Everyone said it would happen…that I would blink, say, three times and my kids would be practically grown. And here I am, with my oldest now a teenager. She’s taller than me, with broader shoulders, and a better vocabulary. She beats me at Scrabble and soccer. Everyone warned me that this was how it would play out, but like childbirth, you just don’t get it until it happens.
I’m suddenly dealing with all sorts of teenagery things, most especially an adolescent’s biological drive to make her own choices, decisions about food notwithstanding.
When kids are young, parents are fully at the helm, whether it’s deciding when to introduce solids or whether soda is okay at birthday parties. As they grow, so does the need to loosen the reins. And as someone who has thought enormously about nourishing my kids, it’s not that easy to let go.
Case in point, lately, is breakfast. Morning grooming for my teen has blossomed into quite an affair (the fact that she wakes up looking positively fresh and lovely appears to have no bearing on the matter). Little time remains, therefore, for something so trivial as eating. My response has been to go into overdrive trying to get a few spoonfuls of oatmeal or a nut butter-smeared bagel into her before she’s off to school. She’s rushed and disinterested, hair and outfit take priority over omelets.
Is it such a big deal in the scheme of things? No. But I tend to catastrophize. When I caught one of my kids in a fib at age four, I fast forwarded 20 years and imagined her friendless and jobless, a lifetime pathological liar. So you can imagine what’s possible when someone doesn’t eat breakfast.
I had a lightbulb moment, though, just a few days ago. In yet another attempt to send my teen off with a full belly, I pulled out one of the precious eggs from the farmer’s market that go for six bucks a dozen, fried it in a little olive oil, and arranged it on a plate with whole grain toast. My teenager raced past, paused to eye the food, snatched a slice of toast, and sped out the door for the bus. I was left behind to watch my 50 cent farm egg grow cold on the table.
It occurred to me, then, that I needed to stop making her breakfast. One of the hallmarks of teenagerdom is independence. The more I push my food on her, the more likely she is to pull away. At 14, it’s practically her job to reject what matters to me most.
So I’m experimenting. The day after “the egg incident” I said nothing about breakfast, prepared nothing, and watched as she cut a grapefruit and made some toast. Yes, I wanted to chase her down the block with a hard boiled egg yelling, “but you need some protein!” But there are worse things. I’m giving her room to make her own good choices. I’m guessing she will.
In the meantime, I’ve come up with a game plan to approach feeding an adolescent. It’s my handbook, for now. I’ll learn as I go. Maybe it will be useful for you too, either now, or after you blink three times and have a teenager of your own.
P.S. For you moms who don’t want to look too far ahead, you can stay safely in toddlerhood and read this post I wrote about how to raise an adventurous eater.
MOM’S KITCHEN HANDBOOK FOR FEEDING A TEEN
Invite their input. All kids, and teens in particular, want some control over their choices. Ask for their ideas when you are heading to the market or leave a shopping list taped to the fridge and invite them to chime in.
Look for healthy “convenience” foods. A lot of teens don’t want to take the time to prepare and eat something nutritious, so having good choices on hand they can grab on the go is smart: hard boiled eggs, sliced turkey, popcorn, cut up vegetables, easy to peel tangerines, all-juice fruit pops, yogurt, mini whole-grain bagels and cream cheese, cubed melon in the fridge, and so forth.
Encourage them to cook. By this time they are quite capable. Help them pick out a cookbook or explore recipes on the web. Give them room to make a mess and to have a some failures; praise successes lavishly.
Make meals count. The teen years are key ones for nutrition. They need loads of calcium, iron, protein, and other nutrients to support growth and brain development. When it’s mealtime, pack in the nourishment…and then, back off. It’s up to them to make decisions about what to put on their plate.
Remind yourself, you are still the boss.Teens may not want to sit down to dinner, they may want cookies for breakfast, but it’s still your house and you get to set the rules. That said, giving them a little latitude doesn’t hurt.
Share meals.There is no better way to stay connected than looking each other in the eyeballs over a meal. Keep this a priority, even when life gets complicated and teenagers get moody.
Remember you’ve done your work. You’ve laid the ground work for a lifetime of healthy eating. They may experiment, but at the core, they will know what is good for them.
Be a role model. This is perhaps more important than ever. Demonstrating both healthy eating habits and having a healthy attitude towards your own body is essential.
Lighten up There are worse things that could happen than skipping an occasional meal and worse places they could go than the drive thru. It’s what they eat day in day out, not once in a while, that matters.