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Teen Nutrition:  Building Healthy Relationships with Food

By Margaret Martin, RD, MS, LDN, CDCES May 16, 2024Nutrition Education Services Center Blog, PearlPoint News

Teen Nutrition:  Building Healthy Relationships with Food

The teenage years, often referred to as “the wonder years,” is full of emotional and physical growth as teens begin to explore their independence. Saved by the Bell, The Gilmore Girls, Friday Night Lights and many more television shows explore this “coming-of-age” period. During this phase, more personal and physical changes occur than any other time in life.1 Proper nutrition to support these changes is very important. Nutrition deficits in adolescent years can limit physical and cognitive (thinking) growth, productivity, and future health.2 Teens’ relationships with food may be shaped by physical, mental, and emotional factors. These factors can include eating with friends, learning about food, participating in sports, and more.

Let’s learn more to help build healthy teens.

Growth and Development

The physical changes in the teenage years are both visible and invisible. We can see teens getting taller, building muscles and going through puberty. Remember that teens aren’t just small adults or older children. To support these changes, teens need more energy and nutrients than a younger child. In fact, the calorie requirements during teen growth spurts are often higher than in adulthood! If your teen’s weight gain and physical development are healthy, then their nutrition intake is usually appropriate. If you are concerned about their weight and/or development, talk to their doctor.

In addition to visible changes, there are also social and emotional changes. Teens gain new abilities such as thinking abstractly, having concern for social issues, setting goals, and comparing themselves with their peers.3 Friends and convenience greatly influence teens’ food choices. This is new and sometime uncomfortable territory for teenagers as well as their parents and guardians. Check in with your teen and keep communication ongoing.

Healthy Eating Pattern

To meet teens’ special health and nutrition needs, try to provide three meals a day and snacks. Include a variety of foods from all the food groups:

  • Vegetables
  • Fruits
  • Whole grains
  • Dairy (milk, yogurt, protein)
  • Proteins (chicken, lean meat, seafood, eggs, dairy, beans, nuts and soy)
  • Healthy fats (olive oil, avocados, nuts and seeds)

Offer foods from more than one food group at both meals and snacks too. Support eating in moderation by only occasionally offering fried foods, fast foods, and foods and beverages with concentrated added sugars, rather than daily. By offering a wide variety of foods, your teen will get the important nutrients like protein, calcium, iron, fiber, folic acid, vitamin C, vitamin D, and more to help build strong bones, muscles, and teeth. Eating well also assists with brain development, good thinking skills, and stable emotions.

Teaching by Example

Parents and guardians can help teenagers develop a healthy relationship with food and eating by setting a good example, promoting healthy food choices, and respecting their and their teen’s bodies. Here are some guidelines to follow:

  • Explore flavors and try new foods; encourage your teen to do the same.
  • Include your teen in mealtime responsibilities such as grocery shopping, meal planning, cooking, and clean up.
  • Do not set strict rules around food for you or your teen—everything in moderation!
  • Try not to moralize foods by referring to specific foods as good or bad or clean or dirty.
  • Provide reliable nutrition information. (There is a lot of misleading and even dangerous nutrition information online. Be aware of what your teen may be reading or learning online or from others.)
  • Do not speak negatively about anyone’s body, appearance, or weight.
  • Ask your teen questions and listen to their replies without judgment.

Note: Be sure to get input from your teen’s doctor before making changes in their diet.

Nutrition for Teens after a Cancer Diagnosis

When a teen is diagnosed with cancer, their nutritional requirements may increase above what is typically needed for growth and development. Treatment and healing from treatment can require extra calories and proteins. Many factors can make it challenging to meet these additional food needs, including:

  • Side effects from the cancer and treatment making it difficult to eat and digest food
  • The emotional toll of a cancer diagnosis possibly triggering disordered eating, alcohol use, and/or food aversions
  • Inability to consistently have healthy foods (food insecurity) due to family’s financial situation or location

After treatment, teens with a history of cancer are also at risk for chronic health conditions later in life, such as heart disease, diabetes, and other cancer diagnoses.4

Talk to your child’s treatment team about side effects and ask for a referral to a pediatric oncology registered dietitian. Most side effects can be managed with lifestyle changes and/or medication. (Do not give your teen any medication, including over-the-counter medication, without talking to their doctor first.) If your teen is struggling emotionally, ask for a referral to mental health professional. If your family needs food assistance, talk to a social worker at your child’s treatment center, see Food Assistance Resource and Tips, or call an LLS Information Specialist at (800) 955-4572.

How To Support Your Teen

To summarize, here are the ways you can support your teens nutrition needs:

  • Encourage good self-esteem and healthy eating habits and provide a good example of these behaviors.
  • Help teens form a foundation of good eating patterns.
  • Make reliable nutrition information and healthy foods easily available.
  • Talk through nutrition fads and separate fact from fiction.
  • Provide structure and comfort by planning a consistent meals and snack schedule.
  • Allow room for choices and failures. Teens need practice making independent decisions.
  • Advocate for your teen to have healthy food and beverages, good medical care, and nutritional guidance from a registered dietitian.

Don’t forget—these wonder years will pass far too quickly. Make the moments count!

If you or your teen have additional questions or need nutrition support, schedule a free phone consultation with one of our registered dietitians. Use the online scheduler or call (877) 467-1936.



  1. Lounsbury J. Seneca Valley School District. Understanding and Appreciating the Wonder Years.
  2. The Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine. Addressing Nutritional Disorders in Adolescents. Journal Of Adolescent Health. 2018 July;63(1): 120.
  3. Johns Hopkins Medicine. The Growing Child: Adolescent 13 to 18 years.
  4. Ogland-Hang C, Ciesielski TH, Daunov K, Bean, MK, and Nock NL Food Insecurity and Nutritional Challenges in Adolescent and Young Adult Cancer Survivors in the U.S.A.: A Narrative Review and Call to Action. 2023 Apr; 15(7): 1731. doi:10.3390/nu15071731





Margaret Martin, RD, MS, LDN, CDCES

Author Margaret Martin, RD, MS, LDN, CDCES

Nutrition Educator Margaret Martin is a Licensed Dietitian and Nutritionist in the State of Tennessee as well as a Certified Diabetes Educator. Margaret graduated from the University of Alabama with a Bachelor of Science in Dietetics and received her Master’s Degree in Nutrition Science & Public Health from the University of Tennessee. With more than 10 years of experience in Clinical Nutrition, Margaret has also worked in the insurance industry with WellPoint Inc. and Blue Cross Blue Shield providing telephonic nutrition consultations, service assistance, and web-based nutrition education. In her free time Margaret volunteers with the American Lung Association’s annual “Lung Force Walk" in Middle Tennessee. She belongs to the Oncology Nutrition & Diabetes Care and Education Dietetic Practice Groups of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

More posts by Margaret Martin, RD, MS, LDN, CDCES

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