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The A to Z's of Teenagers: E is for Eating

Photograph by Getty Images

What do mothers and teens fight about? Clothes, curfew, chores, dating, drinking, driving, friends, homework, hygiene, language, parties, screen time ... and always, always food.

Eat more. Eat less. Eat healthier. Eat slower. Eat breakfast. Eat with the family. Don’t eat standing in front of the open refrigerator. Eat a piece of fruit if you’re hungry. Don’t eat in your room.

Does any of this—does all of this—sound familiar?

Food has been a battleground in our house for as long as I can remember. I want Lizzie to think about what she puts in her mouth but not obsess about it (as in eating disorder). I want her to eat well, to respect her body by feeding it with fresh, nutritious food. Is that so much to ask?

Apparently, yes.

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If you live with a teen, you know this. And you probably know, firsthand, what various pollsters have discovered when asking American teens about the foods they love to eat. Their favorite foods—this involves stretching the definition of food—are pizza, French fries, chips, soda and ice cream. (Yes, that’s right: fat, fat, fat, sugar, and fat and sugar.)

The battle over food is not as simple as mom vs. teen—not that that’s simple, but at least it’s clear-cut. Moms like me (and you) who want their teens to eat well are doing battle against the entire fast-food culture aided and abetted by the $4.2 billion spent advertising junk food. But it’s not just the evil 21st century Mad Men (and women) who are turning our kids from melon to Mountain Dew. It’s the unintentional collusion of well-intentioned folks: the Girl Scouts selling their cookies, Campfire with its candy sales, the high school track team pizza parties, the cupcake fundraisers, the vending machines.

What’s a poor salad-spinning, chicken breast-baking, broccoli-wokking mother to do?

I don’t know what you do, but I nag. I make good food and I nag. I keep the cupboards relatively free of junk and I nag. I drive by the drive-throughs and I nag. Actually, I don’t nag. I use these golden arches sightings as “teaching moments.” Possibly worse than nagging.

It’s my sacred responsibility (isn’t it?) to raise the healthiest child I can. So what if she hates me for it.

There’s this cliché about “picking your fights.” I’ve thrown in the towel on a lot of things, but I’ve drawn the line on food. This is one fight I’m sticking with. It’s my sacred responsibility (isn’t it?) to raise the healthiest child I can. So what if she hates me for it? (And sneaks Cheetos in her room anyway.)

And now, a word from the teenage daughter:

If I were stranded on a desert island with only two food items, I'd hope they would be a jalepeño cheese bagel (and cream cheese) and Punch Gatorade. That’s if there were a toaster (and electricity) on this desert island, as an untoasted bagel is not worth eating. If I could get anything to stock my own kitchen with, it would be: macaroni and cheese, frozen cheese pizza, cheese quesadillas, Cheez-its, Cheetos, cheese puffs. Do you see a pattern here?

You can imagine that this all takes place in an alternate universe where calories don’t count—and where my mother does not exist. But in the universe I happen to live in, our fridge is stocked with vegetables, fruit, yogurt and milk. And our freezer has ice packs, not ice cream. Life is tough for a cheese-loving girl like me. Especially at dinner time, which we all eat together, and have to agree on together. Among the fights we have over food are battles over fish (any and all varieties), zucchini, sweet potatoes, mushrooms, salads or the fancy French or Indian meals my mom concocts from time to time. I’d rather be upstairs in my room with my drive-through Taco Bell.

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And that's sometimes what I can do now that I have my own car. For breakfast I can go get coffee and a cream cheese Danish. For lunch: burritos, burgers or pizza washed down with Red Bull. For dinner (when I can escape the sit-down dinner at home), it’s burritos, burgers or pizza and, instead of Red Bull, I mix it up with a RockStar. OK. I’m not really all that bad all the time. Sometimes I have a fruit protein smoothie for breakfast. For lunch or dinner I might have sushi or a turkey sandwich and a glass of juice. I can’t tell you how nice it is to have this freedom from my mother who is constantly pestering me about healthy-this and low-fat that.

She may be a pain in the you-know-where, but I have to admit that I have picked up a few good habits from her. Like drinking water throughout the day. Like eating breakfast. Like reading labels (even though I happily ignore them!). And there are actually a few healthy things she pushed on me that, once I tried them, I liked. I like tofu. I like green beans. I like herbal tea. I hope she doesn’t get her hopes up, though. I’m still a cheese girl.

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