How to Raise Healthy Eaters and Boost Teen Mental Health

by Jamison Monroe

Raising healthy eaters is incredibly important for teen mental health. That’s because nutrition is essential for emotional well-being, not just physical wellness. Our food choices determine how we feel on every level.

An increasing number of scientific studies show that there is a direct link between diet and mental health. Therefore, what we eat matters—a lot.

I’m the parent of a child who’s just getting started on solid food. Thus, I’ve been thinking recently about how to help my son grow into a kid who loves to eat good, healthy, nutritious food. My wife and I want him to become a well-rounded eater. As a result, he will be a happier, healthier child and adolescent.

For some wisdom on healthy eating, I turned to my friend and colleague Jeffrey Zurofsky, Culinary Program Director at Newport Academy. Jeffrey is also a parent. In fact, his daughter is only a few months older than my son. Consequently, we’re both figuring out how to teach our kids to eat well.

Newport Academy Mental Health Resources: Raising Healthy Eaters

Here are our 10 tips for raising healthy eaters.

Give them time.

Don’t expect your child to love all kinds of food immediately. Most toddlers are wary of spicy or strong-tasting foods. Thus, kale or kimchi might not go over well!

“They will come to it when they’re ready, whether that’s one month from the first time they taste something, or 10 years later,” Jeffrey says. Be patient and don’t force it.

No worries if they only eat a couple of different foods at first.

Sometimes children (and teens, too!) will eat only their favorite food for months. For example, Jeffrey says he ate only steak until he was five years old. But eventually he tried some new foods. And, today, he is an amazing chef and dedicated food activist. Moreover, he has probably tried more foods than most of us have even heard of.

So, if your child eats nothing but mac and cheese and frozen peas, don’t worry. Remember, it won’t stay that way forever.

Newport Academy Mental Health Resources: Raising Healthy Eaters

Provide plenty of tasting opportunities.

Scientists say that it can take as many as seven or eight times of trying something new before you start developing a taste for it. For little children, it might be twice as many times. Babies and toddlers have a strong gag reflex. Thus, if they try a food they don’t like, they are likely to spit it out.

However, their tastes will change over time. Therefore, make sure you keep giving them chances to try healthy foods, even if they don’t like it at first.

Don’t fight about it.

Nutrition is important, but don’t make it into a power struggle. “Forcing a kid to eat something is disastrous,” Jeffrey says. “It creates a vicious cycle of bad experience at the table.” Moreover, it sets up negative patterns and expectations for both parents and children.

Furthermore, stress can prevent the body from effectively digesting and using nutrients, even if you’re eating food that’s good for you. As a result, fighting about what to eat is counterproductive.

Newport Academy Mental Health Resources: Raising Healthy Eaters

Have fun at the table.

Eating meals together shouldn’t be stressful. In fact, family dinners should be a time for fun, bonding, and talking together. Research shows that eating together can benefit kids. Specifically, when teens eat meals with their families on a regular basis, they have the following results:

  • Decreased rates of substance use
  • Less depression
  • Better grades
  • Healthier eating habits as adults
  • A more positive overall outlook.

Therefore, make the dinner table a place where children want to be. Subsequently, they’ll continue to enjoy this time together when they are teenagers.

Model healthy eating.

The best way to teach is by example. That’s true for eating, too. Typically, children want to try what their parents have on their plates. If you’re enjoying it, they want to taste it.

Therefore, make sure that what’s on your plate is good for them, as well as for you.

“Modeling healthy eating habits and choices is the most meaningful thing any parent can do to shape their child’s eating style.”

—Jeffrey Zurofsky, Culinary Program Director at Newport Academy

Newport Academy Mental Health Resources: Raising Healthy Eaters

Experiment a little.

Parents tend to give children pureed foods for much longer than they need to. It’s important to be safe, but Jeffrey says that we shouldn’t be afraid to offer our children something that’s a little more challenging and chewy.

“Developmentally, they need something more than puree,” he says. Thus, give them little bits of lots of different things, with a variety of textures and tastes.

Newport Academy Mental Health Resources: Raising Healthy Eaters

Avoid sugar as much as possible.

Scientists now point to the consumption of sugar as one of the biggest threats to human health. In a 2015 study of 43 obese children, virtually every aspect of the participants’ health improved after just nine days on a sugar-restricted diet, without change in weight.

Experts believe that sugar acts more like an addictive drug than a food. It creates a high and then a crash. In fact, the impact of sugar is so strong that it is used as a painkiller for infants. Therefore, keeping sugar and processed foods out of your child’s diet will support their mental state.

Read “What Sugar Is Really Doing to Your Brain and Body.”

Newport Academy Mental Health Resources: Raising Healthy Eaters

Invite kids into the kitchen.

As they get older, let your kids help you prepare meals for the family. Even very young children can be given small tasks. As a result, they feel good about helping out. Moreover, they feel a sense of ownership in the meal.

Cooking has numerous emotional and mental benefits for kids and teens, including:

  • Being creative
  • Building self-care skills
  • Soothing stress
  • Boosting confidence and self-esteem
  • Sharing something you’ve made with people you love.

Read “A Road to Mental Health Through the Kitchen.”

Grow your own food.

Cultivating your own vegetable or herb garden is a great way to teach kids about where our food comes from. You can grow plants indoors or outside. Children love to watch seeds take root and grow into something edible. Additionally, it’s exciting for them to pick their own peapods or tomatoes off the vine.

Moreover, gardening has been shown to reduce the stress hormone cortisol. In addition, it gets kids outdoors, where they can experience the mental health benefits of nature.

In conclusion, follow these tips and your child will have a much better chance of growing into a well-nourished teen. Furthermore, their mental health will benefit as well.

Newport Academy Mental Health Resources: Raising Healthy Eaters


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