What Should I Feed My Teenager?

As an parent of a teenager can attest, it can feel like they grow a couple inches overnight. Their weights and heights change faster than a parent can keep up with. They may also come home with new ideas about everything, including food. These changes may cause parents to question what should they feed their teenagers? The energy and nutrients required for growth and development during this time means a teenager should avoid any sort of restriction.

A teenager’s diet should meet the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR)  of 45-65% carbohydrate, 10-30% protein and 25-35% fat, which can easily be met through a balanced and varied diet. Calories requirements range from 1800-3200 according to age, sex, height, weight, physical activity, body composition, etc. The amount eaten should allow a teenager to have energy to meet the daily demands.

Teenagers should consume enough calories to meet their unique needs. The following link contains a table with more details about what a teenager should eat. https://health.gov/sites/default/files/2019-09/Appendix-E3-1-Table-A4.pdf

What Does A Healthy Meal Pattern For A Teenager Look Like?

A balanced diet for a teenager should include all the food groups (grains, protein, fruits, vegetables and dairy), adequate fluid and limited sugar, saturated fat and salt to meet nutrient needs. More information tailored to your teen can be found at https://www.myplate.gov/myplate-plan.


Teenagers should consume on average of 6-10 ounces of grains depending on their unique calorie needs. A one ounce equivalent equals one slice of bread, 1/2 cup cooked rice/pasta/cereal or 1 oz cereal/crackers. Grains provide teenagers with fiber to help keep them full and their digestive systems running smoothly. As a main source of carbohydrates, grains also provide an important source of energy.

Making at least half their grains whole rather than refined, will allow teenagers to access more of the nutrients grains can offer. Whole grains contain fiber, carbohydrate, protein, healthy fats and various vitamins and minerals. Whole grains include oatmeal, popcorn, brown rice, and whole grain bread or pasta. Refined grains are processed in a way that takes away fiber, healthy fats and many of the vitamins and minerals. Refined grains include white rice, multi-grain, wheat (not whole wheat) and white pasta or bread.


Teenagers should consume 5-7 ounces of protein foods. One ounce equivalents are 1 oz cooked meat, 1 egg, 1 Tbsp nut butter and 1/4 cup beans. Protein is the basic building block of the body and takes part in many of the body functions. Protein foods are also a good source of certain vitamins and minerals such as iron and zinc.

Teenagers should vary their protein sources. Increasing intake of plant based proteins like beans, nuts and tofu are associated with a decreased risk of chronic disease. Seafood contains heart healthy fats and eggs provide many nutrients that can improve brain health. When eating meat, those with higher levels of saturated and trans fat like red (beef, pork, lamb) and processed (hot dogs, sausage, deli meats) meats should be limited.


The recommendation for dairy is 3 cups. One cup of dairy equals 1 cup milk or yogurt and 1 1/2 ounces cheese. Dairy contains many bone supporting nutrients such as calcium and vitamin D. These nutrients along with regular physical activity promote bone health and decrease risk for osteoporosis or brittle bones later in life. Dairy also contains protein and can help a teenager meet their protein demands.

Some dairy products contain more saturated fat and sugar than others. In order to protect a teenager’s health, these types of dairy products should be eaten less often than those lower in sugar and saturated fat.

Fruit and Vegetables

The powerhouses of nutrients, teenagers should look to eat five or more servings of fruits and vegetables daily.  One serving is equivalent to 1 cup fruit/vegetable, 1 cup 100% fruit/vegetable  juice, 1/2 cup dried fruit and 2 cups leafy greens. On top of the many vitamins and minerals, fruits and vegetables also contain antioxidants, phytochemicals and fiber. These components help a teenager keep healthy now and in their later years. 

The slogan for skittles works well for teenagers and their fruit and vegetable intake, “Eat the rainbow”. The different colors indicate different vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. For example, the blue in blueberries comes from anthocyanin, an antioxidant that combats chronic disease. The orange in a carrot comes from Beta Carotene, another antioxidant which protects eye sight and fights inflammation. 


In regards to health, the importance of fluids should not be overlooked. Improper hydration impacts the mental and physical health of a teenager. The classic eight cup standard for fluid in a day does not meet the needs of many teens. Drinking only when thirsty also does not allow for good hydration as thirst already indicates dehydration. Fluid needs can vary person to person and day to day. Instead, a teenager can use urine color as an indicator, with a pale yellow showing adequate hydration. They should drink fluids consistently throughout the day.

Adolescents should limit sugar sweetened beverages such as soda, energy drinks and fruit drinks. These drinks can negatively impact teeth, weight and well-being. Water, unsweetened milks and 100% fruit juice are better options to drink throughout the day.

Limit sugar, saturated fats and sodium

Eating too many foods high in sugar, saturated fat or sodium can replace foods with important nutrients and is linked to an increased risk of chronic disease. However, the word “limit” does not mean to “eliminate” all these foods.

Banning certain foods can increase cravings and binging with those same foods. These higher sugar, saturated fat and sodium foods can still be enjoyed in moderation as part of an overall healthy diet.

Important Nutrients For A Teenager

A balanced meal pattern allows teenagers to obtain all the nutrients necessary for the demands of growing and developing. Certain nutrients stand out as especially important during this time. Whole foods remain the best source of these nutrients as supplements cannot take the place of a food group.

However, if a teen finds themselves unable to consume adequate amounts of the nutrients, they may want to speak to a doctor or registered dietitian about possible supplementation.

Calcium and vitamin D-These nutrients play a key role in the development of healthy bone and other functions in the body. Teenagers consuming diets low in these nutrients may experience low bone mineral density and face the debilitating disease of osteoporosis or brittle bones as they grow older.

Those at higher risk include vegans and those with lactose intolerance as dairy is a main source of these nutrients. Other sources include broccoli, leafy greens, fortified foods, beans, nuts, mushrooms and fish.

Iron-This mineral carries oxygen in the bloodstream and a deficiency leads to exhaustion and other health consequences. Females are at a higher risk due to menstruation associated blood loss. Iron is found in many protein foods like meat, but also in beans and dark leafy greens. Combining plant based iron food sources with foods containing vitamin C will help with absorption.

Fiber- Most teens fall short of fiber recommendations. Fiber helps with digestion, feeling full and prevention of chronic disease like cancer, heart disease, diabetes and obesity. Most plant foods contain fiber with beans usually winning out as the fiber king. Fiber is also found in whole grains, nuts, fruits and vegetables.

Potassium-This mineral supports heart health and lowers blood pressure. Again, most teens do not consume enough of this mineral due to not meeting the fruit and vegetable recommendations. Potatoes, avocados and bananas along with most fruits and vegetables are good sources of potassium.

Should My Teenager Be Placed On A Diet?

Teenagers should avoid going on a diet. Restriction during these crucial development years can cause lasting harm. Dieting is associated with a higher BMI, risk for eating disorders, poor relationship with food, binging and other negative consequences. 

A teenager will gain weight and undergo physical body changes. These changes are a normal part of puberty. The only time a teenager’s weight should be concerning is when growth chart points are repeatedly categorized as “overweight” or “obese” over time, not just at one single point in time.

As such, a teenager should only attempt weight loss if recommended by a healthcare professional.

If parents continue to feel concerned about a teenager’s eating habits, they should lead by example. Parents can eat well balanced meals as a family and fill the kitchen with a variety of nutrient full foods. They can model healthy eating patterns with mindful eating, avoiding dieting language and negative comments about weight.

When Should I Be Concerned About What My Teenager Is Eating?

If food is restricted or adolescents attempt to diet on their own, disordered eating habits can be a result. Signs of an eating disorder include:

  • excessive weight loss/gain
  • preoccupation with food and weight
  • avoiding eating with others
  • extreme exercise or laxative use
  • eating in secret
  • skipping meals
  • excessive use of gum, mouthwash or toothpaste
  • scarred knuckles from vomiting
  • wearing baggy clothes to hide body
  • hoarding food
  • evidence of binge eating 

Teens of varying weights and sex can develop an eating disorder. If a teenager demonstrates disordered eating behaviors, professional help should be sought. The National Eating Disorders Association website,  https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/screening-tool contains a free screening tool and a hotline (800) 931-2237.

Katherine Harmer, RDN

I'm a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with a love for coaching others to success in their health goals, especially teenage athletes. Tennis was my sport of choice in high school. Now I'm a little bit older, a little bit smarter, and a little bit worse at tennis.

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