Health Library

Healthy Diet for Adolescents (Ages 12-18)

The teen years are a time to grow and change. The foods that teens eat need to support this process. Here are some ways to help your teen eat healthier.

Key Parts of Healthy Eating

Get Enough Calories

Teens need a lot of calories to support their growth and to fuel their bodies. The amount that your teen needs depends on age, sex, and the calories that he or she burns through activity. Most teen girls need about 2,200 calories each day. Teen boys need 2,500 to 3,000 calories each day.

It is easy to eat too many calories by making poor food choices. This can lead to being overweight or obese. Make sure your teen gets the amount of calories they need by:

  • Giving them healthful foods from all food groups
  • Not giving them foods that are high in sugar or fat, such as candy bars, chips, cakes, cookies, donuts, and sugary drinks
  • Giving your teen just enough food and then letting your teen have more if they are still hungry (serving too much food at one time can lead to overeating)

Key Nutrients

Your teen needs:

  • Carbohydrates (carbs): This is your teen's main source of energy. About half of their calories should come from carbs. Your teen should choose healthy carbs like whole grains, fruits, veggies, and milk.
  • Protein: Your teen needs protein to grow and build muscle. About a quarter of your teen’s calories should come from protein. Good sources are poultry, lean meat, seafood, eggs, nuts, soy, legumes, and low-fat and nonfat dairy products.
  • Fat: Teens need about a quarter of their calories as fat. It helps with growth. Fat also helps the body take in vitamins and keep the skin healthy. Your teen should eat healthy fats, such as those found in vegetable oils, nuts, avocados, olives, and fatty fish.

Vitamins and Minerals

Many teens, mainly girls, do not get enough vitamins and minerals. Ask the doctor if your teen should take vitamins.

Here are some vitamins and minerals that teens often do not get enough of:

Vitamin or Mineral Role Good Sources

Calcium

Helps to build strong bones and teeth

Milk, cheese, yogurt, tofu, orange juice with calcium, cereal with calcium, and canned salmon

Folate

Helps with growth

Orange juice, breakfast cereals with folate, bread, milk, dried beans, and lentils

Iron

Needed to carry red blood cells; not getting enough from the foods you eat can lead to iron-deficiency anemia

Meat, chicken, fish, and breakfast cereal with iron

Zinc

Helps with growth and sexual maturation

Chicken, meat, shellfish, whole grains, and breakfast cereal with zinc

Vitamin A

Needed for eyesight and growth and to help the immune system work

Carrots, breakfast cereal with vitamin A, milk, and cheese

Vitamin D

Needed for the body to use the calcium that your teen eats

Milk with vitamin D, salmon, and egg yolks—the sun lets your body make vitamin D, but be aware of the dangers of getting too much sun

Vitamin E

Helps protect the body from harm

Nuts, seeds, whole grains, spinach, and breakfast cereal with vitamin E

Magnesium

Helps keep the heart in rhythm, builds strong bones, and keeps blood pressure within a normal range

Whole grains, green veggies, and legumes

Fiber

Foods with fiber may put off heart disease and some kinds of cancer. It can also ease constipation and help your teen feel full after eating. Most teens do not eat enough. Teach your teen to choose whole grains and offer them plenty of fruits and veggies.

Eating Plan

This eating plan is based on the United States Department of Agriculture's Choose My Plate website. The daily amount varies based on age, weight, sex, and activity. Use these amounts as a start. Go to their website to learn more.

Food Group Daily Amount * Tips

Grains (1 ounce = 1 slice bread; ¼ bagel; ½ cup cooked pasta or rice; 5 whole wheat crackers)

  • Female
    • 12 to 18 years old: 6 ounces
  • Male
    • 12 years old: 7 ounces
    • 15 years old: 9 ounces
    • 18 years old: 10 ounces
  • At least ½ of grains should be whole grains
  • Whole grains are whole wheat products, oatmeal, brown rice, barley, popcorn

Veggies (1 cup = 1 cup raw or cooked veggies; 2 cups raw leafy veggies)

  • Female
    • 12 to 18 years old: 2.5 cups
  • Male
    • 12 years old: 3 cups
    • 15 years old: 3.5 cups
    • 18 years old: 3.5 cups
  • Offer many types of veggies
  • Give your child more:
    • Dark green (broccoli, spinach, romaine lettuce)
    • Orange (carrots, sweet potatoes, butternut squash)
    • Dry beans and peas (chickpeas, black beans, lentils, split peas, kidney beans, tofu)

Fruits (1 cup = 1 cup fresh fruit; 1 cup fruit juice; ½ cup dried fruit)

  • Female
    • 12 to 18 years old: 2 cups
  • Male
    • 12 years old: 2 cups
    • 15 years old: 2 cups
    • 18 years old: 2.5 cups
  • Offer a variety of fruit and 100% fruit juice

Milk (1 cup = 8 ounces milk or yogurt; 1½ ounces cheese)

  • Female
    • 12 to 18 years old: 3 cups
  • Male
    • 12 years old: 3 cups
    • 15 years old: 3 cups
    • 18 years old: 3 cups
  • Choose low-fat or fat-free dairy products such as milk, yogurt, and cheese
  • Foods and drinks with calcium added to them

Protein (1 ounce = 1 ounce meat, fish, or poultry; ¼ cup cooked, dry beans; 1 egg; 1 tablespoon peanut butter; ½ ounce nuts)

  • Female
    • 12 to 18 years old: 5.5 ounces
  • Male
    • 12 years old: 6 ounces
    • 15 years old: 6.5 ounces
    • 18 years old: 7 ounces
  • Choose lean meats and poultry
  • Offer more fish and vegetarian sources of protein, such as beans, peas, nuts, and seeds

Fats and Sweets

  • Female
    • 12 to 18 years old: 265 calories
  • Male
    • 12 years old: 290 calories
    • 15 years old: 410 calories
    • 18 years old: 425 calories
  • Limit foods high in added sugar or solid fats like soda, candy, cookies, muffins, chips, French fries, and fried foods
  • Look for items that do not have saturated or trans fats

*The daily amounts are for children 12 to 18 who are of average weight and height for their age and do 30 to 60 minutes of activity each day.

Making Mealtime Healthy

There are ways you can help your teen make meals healthier. Here are some tips:

  • Breakfast: Studies show breakfast helps kids learn. Your teen's breakfast should have foods from all food groups. Some healthy choices are yogurt, whole wheat toast, cereal, and breakfast sandwiches.
  • Lunch: Your teen should have a balanced, healthy lunch each day. Some healthy choices are sandwiches and pasta salads.
  • Dinner: Dinner is a great time to get together as a family. Some healthy dinner choices are whole grains, veggies, lean protein, low-fat dairy, and sometimes dessert.

Most teens should also eat 2 to 3 snacks a day. Some healthy choices are fresh fruit and veggies, yogurt, granola bars, cheese, pretzels, and popcorn.

Tips to Help Your Teen

  • Try to cook at home. Meals cooked at home are often healthier and lower in calories, fat, and salt.
  • Have your teen help with meal planning, shopping, and cooking.
  • Talk to your child about the benefits of healthy eating.

Resources

Choose My Plate—US Department of Agriculture
http://www.choosemyplate.gov

Eat Right—Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
http://www.eatright.org

Canadian Resources

Dietitians of Canada
http://www.dietitians.ca

Health Canada
https://www.canada.ca

References

Dietary guidelines for Americans 2015-2020. US Department of Agriculture and US Department of Health and Human Services. Available at: https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/. Accessed February 12, 2020.

Parent teaching: Teaching parents about nutrition of healthy teenagers (ages 12 through 18 years). EBSCO Nursing Reference Center website. Available at: https://www.ebscohost.com/nursing/products/nursing-reference-center. Updated September 1, 2017. Accessed February 12, 2020.