Teaching Teens Good Nutrition in a Processed Food World

We all know that fast food and ready-made meals are not the healthiest option, but teens are often hungry, on the run, and looking for something convenient and cheap. While it’s important to encourage your teen to avoid processed food as much as possible, it’s unlikely you will be able to eliminate it from their diet. With that said, today’s blog will try to arm your teen with information that will help them make better choices when they visit their next fast food restaurant or choose their next snack at the grocery store.

What is Processed Food?

By definition, a processed food is a food item that has had a series of chemical operations performed on it to change or preserve it. They typically come in a box or bag and contain more than one item on the list of ingredients, often with names that are difficult to pronounce. Processed foods are often loaded with sugar, fat, sodium and calories. The healthiest foods, such as fruits and vegetables, are not processed and have only one ingredient listed.

How to Read a Nutrition Label

All processed food at the store have food labels with their nutrition facts, and almost all fast food restaurants post nutrition facts on their websites so you can see what’s in their food before you go. Teach your teen how to read these labels so that they can make informed decisions.

Encourage your teen to look at the % Daily Value on the labels. This scale puts nutrients on a scale from 0% to 100%. In general, 5% DV or less is a little amount, while 15% DV or more is a lot. Use this percentage to compare the nutrient content of different foods.

Teach your teen that they want:

  • MORE of fiber, calcium, iron, and any vitamins and
  • LESS of fat (especially saturated and trans fat), calories, sugar, cholesterol and sodium.

If your teen wants more specific information, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) offers a guide for reading a nutrition label.

How to Make Healthier Choices

Here are ways to improve the nutrition in your processed meals:

Choose grilled or baked over fried. Avoid fried and breaded items, such as crispy chicken sandwiches and breaded fish fillets. Any meat that has been grilled or baked with always be healthier than meat that has been fried. Choose turkey, chicken breast, lean ham, or lean roast beef instead. Grilled skinless chicken is usually your best bet.

Avoid extras. Watch out for extras like bacon, butter, cheese, sour cream, and sauces. With ready-made meals, avoid dishes with alfredo, cream or heavy sauces. With fast food, avoid adding bacon and mayonnaise- and oil-based sauces to sandwiches and burgers. Instead add extra pickles, onions, lettuce, or tomatoes to add flavor without the fat. For condiments, ketchup, mustard, and BBQ sauce are all much healthier to use instead of creamy sauces.

Choose whole grains. Ask for brown rice instead of white, whole-wheat pasta over regular, and whole-wheat bread over white for sandwiches.

Skip sides. Sides can quickly send calories soaring, such as fries, chips,  noodles, onion rings, coleslaw, macaroni and cheese, biscuits, and mashed potatoes with gravy. Instead, order a side salad with light salad dressing or a fruit cup. Or bring along a piece of fruit or raw veggies to have with your sandwich.

Drink water. Soda is a huge source of hidden calories. The average large soda packs around 300 calories, which can quickly gulp up a big portion of your daily calorie intake. Shakes are even worse, with up to 800 calories and a day’s worth of saturated fat. And don’t be fooled by lemonade and fruit drinks, which add calories and sugar without much in the way of nutrients. Order water, low-fat white milk, or unsweetened tea instead.

Control portions. Lots of prepared meals give you way more than just one serving. In fact, sometimes one combo meal at a fast food restaurant will give you enough calories and fat for an entire day! Avoid supersized items. Consider cutting your meal in half and taking home the other half to eat another day.

Special order. Many menu items can be made healthier with a few tweaks and substitutions. For example, you can ask to hold the sauce or dressing or serve it on the side. Or you can request a wheat bun for your hamburger or whole-grain bread for your sandwich.

Final thoughts…

If you would like more information about how to improve your teen’s nutrition, please visit our previous blog, Establishing Healthy Eating Habits for Teens.

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