The bad news also is they're old enough to go to the kitchen and feed themselves. When teens come home from school with growling stomachs, they may not be too interested in making the healthiest of choices. A big bag of greasy potato chips, some dip and sugary soda will probably become the after-school snack of choice because it is easy and tastes good, not because it is good for them.
Good snacks like fresh fruits and vegetables can refuel your teen and give them important nutrients. Poor snacks add extra sugar, saturated fats, and sodium to your kids' body. And if portions aren't controlled, these snacks may ruin their appetite for your healthy family dinner later.
You can help your teen by providing healthy, easy-to-prepare after school snacks:
Frozen Grapes: Buy a pound of seedless grapes and pluck them from the vine. Wash them and place a handful of grapes into several sandwich-sized freezer bags, and put the bags in the freezer. Once the grapes are frozen, they develop a popsicle-like texture and taste deliciously sweet without any added sugar.
Fresh Vegetables and Dip: Teens love chips and dip, but they don't need the extra fats and sodium. Replace the chips with fresh-cut raw vegetables. Try carrot sticks or slices, broccoli, cauliflower, raw green beans, snap peas, or celery (you can store cut vegetables in your refrigerator, but remember they'll lose some nutritional value). Even picky eaters will find a vegetable or two they like to eat. Serve them with veggie dip, regular chip dip, nacho cheese dip or salad dressing. Obviously some dips are healthier than others (cheap nacho cheese dip from the grocery store probably lacks real cheese - or good nutrition).
Whole Grain Bread and Peanut Butter: Make the switch from white bread to 100-percent whole wheat bread, and any sandwich is instantly better for you, and peanut butter adds protein and healthy fats. If your teen has sugar cravings, bring home a jar of 100-percent fruit spread that is naturally sweet rather than a jar of jelly that has extra added sugar or high fructose corn syrup. You can also enjoy other types of butters such as soy nut butter, almond butter, or cashew butter.
Lite Popcorn: What could be easier than tossing a bag of popcorn in the microwave? Popcorn is high in fiber, so it makes a good snack as long you don't drown it in butter or margarine. You can choose brands that are lower in fat and made with less salt or buy a microwave popcorn popper. Let your teen experiment with different seasonings to add flavor and zest without added calories.
Whole Wheat Pretzels: Whole grains are important because they add fiber to your teen's diet. Fiber is important for a healthy digestive system, and most teens don't get enough. Regular pretzels are made from over-processed flour that has had all of the bran and much of the fiber removed. Choose 100-percent whole wheat pretzels that retain the goodness of fiber and still taste great when they're slathered in mustard.
Make Your Own Trail Mix: Does your teen like to grab a granola bar for a quick treat? Granola bars sound like they should be good for your teens, but they often contain unwanted fats, sugar and extra calories. You can make a healthier alternative by making your own trail mix. Just blend one cup each of two different 100-percent whole grain cereals, like whole grain Cheerios and Shredded Wheat. Add one cup of mixed nuts and one-half cup of raisins or other dried fruits. You can even add a half cup of chocolate chips. You can also add shelled sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds or soy nuts.
Protein Bars: Like granola, commercially prepared protein bars can be high in sugar and calories. Make your own homemade protein bars so you can control the ingredients.
Smoothies: Fruit smoothies are much better for your teen than milk shakes or malts, and they're fun to make too. Frozen bananas make a good base for smoothies. When your bananas become a little too ripe for your taste, cut them into one-inch chunks and keep them in the freezer. To make a smoothie, just toss four or five chunks of frozen bananas into a high-quality blender with a cup of low-fat milk, a handful of strawberries or blueberries and a teaspoon of vanilla extract. Blend until smooth and pour into a tall glass.
Hummus and Pita or Crackers: As an alternative to vegetables and dips, have some hummus on hand to serve with whole wheat pita bread or with whole grain crackers or breadsticks. Hummus is made with chickpeas (or garbanzo beans), which makes it a terrific source of protein and healthy fats.
Yogurt Parfait: Plain yogurt is good for your teens if they're not getting enough calcium, but the taste may be kind of boring. Spruce up yogurt with berries, sliced peaches and crunchy cereal flakes, nuts or seeds. Plain yogurt can also be used for healthy, low-fat veggie dips.
Healthy Beverages: Teens love beverages with lots of sugar and caffeine, like sodas, coffee drinks and energy drinks. The problems is that energy drinks may be bad for kids, especially later in the day because the caffeine may make for some sleepless nights and the added sugar is just extra calories. Make sure you keep healthier beverages on hand. Bottles of 100-percent fruit and vegetable juices, low-fat milk, sparkling water and plain chilled water are good choices. Keep sliced lemons and limes handy to add a bit of flavor to plain water.
Getting Rid of the Bad Stuff: It may not be enough to supply healthy snacks; you may need to remove the junk foods as well, depending on your kids' eating patterns. One teen can easily ignore a tub of ice cream in the freezer while another can't resist the temptation to devour it all in one sitting. If you have a teen (or adult or child) in your home who has a difficult time resisting high-calorie foods, keep such foods out of the house.
This doesn't mean you have to deprive your family of fun foods (every kid needs a treat now and then) just regulate them. When you decide that an ice cream treat is in order, hit the ice cream shop. Don't buy bags of candy bars at the grocery or discount store, but occasionally bring home one individual candy bar for each family member. The same idea applies to eating cakes, cookies, greasy chips and donuts: They should be considered treats, not daily dietary staples.