Teen Nutrition Part 1: Meal Makeovers for Teenagers

For the past five years (or maybe six … we’ve lost count), we’ve participated in Project Wellness, a day-long series of workshops for 7th grade students and their parents at the R.J. Grey Junior High School in Acton, MA. The Meal Makeovers for Busy Families class that we teach features lots of tips for boosting the nutritional GPA of teen favorites — things like pizza, chips, soft drinks, and white bagels — and empowers teens to take charge of their diets by choosing lots of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. The class culminates in a Food Network style smoothie contest where teams of teens are given vanilla and fruited yogurt, 100% fruit juices, frozen fruit, and bananas and are challenged to create a delicious smoothie snack.

We begin the class with some silly icebreakers to get everyone thinking “nutrition.” From there, we dive into our makeover tips and the smoothie cook-off. For this post, we thought it would be fun to share our icebreaker activity and makeover tips.

Icebreaker: Name That Food

Q: This tiny vegetable comes in a variety of colors – white, black, brown, and cranberry. Though it is a vegetable it is sometimes referred to as the magical fruit.
A: Beans

Q: This super food gets a bad rap from some cardiologists. Despite its reputation, this incredible edible food is packed with nutrients that keep everything from your eyes to your brain healthy.
A: Eggs

Q: Only 40% of the world’s population has the enzyme needed to digest cow’s milk.  Thanks to this food, people who can’t drink milk can get the calcium and vitamin D they need to maintain strong bones.
A: Soymilk

Q: The average teenage boy consumes nearly four cups of this food each day. It’s packed with calories but zero nutrition, and research shows that consuming too much of it may leach calcium from your bones.
A: Soft drinks

Q: Anthocyanins and phenolics may not sound appetizing, but this fabulous food tastes great when added to a yogurt parfait, topped on pancakes, or blended into a smoothie.
A: Blueberries

When we ask teens what they eat for breakfast and snacks, bagels are often their number-one choice. Bagels are fine … but they’re not exactly nutritional superstars. Rather than tell middle and high school kids to give up their favorite foods, however, we prefer the more low-key makeover approach:

Teen Food Makeovers:

If you like BAGELS …

  • Choose a whole wheat bagel instead of the usual white, or try a mini whole wheat bagel (brands we like are Pepperidge Farm and Thomas’).
  • Top with PB&J, a slice of lowfat cheese, or an egg omelet & cheese.
  • Switch to a homemade muffin, like our Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Muffins, for a change of pace.

If you like TACOS …

  • Add black beans, shredded carrot, or corn to the meat mixture.
  • Use your own seasonings such as cumin, chili powder, and garlic powder instead of the usual salty taco seasoning packet.
  • Choose a healthy taco shell free of trans fats.

If you like PIZZA …

  • Choose healthy toppings such as sauteed mushrooms, onions, bell peppers, or broccoli instead of fatty/salty pepperoni, meatballs, or sausage.
  • When making your own at home, top with lowfat cheese versus full fat.
  • Opt for pizzas made with a whole wheat crust or a blend of whole wheat and white.

If you like HOT DOGS …

  • Look for an all-natural, nitrite-free brand (we like Coleman Natural and Applegate Farms).
  • Use a whole wheat bun.
  • Choose healthy side dishes including crunchy cut up veggies and sliced fresh fruit.

If you like MAC & CHEESE…

  • Choose a natural brand or one made with whole grains (we like Annie’s Homegrown).
  • When using a boxed mac & cheese, make it with 2 tablespoons canola oil vs. 4 tablespoons butter, and use lowfat milk.
  • Add fun mix-ins including petite peas, flaked tuna or salmon, cooked broccoli florets, leftover chicken.

If you like PEAS & CORN …

  • Expand your veggie repertoire with edamame, snow peas sautéed in oil and tossed with light teriyaki sauce, steamed broccoli drizzled with extra virgin olive oil & kosher salt, or sweet potato fries (we like Alexia).

If you like SOFT DRINKS …

  • Make your own fizzy drink by mixing together 100% fruit juice and seltzer or club soda.
  • Switch to water. If it’s boring, add a slice of lemon, orange, or lime.
  • Make a nutrient-packed smoothie or frosty with lots of fresh and/or frozen fruit.

Tell us what you’ve been doing to steer your teen toward healthier food choices. And be sure to check back on Wednesday for Part 2 of our Teen Nutrition series (we’ll be answering some of the most common questions from parents and teens).

7 responses to “Teen Nutrition Part 1: Meal Makeovers for Teenagers”

  1. Thanks ladies! I don’t have teenagers yet, but my friends who do usually have a big power struggle on their hands. With today’s “open campus” for lunch, it’s so hard to convince your teen not to eat fast food with their friends everyday!

  2. This title should read: Meal Makeovers for Teenagers OR 28 year old men 🙂 Such great ideas!

  3. I love your approach of NOT telling kids to give up their favorites but instead, to try and make them healthier. Great, doable tips!

  4. My children are younger and right now eat almost anything. I will have to remember your great suggestions when the power struggles begin.

  5. eatingRD says:

    Looks and sounds like a lot of fun, especially when they get to make their own smoothies! I love adjusting different foods to make them healthier while not eliminating favorite foods. So many 8th graders in our calcium program we see say they don’t eat breakfast or lunch! I wonder how they are functioning/earning and wonder if you have seen this as well or how best to approach it? Many of them are female and the schools are at-risk so there are other issues too.

  6. This is great! I love your ideas for substitutions – those sound even better than the typical soft drink/bagel/peas and corn combos!

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