What do teens do for lunch?

How you can encourage your teen to make healthy choices at lunch

Barb Mills makes sure her larder is well stocked with lunch meat and cheese, crackers, raw veggies, granola bars and fruit, so 14-year-old Drew, who started grade nine this year, can toss something healthy into his backpack for lunch. “Sometimes he will take leftovers from dinner the night before or a Pizza Pocket that can be microwaved at school. It will be interesting to see how often he eats at the cafeteria now that he’s hit high school.”

At Drew’s elementary school, kids had to stay in their classrooms for 20 minutes at lunchtime. But that didn’t stop some of his peers from heading off to a nearby corner store to buy a freezie rather than eat their packed lunch. What will happen to his lunch habits now that he’s in high school?

Drew’s friend Shawna, who just finished grade 11 at the same high school Drew attends, says when you get to high school there’s no such thing as lunch anymore.

No such thing as lunch anymore

Why? Because “lunchtime is social time,” says Shawna. “People might nibble on a muffin or share a bag of chips while they hang out together at the park, but that’s it. Some kids just skip eating and play soccer; others go to McDonald’s. My friends and I like to share a big plate of Thai noodles at the food court.”

“Kids this age are on the move; they don’t want to take the time to sit down and eat a knife-and-fork meal,” says Richmond, BC, dietitian Cristina Sutter, who specializes in child and adolescent nutrition.

The sweet taste of freedom may help derail eating habits, which have been shown to deteriorate during these years. As kids eat more meals away from home, they may not always make the healthiest choices: “I remember in grade nine they had these giant cookies in the cafeteria that looked so good, so I bought one once for lunch — and there was so much grease from the cookie that it soaked right through the napkin and actually ruined my jeans!” recalls Shawna.

Studies have shown that young teens tend to skip meals (especially breakfast and lunch), eat too much junk food and prefer pop or juice (which nutritionists aren’t keen about) over milk. Few kids manage to get all of the servings recommended by Canada’s Food Guide. (This may explain why they tend to decimate the fridge after school, when their hunger becomes ravenous.)

Why don’t they just eat when they’re hungry?

Kids this age aren’t always in touch with their bodies, and so they don’t attribute a drop in energy in the afternoon to their diet, says Sutter. “I see kids in their early teens who are anemic or who fall asleep during the day, both of which are attributable to a bad diet” — meaning high in refined, low-fibre or sugary foods and lacking in protein and complex carbohydrates (like whole grains) that sustain energy over a longer time.

What can parents do to encourage healthy noontime noshing?

The first step is to talk with your child about your concerns — that skipping meals affects concentration and energy levels. Just pointing out that his fourth-period math class or after-school soccer practice might go better if he ate lunch might motivate him. Then, says Sutter, work with your child’s inclination to graze and his desire to socialize. Some ideas:

Think small. Kids need little bits of food in their knapsacks so they can snack all day long: mini-bagels with peanut butter or tuna, cheese strings and individually wrapped Gouda cheese, cut-up fruit, yogurt drinks, nuts or trail mix.

Talk about it. Rather than insisting on a packed lunch, find out what he and his friends like to do, and work with that: He might like to buy a cheeseburger and a milk in the cafeteria, and bring a granola bar and an apple from home.

Give him lunch money. This may not be an issue if your child’s school isn’t located in an urban area, but $10 a week will mean he can join his friends on some days in buying lunch and bring something from home the rest of the time.

At Shawna’s school, kids sometimes club together and buy a loaf of bread and a tub of hummus at the grocery store. While it may not be the perfect lunch, it beats a can of Coke and a bag of chips.

Cool food tools

The Dietitians of Canada website has resources to help you encourage your child to eat nutritiously:

• Let’s Make a Meal shows you how your diet stacks up against Canada’s Food Guide.
• EATracker allows you to track your food and activity choices.

Visit http://dietitians.ca for these tools and more.