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Adolescent Development: What to Expect with Eating

Look at adolescent development through a holistic lens and learn what to expect with their food choices and eating habits.

Welcome to the final installment of this series. We’ve covered all the stages. You can learn more about each one here:

Hold onto your hats, parents, you’re in for a ride! You might be ready for the common teen rebellions such as driving too fast, staying out beyond curfew, and experimenting with, well, you know, substances.

But are you ready for the other stuff? I’m talking about your teen’s eating habits: The food confusion, diets and eating decisions (good and bad)?

Let’s dig in to what you might be up against.

Teens eating pizza together

Social and Cognitive Development in Adolescence

Erik Erikson describes adolescence as a period of identity formation and separation from adult caretakers (independence). When you think about toddler development, it’s not dissimilar, just magnified.

During adolescence, teens are thinking differently and moving toward adult thoughts and decisions. Here’s what’s going on:

Teens are Developing Independent Thinking

Teens are moving from black or white, concrete and rule-bound thinking to more abstract, long-term consequence-type thoughts and flexible problem-solving.

Food isn’t black and white any longer. Teens are able to see the bigger picture – the nuances around nutrition. From this, they begin shape their own thoughts about food and eating.

Teenagers are Taking More Risks

Teens are notorious for risky behavior. This is rooted in the reward system of their brain. They value reward over the risk of getting it may incur.

This includes food and eating behaviors. They may also challenge authority, push limits, and reject norms and standards.

They’re Building Self-Confidence

Teens become more confident and adventurous. While self-esteem is developed throughout childhood, in the teen years, it becomes more prominent.

As an evolving area, teens can be particularly sensitive to their bodies and suffer from poor body image. It’s important to build body confidence at this time of life.

The Difference Between Early and Late Adolescence

There’s a lot going on in the teen years, and we can’t lump teens into “one” stage. Adolescent development is actually two stages.

These sub-categories of adolescence, early and late adolescence, are different in their motivations.

In early adolescence, young teens are less concerned with developing their own identity and more concerned with being part of a group, similar to the child’s developmental drivers.

They’re susceptible to peer pressure and outside influences such as media and community. This is called the “psychology of belonging” and it allows young teens to identify with group norms and values.

As teens gets older, they become more self-assured and can make choices for themselves, based on their values and individuality, rather than on group norms.

Here’s a good example of the difference. A client of mine once remarked:

“My thirteen year-old daughter wants to buy her lunch at school every day because that’s what all her friends are doing, while her older sister wants to bring her own lunch because she thinks the cafeteria food is gross and unhealthy.”

I assured this mother that both of her girls were demonstrating what experts note as “healthy development.”

Her younger teen daughter shied away from being different from her friends, wanting to adopt the group mentality.

Her older one made her own decisions based on knowledge and values she had accumulated throughout her childhood experiences.

Girls eating pizza

What to Expect with Teen Eating

One thing you want to keep in mind is how adolescent development influences your teen’s eating choices and habits. Let’s look closer:

1. Teens are Snacking

Eighty-three percent of teens consume at least one snack per day and this snack contributes 23% of the total calories (or 526 calories) eaten throughout the day, according to recent NHANES data.

Many of the snacks that teens choose are high in sugar and fats, or both.

The bottom line? Snacks contribute about a fourth of the daily foods eaten by teens, so keeping them mostly healthy can keep your teen mostly healthy.

Learn more about snacking statistics and facts for children.

2. Teens Eat Out

Teens eat 1/3 of their meals away from home and often in fast food establishments. Why? It’s cheaper, social and efficient.

After all, teens are busy creatures. Dining out can also push the diet to be higher in fat, lower in fiber and potentially provide too many calories compared to daily requirements.

3. Teens Skip Meals

A practice that often begins in adolescence and can negatively impact nutritional intake, skipping meals may mean not eating breakfast and/or lunch.

Skipping meals can lead to excess hunger, over-eating, poor concentration and missing out on important nutrients like calcium and iron, among others.

4. Teens are Eating Family Meals

Dinner is the most common meal eaten by teens with their families. The connection between parents and teens is heightened at this time and is noted to have benefits that go beyond the food eaten.

You can learn about the impact of family meals, especially family style meals, and take full advantage of this important daily event for teens.

Did you know I have a workshop on family style meals?

5. Adolescents are Dieting and Using Weight Control Measures

According to Project EAT, more than ½ of teen girls and 1/3 of teen boys engage in unhealthy weight control practices such as dieting, skipping meals or fasting.

Parents can be a positive role model in their own eating behaviors and be savvy to the signs and symptoms of eating disorders.

6. Teens Like to Experiment with Food

The drive to be an individual can lead to experimentation with alternative eating such as trying out vegetarianism, or becoming interested in global issues around food (hunger, malnutrition).

Teens need to be supported in these endeavors with accurate information and knowledge, whether these practices are a fad or a lasting practice.

Adolescent Development: Survival Tips for Parents

Sometimes parents get really concerned about their teen’s eating. Sometimes, what parents are worried about are normal expressions of social and cognitive development in adolescents. In other words, teens are being pretty normal and need support and a guiding hand.

Here’s what you can do:

  • Help your teen develop a healthy and stable self-image by showing support and acceptance.
  • Keep the lines of communication open. Communication can be a valuable insight for navigating the food attitudes, environment and behaviors of your teen. Learn more about teen communication in this podcast episode.
  • Tune into the values and behaviors you are demonstrating to your teen—these are the ones that ultimately are valued by your child– and they stick.
  • Make available the foods you want your teen to eat; use the family meal table to promote healthy eating and connection.

Need More Help with Feeding Teens?

Check out our nutrition booklets, workshops and online classes to help you raise a healthy teenager.

Also, you may enjoy reading these additional articles:

This was originally published in October 2011 | Updated December 2020

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