Feeding tweens and teens

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By the time you have a tween or teen in your house you have gotten through the infant and toddler years of starting solids and food jags and possibly during the school age years you reached a rhythm with feeding your kids.

I now have a tween (almost a teen) and an almost tween in my house. In early to middle elementary I felt like they were willing to be a little more adventurous with some of the foods that they would eat. I was even able to pack salads for lunch and sometimes offer for it as a snack on some days. Now as the tween years have hit, they seem to want whatever is quick to grab and they are getting more particular about what and how food is packed for them.

If you have a tween or teen at home then this post is for you. If you would like more information from me following this post then sign up for my monthly newsletter.

This has been concerning because as a mom I want them to get the correct nutrients for growth and as a dietitian I know how important nutrition is to reach optimal growth. As the tween and teen years arrive kids are growing at rapid rates (like infancy) and the requirements for certain nutrients increase. For example, calcium requirements increase from 1000 mg per day to 1300 mg per day. The following is a summary of important nutrients for tweens and teens and their functions.

Calcium is necessary for bone mineralization, but is also important for muscle contraction, blood clotting, transmitting nerve impulses, and required for cell metabolism. Calcium needs are greatest in the tween and teen years. An 8-ounce glass of milk is a great source of calcium by providing 300 mg, but other non-dairy sources include tofu, spinach, and some fortified cereals.

Iron is responsible for carrying and storing oxygen in the body. This process speeds up in the tween and teen years. Tween and teen girls need 11-15 mg per day and tween and teen boys need at least 8-11 mg per day. There are 2 kinds of iron, heme, which is abundant in animal products, and non-heme, which is increased in non-animal products like beans and fortified cereals. It is recommended to consume a non-heme source with a food rich in vitamin C to increase absorption. An example of this is a bean chili (non-heme iron in beans) made with tomatoes (a source of vitamin C).

Magnesium is necessary for many enzymes in the body that are needed for making energy. It is also involved in muscle contraction and protein synthesis. Magnesium also helps to build strong bones and keep a steady heart rhythm. Boys and girls ages 9-13 need 240 mg per day. Then at age 14 the needs for girls increase to 360 mg and boys’ needs increase to 410 mg. Food sources of magnesium include green vegetables, nuts, seeds, and legumes.

Vitamin D plays an important role in bone health. It helps to maintain the body’s concentration of calcium and phosphorus to maintain bone health. Other benefits may include decreased risk of certain diseases like diabetes, hypertension, dementia, and certain types of cancer. There are some foods that are high in vitamin D. These foods are salmon, vitamin D fortified milk and orange juice, and fortified cereals. The best source of vitamin D is the sunlight, but with the recommended use of sunscreen the amount that is received from the sun is not optimal. Many teens have low vitamin D levels and need to be supplemented. This needs to be something discussed with your primary care provider.

Vitamin E is an antioxidant and has the important role of maintaining the cells of the body and is important for immune function. For children ages 9-13 they need 11 mg per day and ages 14-18 they need 15 mg per day. Food that are high in vitamin E include almonds, sunflower seeds and oil, and avocado.

Calorie needs may also be increasing for tween and teens so their growth can be supported. For girls their needs may be around 1400-1600 calories per day if they have low activity or have not begun a growth spurt and increase to up to 2400 calories in their teenage years and possibly higher depending upon activity level. In tween boys their calorie needs can range from 1600-2000 with an increase to greater than 3000 calories for a very active teenage athlete.

It is easy for teens to get calories in from fast food and other convenience food, but those are high in sodium, fat, and sugar and lack the nutrients that are important for growth and development that are listed above.

Below are some of the concerns I hear from parents when working with teenagers with some ideas on how to address these concerns.

Increased influence from peers- Shana Minei Spence, owner of The Nutrition Tea agrees that she has seen how peers influence what other do at this age, including what they eat. Many times, they will choose to purchase food from a fast food place, which seems cooler than eating something that is homemade or even from home. Her recommendations are that parents discuss with their teen what may be some healthier options from their favorite fast food places.

Decreased time to eat breakfast and lunch- Many tweens and teens state they do not have time to eat breakfast and with the way many school days are structured there is minimal time to eat a good lunch. Therefore, many tweens and teens are starving at the end of a school day because they have not eaten enough, and this leads to overeating on whatever they can find. Ea Stewart, also known as The Spicy RD, uses grab and go items like this Mediterranean Egg Muffin Cup for both breakfast and lunch.

Increased activities- Kids today are involved in many extracurricular activities such as music, sports, scouts, etc. and this leaves little time for family meals and proper snack planning. This is a challenge I experience in my family since the kids only have 1 hour on most nights before we must start running to evening activities. I address this in 2 ways. If the activity is going to last until after 7:30 pm I feed them an early dinner when they get home from school and then a smaller meal or snack later. You can read about this strategy in my blog post The Fourth Meal. When the activities are minimal, but the hunger is high after school I use the snack tray to feed my boys. The snack tray can be prepared ahead of time and placed in refrigerator for kids to grab when they get home. I do this if I am going to be getting home after them. I typically place a protein (cheese, meat, nuts, or yogurt), fruits, vegetables, and grain on the plate in the refrigerator. I leave a large note telling them that their snack is in the refrigerator. I place it so it is the first thing they see.

Increased independence- Jessica Gust of Element Nutrition Company notices that as kids mature, they become more independent in the time immediately after school, which means that they may walk by a convenient store or restaurant after school and they may also have their own money to spend. She recommends that parents encourage their kids to come home after school not only to eat, but to also teach their kids an economic lesson. Have kids calculate how much money they are spending on this food and have them think about what else they could save for. When offering them snacks at home she agrees with the idea of the snack tray or the snack board and suggests offering a small amount of a treat food on that board along with other healthy options. Some examples of treat food include dark chocolate pieces, chocolate covered nuts, yogurt dipped fruit, or small cookies. She also finds that teens enjoy this energy bites recipe as a snack.

Here are some additional snack ideas for tweens and teens:

  • Multigrain tortilla chips

  • Salsa mixed with black beans

  • Cheese stick


  • Olives

  • Pita Chips or Pita Bread

  • Hummus

  • Cherry Tomatoes

  • Vanilla Yogurt (<10 grams of sugar)

  • Fresh Berries

  • Almonds


  • Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich on whole grain bread

  • Applesauce Cup

  • 8 ounces of skim milk


  • Hardboiled egg

  • Pretzels

  • Red Pepper Strips

  • Edamame

  • Carrots with hummus

  • Whole Grain crackers

It seems like much of the family nutrition focus is on younger kids. The family feeding challenges continue as kids age. Just because your children can do more things for themselves does not mean we, as parents, become hands off. When it comes to feeding all parents need to continue to be hands on, even in these later years.

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Still wanting more info… check out my segment on Local 12 in Cincinnati about Snacks for Tweens and Teens.