a snack.

  • Decrease the use of butter and heavy gravies.

  • Eat more chicken and fish. Limit red meat intake and choose lean cuts when possible.  

Making healthy food choices

The MyPlate icon is a guideline to help you and your teen eat a healthy diet. MyPlate can help you and your teen eat a variety of foods while encouraging the right amount of calories and fat.

The USDA and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services have prepared the following food plate to guide parents in selecting foods for children ages 1 and older.

MyPlate graphic showing healthy balance of foods.

The MyPlate icon is divided into 5 food group categories, emphasizing the nutritional intake of the following:

  • Grains. Foods that are made from wheat, rice, oats, cornmeal, barley, or another cereal grain are grain products. Examples include whole wheat bread, brown rice, and oatmeal. Aim for mostly whole grains.

  • Vegetables. Choose a variety of vegetables, including dark green, red, and orange vegetables, legumes (peas and beans), and starchy vegetables.

  • Fruits. Any fruit or 100% fruit juice counts as part of the fruit group. Fruits may be fresh, canned, frozen, or dried, and may be whole, cut up, or pureed. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children ages 7 to 18 limit juice intake to 8 ounces, or 1 cup per day. Fruit are best bought when they are in season. Otherwise, try frozen or canned vegetables since they are just as nutritious and budget-friendly as well.

  • Dairy. Milk products and many foods made from milk are considered part of this food group. Focus on fat-free or low-fat products, as well as those that are high in calcium. Fortified soy milk and yogurt are also part of this food group because they have nutrients similar to dairy milk and yogurt. The dairy group includes milk, yogurt, cheese, lactose-free milk, and fortified soy milk and yogurt. It does not include foods made from milk that have little calcium and a high fat content, such as cream cheese, sour cream, cream, and butter

  • Protein. Go lean on protein. Choose low-fat or lean meats and poultry. Vary your protein routine—choose more fish, nuts, seeds, peas, and beans. Eat a variety of protein foods to get more of the nutrients your body needs. Meat and poultry choices should be lean or low-fat, such as 93% lean ground beef, pork loin, and skinless chicken breasts. Choose seafood that is higher in healthy fatty acids (called omega-3s) and lower in methylmercury, such as salmon, anchovies, and trout.

Oils are not a food group. But some, such as nut oils, contain essential nutrients and should be included in the diet in small amounts. Stay away from others, such as animal fats.

Exercise and daily physical activity should also be included with a healthy dietary plan.

Nutrition and activity tips

  • Provide regular daily meal times with social interaction. Demonstrate healthy eating behaviors.

  • Involve teens in selecting and preparing foods and teach them to make healthy choices by giving them the chance to select foods based on their nutritional value.

  • Select foods with these nutrients when possible: calcium, magnesium, potassium, and fiber. 

  • Most Americans need to cut the amount of calories they consume. When it comes to weight control, calories do count. Controlling portion sizes and limiting highly processed foods helps limit calorie intake and increase nutrients.

  • Parents are encouraged to provide recommended serving sizes for teens. Teach your children how to determine the serving sizes for different types of foods.

  • Parents are encouraged to limit a teen’s screen time to less than 2 hours daily. Instead, encourage activities that call for more movement.

  • Teens need at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity on most days for good health and fitness and for healthy weight during growth.

  • To prevent dehydration, encourage teens to drink fluids regularly during physical activity and drink several glasses of water or other fluid after the physical activity is completed.

To find more information about the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020–2025  and to determine the correct dietary recommendations for your child’s age, sex, and physical activity level, visit the MyPlate site and 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines site. Note that the MyPlate plan is designed for people older than age 1 who don't have chronic health conditions.

Always talk with your teen’s healthcare provider regarding healthy diet and exercise requirements.

Healthy eating during adolescence

Healthy eating during adolescence is important as body changes during this time affect an individual’s nutritional and dietary needs. Teens are becoming more independent and making many food decisions on their own. Many teens have a growth spurt and an increase in appetite and need healthy foods to meet their needs. Teens tend to eat more meals away from home than younger children. They are also heavily influenced by their peers. Meal convenience is important to many teens and they may be eating too much of the wrong types of food, like soft drinks, fast-food, or processed foods.

Also, a common concern of many teens is dieting. Girls may feel pressure from peers to be thin and to limit what they eat. Both boys and girls may diet to “make weight” for a particular sporting or social event.

These are some helpful considerations as you prepare meals for your teen:

  • Arrange for teens to find out about nutrition for themselves by providing teen-oriented magazines or books with food articles and by encouraging them and supporting their interest in health, cooking, or nutrition.

  • Take their suggestions, when possible, regarding foods to prepare at home.

  • Plan and prepare a healthy meal together once a week.

  • Experiment with foods outside your own culture.

  • Have several nutritious snack foods readily available. For example, cleaned, sliced fruits and vegetables along with healthy dips make great after-school snacks. Often, teens will eat whatever is convenient.

  • If there are foods that you do not want your teens to eat, don’t bring them home.

Online Medical Reviewer: Heather M Trevino BSN RNC
Online Medical Reviewer: Marianne Fraser MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Rajadurai Samnishanth
Date Last Reviewed: 1/1/2024
© 2000-2024 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.