Teen Won't Eat Right!

Hi Sue:

I have a 15-year-old stepdaughter who will not eat breakfast or lunch. She only eats from the time she gets home until she goes to bed.

My theory is that she is worried about gaining weight. I have explained till I'm blue in the face how important it is for her to eat sensibly throughout the day, but she insists that there is nothing that she can take to school that she would want for lunch.

Do you have any suggestions? Thanks,
Jan

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Sue Gilbert

Sue Gilbert works as a consulting nutritionist. For many years she worked with Earth's Best Organic Baby Food, integrating nutrition and... Read more

Dear Jan:

Your stepdaughter's eating habits are not unusual for a 15-year-old. That doesn't mean I condone them, but they are just a fact of life. Almost all teenagers have less-than-ideal nutritional habits. Generally, eating habits are established in childhood, strayed from during the teen years and possibly returned to during adulthood. Do you recall your teenage eating habits? Some are probably less than perfect.

Unfortunately, despite your good intentions, you have to let go of trying to control your stepdaughter's eating habits. She is an autonomous human being now, and allowing her to be responsible for herself is the way to let her learn to become an adult and promote her independence. My guess is that by talking TO her until you are blue in the face, you create a power struggle that probably has little to with nutrition from her point of view. The most constructive role you can take to promote her healthy eating is one of instruction but not criticism.

Turn over the responsibility of her food intake to her in a nurturing way. Teach her what she needs to know about good eating, nutritious foods and the consequences of not eating well. Lay out the issues and the risks, and let her know that the rest is up to her. Do this informatively and with concern, not in a "lecture" style. In many cases, teenagers do not like to take instruction or get information from their parents, so she will have to come by the information from another source. Perhaps having health magazines available or books on women's nutrition and health would be a good idea. If she is an athlete, get a hold of books on nutrition and sports performance.

There are other things you can do to help promote good eating habits. Have plenty of nutritious foods available for snacking and for her to use to make her own breakfast and lunch. Have family meals, especially dinner on weekday nights and Sunday brunch, if possible, and expect her to be there. Meals provide a ritual that helps keep the family in touch. Also important: Set a good example yourself by eating a nutritious breakfast, packing a snack or lunch for work, and sitting down to a relaxed and wholesome dinner with no TV.

You did not mention what sort of health your stepdaughter is in, nor did you mention any eating disorders. I am therefore assuming that you are not worried about either. If many of the meals she is eating are nutritious and over the course of the week include several items from each of the food groups, than she'll be okay nutritionally. She may not come around to your preferred three-meal-a-day routine until she is long out of college, or at least away from home and truly on her own. It may be her way of expressing her independence, or what she has found to suit her best for now. And unless you are concerned about an immediate danger due to an eating disorder or bizarre eating patterns, I think the very best thing you can do is to let her go.

In sum, provide her with the health information she needs, a good example to follow, nutritious foods in the house to eat, regular family meals to count on and nurturing support to help her grow happily into a responsible and independent human being. Lots of luck to you and to her. I hope these suggestions are helpful.

Thank you for writing.

Sincerely,
Sue Gilbert

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