March is National Nutrition Month. The latest research on the relationship between diet and emotions shows that food has a significant impact on how we feel. A poor diet can make adolescents more vulnerable to negative emotions (such as anger and anxiety) as well as mental health disorders like depression. On the other hand, eating a healthy, nutrient-rich diet, complete with plenty of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, has been proven by evidence to improve mood. The adage “you are what you eat” holds true especially for teens, whose bodies and brains are developing at a rapid pace. And adolescents who already struggle with pre-existing mental health or substance abuse issues (such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, OCD, ADHD, ODD or other issues) should be even more careful to eat properly.
But it can be hard to get teens to eat healthfully. And these days, with COVID keeping teens home for most of the day, a structured school routine has often been replaced with a more relaxed schedule. Teens might be eating less healthfully – snacking more, and more frequently defaulting to junk food. Here are some ways to incorporate more vegetables into your teen’s diet.
How to Incorporate More Veggies in Your Teen’s Diet
- Get trendy. It’s not just celebs that are trendy these days. Certain foods can be hip, too. Do a bit of market research to see what healthy product is currently getting its fifteen minutes of fame. Some recent examples include kale, avocado toast, cauliflower rice, broccolini (mini broccoli), microgreens, and more. Even if incorporating certain trendy veggies makes your meal a bit pricey, it might be worth it in the long run if your teen devours dinner each time.
- Chop creatively. The way you cut vegetables can influence their taste. Plated, sliced veggies may not “cut it” anymore for your teen (pun intended). Purchase an inexpensive spiralizer or julienne peeler to create fun shapes with veggies. This can lead to creations such as “Zoodles” (zucchini noodles), which you can then cook like you do pasta. Or, dice tomatoes and cucumbers into tiny cubes instead of the usual slices. Then – trendy word alert – drizzle some olive oil and lemon juice on top to create a popular Middle Eastern salad.
- Trade carbohydrates for vegetables. Sometimes, too many carbs can weigh down your teen and lead to fatigue. To combat this, try substituting your teen’s favorite carbohydrates with vegetables. Think cauliflower rice instead of white rice. Or, spaghetti squash instead of your usual macaroni. (To make spaghetti squash, simply roast it in the oven until it has caramelized. Afterward, using two forks, shred the inside flesh into strands).
- Experiment with different cooking methods. Perhaps your teen won’t eat veggies because they’re not a fan of the texture or taste when cooked a certain way. You can fix this by changing up your cooking methods. If your teen has a sweet tooth, try roasting veggies: roasted veggies caramelize, which enhances their natural sweetness. Or, load up on naturally sweet veggies, such as sweet potatoes, to appeal to their palate. If you boil carrots whole, try chopping them up into small slices and air-frying them instead: this makes for a yummy snack. If you always green beans, try steaming them instead. Then add a splash of soy sauce, a handful of chopped almonds, and you have a new take on an old classic.
- Dabble in dips. Plain, sliced peppers aren’t so appealing on their own. But add a nice ranch dip, and voila: you transform a boring snack into a fun, interactive appetizer. Incorporate dips into your mealtimes and watch veggies disappear: serve edamame beans along with a small bowl of soy sauce, cucumbers and carrots with thousand-island dressing or hummus, and almost any vegetable with Greek tzatziki. To get even more bang for your buck, make the actual dip using vegetables. Create tasty babaganoush by broiling eggplant in the oven and then mashing it up with some mayo.
- Make the blender your BFF. Some parents find that their teens are reluctant to eat veggies when they see them, but if they’re grated so finely they’re almost invisible, they don’t seem to mind. In this way, the blender makes it super easy to sneak veggies into sauces, smoothies or soups. Try adding finely grated carrots or blended tomatoes to a meat sauce. Or a few greens to a fruit smoothie. And when making soups, use an immersion blender to blend all your veggies together into a nice thick broth. Pureed pumpkin soup, butternut squash soup, mushroom soup, or roasted red pepper soup are all delicious, and might appeal to your teen.
- Mix it up with different salad dressings. With the right ingredients, salads can be extremely nutritious and delicious. Romaine lettuce and spinach contain folate intake and B12 – both of which are proven by research to protect against negative mental health symptoms. But many teens aren’t a fan of salads. If your teen cringes when they see lettuce, try making different dressings to see if that might change. Honey-based dressings, in particular, are often a fan with the teen crowd.
Nutrition at Evolve Treatment Centers
At Evolve Treatment Centers for Teens, we treat food as medicine. We believe nutrition plays a significant role in recovery — especially when it comes to our adolescents. Since maintaining a healthy diet does wonders to a teen’s mind and body, our onsite chefs at each of our residential treatment centers take the time and effort to carefully plan, prepare and serve three healthful, homemade, balanced meals a day. Usually, our residential counselors and therapists eat these meals together with our teens, family-style.
Our chefs also facilitate a weekly Cooking Lab every week, where they show our teens how to cook easy recipes together (of course, no sharps used, all things pre-cut). At all of Evolve’s residential treatment, partial hospitalization, and intensive outpatient programs, we also provide psychoeducation and group therapy on a regular basis to teach our clients how to develop a schedule and practice balanced eating efforts. These are pivotal factors in achieving effective emotion regulation.