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The teenage years cover a whole range of people from age 11 – 19, who are growing at different rates and times, involved in various levels of activity and who are different heights and weights. This affects the types and amounts of nutrients you will need for a healthy body.Your lifestyle might be changing as well - a different school, different family circumstances, leaving home, starting work or tertiary education, which can affect the foods you eat.
Important nutrients for teenagers
Your body is building its skeleton while you’re a teenager. To make it as strong as possible, you need to eat foods rich in calcium.
Choose dairy products, including low fat milk, yoghurt, cheese, eating 2-3 serves every day.
If you don’t eat dairy foods, other good sources of calcium are calcium-fortified soy milk, canned fish (eg. salmon or sardines), certain nuts (eg. almonds, hazelnuts), dried beans & peas (eg. chickpeas, kidney beans), lentils and wholegrain breads & cereals (eg wholegrain bread, brown rice, porridge).
If you drink soft drinks, try replacing one or two each day with water or milk (which has calcium and other valuable nutrients).
Try smoothies (made in a blender with trim milk, yoghurt and fruit) for breakfast or a snack – they tick the boxes for calcium, fruit, and taste.
Teenage girls in particular need to include iron rich foods in their diet as they need more iron from food to replace what’s lost during their periods. If not, low levels of iron in the blood can leave you looking pale and feeling tired and lethargic.
Lean meat, chicken, fish and seafood have higher levels of the haem iron, which is absorbed best by the body.
Eggs, nuts, seeds, dried beans,(eg baked beans, chickpeas) and lentils also contain iron. Eating two serves from this food group every day, plus choosing wholegrain breads and breakfast cereals, will help you get enough iron.
Eat foods with vitamin C with your meals to help increase the absorption of iron.
Thinking of becoming a vegetarian, or you have not been eating meat for a while?
Variety is the key to a healthy vegetarian diet. Eat a wide range of fruit and vegetables, high fibre bread and cereal foods, dairy or calcium-enriched soy foods and eggs, dried beans, lentils, nuts and seeds each day.
The most important nutrients to be aware of with a vegetarian diet are calcium, iron and vitamin B12. Eat foods containing vitamin C (kiwifruit, capsicum, orange juice) with your meals so your body can best absorb the iron in foods. If you are eating eggs and dairy products, you will most likely be meeting your calcium and vitamin B12 needs. Vegans need to consider eating fortified cereals, soy and rice milks to consume enough vitamin B12, and should talk to a doctor or dietitian about vitamin B12 supplements. For more information read our vegetarian webpage.
As you are growing, you may also need snacks for an energy boost or to combat hunger between meals. Choose ones which are going to give you what you need. Fruit, a handful of nuts, a pottle of yoghurt or an extra sandwich are all good options. If you go for chocolate or chips, choose the smaller or ‘snack’-sized options and make the most of it, savouring the taste! After school, work or during the evening after tea, a bowl of cereal with low-fat milk, toast or a fruit smoothie can make great snacks.
Plenty of fluids every day
Drink water throughout the day to quench your thirst and make it easier to concentrate on your studies or while enjoying activities. Squeeze a dash of lemon juice or add a splash of fruit juice to water for a bit of extra flavour.
Soft drinks and energy drinks are full of sugar (and kilojoules/calories) and are best kept for special occasions, not everyday, and choose the small drink container size.
Being active and playing sport
Physical activity helps the heart, lungs and muscles work the best they can. You need to do at least 60 minutes moderate to vigorous activity each day. That means anything from a brisk walk to where you ‘huff and puff’ – running, swimming, netball, soccer. Be active in as many ways as possible - sport, dancing, playing, running, cycling, whatever you enjoy - and spend less than two hours a day in front of the television, computer or playing game consoles. You could get involved in a sports team and try walking or biking when heading to and from the shops, school or work.
Meal ideas for teenagers
Try to have fruit at least twice a day and vegetables three times – you can easily fit them into every meal or have as a snack. Here are some meal ideas which contain all the important nutrients, and much more.
- Add your favourite fresh, canned or dried fruit to your breakfast cereal, and top with yoghurt
- If you’re running late, a fruit smoothie and piece of toast is a quick option. To make a smoothie, simply blend together a glass of milk, 1-2 tablespoons of yoghurt and a handful of fruit
- Cooked breakfasts are a great way to start the day if you have the time. Poached or scrambled eggs, grilled bacon and tomato and a couple of pieces of wholegrain toast will keep you buzzing until lunchtime
- Sandwiches, wraps or rolls are all good energy-giving options for the lunchbox. Choose a calcium-rich filling such as cheese or sardines one day and iron-rich cold meat the next. And always remember a vegetable too – tomato, cucumber, beetroot – whichever you most enjoy.
- Fruit makes a great “on the run” snack, so always have some in your school bag or at work.
- Your evening meal can contain all the nutrients you need. Potatoes, pasta and rice will give you more energy. Lean meat, chicken, fish, seafood, eggs or beans and lentils provide protein and iron. You can combine these, a meat and bean casserole makes a great winter warmer. Add vegetables or salad too to half of your dinner plate.
- Many takeaway foods, such as pies, chips, pastries and pizzas, are high in fat & salt Look out for healthier options, such as sushi, salads or sandwiches. You can make takeaways healthier by having them without extra cheese, mayonnaise or aioli. Watch your portion sizes – choose regular rather than a jumbo, and say no to upsizing.
Visit the eMark website for an individual meal plan, tailored to your age and how active you are.
Learn to cook tips
‘DIY’ in the kitchen by learning to cook. This will help you to eat better, save money, and will even make you more popular with your family or flatmates!
Start with packing your own lunch each day, then move onto cooking dinner. Check out these websites for some easy recipe ideas:
- NZ Heart Foundation - Cheap Eats
- Work and Income NZ - Everyday meals and snack ideas
If you want to talk to someone about what you are eating – speak to a school counsellor or nurse, your doctor or a registered dietitian/nutritionist