Let’s talk about food. More specifically, Let’s talk about teenagers and the abundance of food they are capable of consuming. It’s amazing, isn’t it, the mountain of food they can ingest (especially in one sitting or after just an hour after already having consumed similar amounts)? When you have multiple children, and their about-to-hit-a-growth-spurt windows align, no quasi-edible item is safe. I used to be amazed with what my three boys could eat before, when they were younger. “Wow,” I’d think, “They just polished off an entire pound of pasta.” Now I know that is barely putting a dent compared to what they can eat en masse. Is it possible their stomachs turn into bottomless pits? Have you ever been to the old mine in Kimberley, South Africa? Where you inch close to the edge, and peer down … and there doesn’t seem to be a bottom? Yeah, that’s the same thing here.
I consider myself hugely fortunate in that my boys eat really healthfully. They snack on veggies, they love fruit, they eat whole grains, and low-sugar (not fake sugar, mind you) treats, and are good at listening to their bodies when they are hungry or full. They stay hydrated with water, and don’t drink juice (much; not at home anyway), they don’t drink sugary sodas (much; not at home anyway), and they fully comprehend the import of family meals. I’ve been literally cramming this down their throats since the day they were born, so very happy that the lesson sticks. Eating well is a very important part of feeling well, growing well, having energy, and maintaining a healthy weight. But sometimes that ‘listening to their bodies’ equates with ‘but I’m still hungry,’ especially when they are on the brink of a growth spurt. Especially when they have been going going going all day, and they come home on the bus and they are ready to eat A N Y T H I N G.
This is not a new phenomenon, and it is certainly not ascribed to only one gender. Beyond the first year of life, when babies can triple their weight, young people do the bulk of their growing during preteen to teen years (ages 8 – 15; earlier for girls usually and later for boys). This is definitely not the point at which they are ‘physically mature’ by any means, but after a period of puberty (generally lasting 2 to 5 years), the rate of growth will slow significantly. Which is both good and bad: this puts the burden of feeding that ‘period of growth’ squarely on parents’ shoulders (Yay, you are mostly in control what they are eating! Boo, you have to pay for all of that food!). Let’s look at the silver lining thought: if the growth were to happen later, say after age 17, imagine what it would cost to send our kids to live in college dorms if they also had to include the food plan that covered the cost of that massive amount of food.
A friend of mine once told me that she stocked up on and gave her son a baguette before each meal. A plain baguette, no butter, no cheese, no extras. ‘To take an edge off the hole.’ Of course, we then lived in a Francophone country and excellent baguettes were literally a dime a dozen (okay, maybe $0.50 each). None the less, a much more cost effective option to begin to fill the void before proper nutrients would of course be added. I filed that little gem away for later; now is the time I am trying to figure out how to slow the snacking.
For those of us that live overseas, many of us rely heavily on local fruit and veg to make healthy snacks (and meals, of course), and also we use online vendors to buy those fun only-from-America snacks that our kids love. You know, the ones you hunt out and order, that they can eat in between their classes or on their way to their umpteen after school activities. The ones that are individually wrapped so as to slow their eating pace at least a little as they mow through the package. As I watch my boys consumer these snacks, I’m reminded very much of our kitty (a teenager himself at just over one year in age) when he gets akitty snacks. He only gets them about once a week and each time he does, he inhales it with such speed I know there is no way the treat actually spent any time on his tongue (you know, where he’d actually be able to taste it). That is exactly the speed at which my boys inhale these snacks. It’s not that I begrudge my boys these snacks; I bought them specifically for them… to be consumed one at a time at school. Well. I try to keep them as school snacks. I should be glad they like these healthy options, though: We have dried fruit bars, applesauce pouches, dried fruit boxes, nuts, sesame crackers, and granola bars. We have the snacks I feel good about them eating, and I know will stay in their tummies during/after a long day at school, and before the 2-hour rugby practice. These snacks are not simple-carb absorb-immediately-and-cause-a-blood-sugar-drop commercial crap snacks; they are not intended to be eaten in mass quantities. Not all are imported; many are local, too. Still, age old questions: how do we slow the consumption rate?
Part of the problem, I know, is self-induced: My kiddos are especially distanced from the sourcing of food. Perhaps deliberately, perhaps due in part to the not participating in the purchasing process (and not seeing the price tags attached to foods), my kiddos are not really concerned with the cost of the snacks. Sure, they go to the grocery store here with us, but the price tags have huge numbers that aren’t easy to calculate into US dollars (our current exchange rate is 3,669.15 so not exactly a number that you can figure in your head). It isn’t that all of the snacks have to come from the US; we love the local snacks, too, don’t get me wrong. Still, I need to be able to plan for what will be consumed in the coming week when I do the weekly shopping, and if one of the boys is going to sit down and eat an entire watermelon in one sitting (wish I was kidding), and 10 apples in a weekend, then it might be nice to have a little advanced notice. Those of you with multiple children know as well as I do that when said child eats the entire watermelon, the other two won’t partake … but then 30 minutes later will want some and then all hell breaks loose because there isn’t any left (been there, right?).
One thing I am really working on with the boys, though, is staying hydrated. Yes, they legit need a lot of calories to support their growth. Oftentimes, though, what feels like hunger is actually a confused brain’s interpretation of the thirst signal. This is one of the most frequent body signal confusions that can happen; the same part of your brain interprets both signals.
Another signal body’s often confuse is the clock. Just because it is noon, does that mean we are hungry? And are we really hungry or are we just reacting to the time indicated? Humans are social animals; we see our friends heading to lunch so therefore, we should go too, whether or not we are actually hungry. Sure, there is the matter of taking advantage of the correct window during which we should eat, but also, it is important to listen to what your body is saying, and not what the clock is indicating.
The other point that is very important to mention when it comes to teens and growth and massive food consumption is sleep. Yes, sleep. This massive growth needs caloric support, yes, because in order to create new tissue, the body needs the building blocks (the micro- and macro nutrients from healthy foods like fruits and veggies, whole grains and quality proteins), and it also need resting time. Sleep is when the body rebuilds (or just plain builds) and recovers for the next day. Guess what happens when that exponentially growing body does not get sufficient sleep/recover/building time? They walk around in a not-fully-rested state and this very surely will contribute to unhealthy eating habits (read: mindless snacking). You know what I am talking about: think about those nights when you stay up waaaay too late, and then how you can’t stop snacking the following day.
Friends, yes, it is expensive to have teenagers in the household. Yes, they are growing and therefore eating machines. Trying to keep healthy food and snacks on hand can feel like a full time job. Involving them in the planning process is one step to making sure you don’t run out. Helping them to correctly interpret their body’s signals is important too. Finally, ensuring your kids get sufficient sleep to support their growth as well as appropriate nutrients is very important (and will likely be an uphill battle).
Feed your kids for success. Help them grow well, without eating you out of house and home.