Want to help your eighth-grader develop healthy eating habits? Here are some tips from experts.
Teach your eighth-grader about the importance of a well-balanced meal. Have them demonstrate that knowledge by packing their own lunch, or occasionally planning family dinners. Make sure they have half the plate filled with fruits and vegetables.
Talk to your child about the food they eat when you’re not around. If they are into sports, highlight the importance of a healthy diet to their athletic performance. If they're concerned about their complexion, highlight the impact of healthy foods and water to a clear complexion. When you explain the benefits of healthy eating as it applies to things he’s particularly concerned about, they may be more likely to take your advice.
Stocking the kitchen
Keep healthy food in your kitchen. If you buy chips or cookies, your child will eat them. While they're helping themselves to snacks in the kitchen, making a healthy choice is easy if it's the only choice available. And if you can’t control what they eat out of the house, you can at least make sure what they're eating at home is healthy.
Connecticut pediatric nutritionist Dr. Deb Kennedy recommends letting your teen be in charge of dinner once a month so that your child can demonstrate their cooking skills. Get them involved in meal planning, have him decide on a recipe, and prepare it for the family. your child may try something new the family hasn’t tried before, which can be a good learning experience for the entire family while boosting their self-esteem and competence in the kitchen.
Make time for healthy family meals. It allows you to model healthy eating and is a good time to catch up with your active child. Keep meal time free of technological distractions to encourage them to listen to their body and realize when they're full and when they'd like more.
Keep an eye out for mindless snacking. This can happen while your teen is doing homework, talking on the phone, or watching television. It’s easy for a teen to eat snacks while multitasking. In order to avoid mindless snacking, you can permit snacking and meals only in the kitchen.
Variation in preparing vegetables
Try varying your preparation for vegetables. This can help to keep your teen from getting bored with one type of vegetable. If you normally steam or sauté vegetables, try grilling or even roasting them until they’re golden and crispy. Vegetables are easy to roast and become sweeter that way. Brussels sprouts, for example, become less bitter when roasted.
Try an at-home cooking competition. If your teen has siblings, give each child the same vegetables and ask them to prepare them for the family to taste test. A friendly competition can inspire creative new ways to eat vegetables.
Switch up your eighth-grader's sandwich (or have them make their own) by adding different vegetables like roasted red peppers, or hummus. Incorporating these vegetables not only increases their vegetable intake, but also adds a new flavor to the standard sandwich.
Try having a “veggie night” once a week. Serve veggie dogs or veggie burgers, hummus with cut vegetables like carrots and cucumbers, and baked sweet potato fries. Committing to one night a week will challenge both you and your child to try vegetables in different ways and to see them as more than just a side dish.
Try to make sure your teen eats vegetables at home. Try serving two different kinds with dinner. It’s unlikely they’ll be eating a lot of vegetables when you’re not around, so try to make up for that difference when you can.
Have your eighth-grader prepare their own smoothies for breakfast. It gives them the ability to make healthy choices while also the independence of making breakfast himself. Ingredients like bananas, frozen berries, low-fat Greek yogurt, and spinach are all good options to have on hand.
Try to display fruits that are easy to pack, like oranges, apples, and bananas. For teens who are busy and on the go, these can be easily tucked into a backpack and available for a healthy snack.
Try adding apples, grapes, or dried fruits to salads to increase fruit intake while adding a different flavor to the salad.
Try cooking with new grains. Add brown rice with quinoa (pronounced keen-wah) for more whole grains. Add black beans, greens, and salsa for a healthy dinner bowl.
Add more oats to your teen’s diet for more whole grains. For families who are busy in the mornings try making overnight oats. Combine ½ cup of rolled oats, ½ cup milk, fruit, and nuts in a jar. Place it in the refrigerator overnight and the next morning breakfast is ready to go. You could also make a large batch of oatmeal the night before and warm it up in the morning.
The fine print
Always read labels on grain products and teach your teen how to as well. The first ingredient should be whole grains. Try to look for products with 10 or fewer grams of sugar per serving and 3 or more grams of fiber per serving for the healthiest versions.
A handful of nuts and fruit make a great snack. Make up your own trail mix by adding nuts like walnuts, almonds, and pistachios with dried fruits for on-the-go healthy snacks.
Swap out beef for poultry or fish in some of your favorite recipes to increase your child’s lean-meat consumption. Ground turkey is a good substitute in hamburgers and casseroles. In tacos, try using a white flaky fish like tilapia, or use a combination of black beans and low-fat refried beans for a non-meat taco.
Edamame, or immature soybeans, in their shell can be a fun and healthy snack or appetizer and a good way to increase protein and vegetable intake.
When preparing cereal, oatmeal, or soup, use low-fat milk instead of water. This is an easy way to increase your eighth-grader's dairy intake without pouring him a glass of milk.
Adding yogurt or low-fat milk to a smoothie is a good way to add dairy to breakfast if they are not eating cereal.
If your child is lactose intolerance or doesn’t drink milk, substitutions like fortified almond milk, soy milk, or rice milk can be a good way to make sure your child gets calcium and vitamin D. When selecting nut milks, try to get the low-sugar or unsweetened varieties to keep added sugars down.
Milk with meals
Try to serve milk with dinner and other meals. Some teens may replace milk for soda, and if this is the case with your teen, don’t keep soda in the house and make sure to serve milk with meals.
Oils & trans fats
Stay away from harmful trans fats. If you see the words “partially hydrogenated oil” on the ingredient list, it means there is trans fat in the product, even if the front of the label says “0 trans fats.”
Oils & vegetable oils
Try cooking with vegetable oils instead of butter or margarine. It’s an easy substitution to make, and you’re swapping in healthier fats.
Oils & avocado
Switch out mayonnaise or creamy condiments for avocado on sandwiches or wraps for a healthy fat alternative.
Oils & healthy fat
Try to make sure your child gets two servings of fish each week. Certain fish, like salmon and trout, contain important healthy fatty acids.
Try to make as many meals at home as possible, and speak to your child about choosing fresh, healthy foods when he’s not with you. Your child may be eating more meals and snacks away from home at this age, which can mean their intake of sodium is likely to go up.
The fine print
Try to always check labels when buying packaged foods. Sodium can be unexpectedly high in products like bread and cereals. Choosing low-sodium options over regular is an easy way to decrease your child’s sodium intake.
Hide the salt
Don’t leave a salt shaker on the table. If you’d like to have added flavor available, try making your own herb mix to keep on the table. Garlic powder, onion powder and oregano or thyme are good options to mix together to add flavor without adding sodium.
Connecticut pediatric nutritionist Dr. Deb Kennedy suggests teaching your teen to look for snack products with 140 milligrams or less of sodium per serving.
Teach your teen about moderation. They are likely very influenced by their peers at this age, and may want to follow their unhealthy eating habits. They can have treats their friends may be having every now and then, but not every day.
Reusable water bottles
If you can, buy your child a re-usable water bottle to pack in their lunch, carry at school, and take to after-school activities. If they have water handy, they may be less likely to choose soda or sports drinks to quench their thirst.
Let your child add natural sweetness to their cereals, yogurts and other foods by offering a small amount of honey, cinnamon, or fruit. This may satisfy their sweet craving in a more natural way. Even with natural sugars, moderation is key.
To learn more about nutrition for your child, check out our eighth grade nutrition guide page.
Parent Toolkit resources were developed by NBC News Learn with the help of subject-matter experts, including Wanda Koszewski, Associate Professor and Department Chair for Human Nutrition, Winthrop University; Manuel Villacorta, Author, Speaker and Registered Dietitian, Whole Body Reboot; and Dr. Natasha Burgert, Pediatrician, Pediatric Associates.