Michael van Straten
Michael van Straten

Superfoods For Teenagers

'Superfoods' is the buzzword, but what does it mean? Can fruits and vegetables make your children healthier, slow down ageing, lower blood pressure or even prevent some forms of cancer. After 45 years as a Complementary Health Practitioner, broadcaster, organic gardener and the author of the first ever Superfoods book in 1989, here are a few answers.

Superfoods must have substantial levels of one or more essential vitamins and minerals and/or be a rich source of the unique 'phytochemicals' – powerful natural substances that protect the body's cells from damage. Surprisingly the two don't always go together.

Celery for example, is pretty useless nutritionally, 95% water, only 7 energy-giving calories in 100 g and you burn more chewing it. But it has been valued as medicinal since ancient Rome. The phytochemicals it contains provide flavour and calming properties. As a natural diuretic, it gets rid of surplus fluid so is perfect for women with monthly bouts of puffy hands, feet or breasts.

Superfoods affect whole populations and are the reason why southern European men have 50% less risk of prostate cancer than the British - Spaniards, for example, eat more than twice as much fruit and vegetables than the average Brit. On average they get through the equivalent of eight tomatoes a day, providing large quantities of the prostate cancer protective nutrient, Lycopene. Their Superfoods diet also means fewer strokes, heart disease, bowel cancer and other ills.

But it's in the realm of catering for the kids that Superfoods really come into their own. The right foods can promote better natural resistance; fight chronic fatigue and lethargy; zap the zits of acne; boost brain power, memory, concentration and all round mental and physical performance.

A Diet For The Turbulent Teens

For today's children, the teens are years of mounting stress.

The stress of moving on to big school and settling down in a new world, of adjusting to a huge new crowd of classmates, of dealing perhaps with rejection and bullying. The stress of exams looming ever larger and more threatening as the teenage years move on. The stress of competing in a world where looks and possessions take on huge importance - and the first pimple is a tragedy. And the stress of puberty with all its hormonal upheavals.

Now more than ever your children need the very best nourishment to help them deal with this stress - and to meet the huge demands of puberty as well as growth. And sadly, it is for this age group particularly that junk food with all its anti-nutrients tends to become part of a normal lifestyle, and burgers, chips and a fizzy drink from a can constitute normal social eating. It is at this age that sound eating habits learned around the family table will finally prove their value.

Six Superfoods for Teens

Oats: packed with enough B vitamins to make them first-class nourishment for nerves and exhaustion - just the food for stressed-out teenagers. They're also high in zinc -vital for active minds and clear skins, iron for stamina, calcium for healthy bones and magnesium for tranquil minds.

Sardines: an excellent source of the vital fats needed for brains, nerves and skin especially; and rich in bone-building calcium.

Watercress: slip a little watercress into salads, soups and sandwiches: its rich in protective factors as well as useful minerals.

Sesame and Sunflower seeds: nuts are excellent protein - eat them at the same meal as vitamin C-rich foods for good absorption - and these two in particular are high in zinc, vital for puberty and a help in preventing some eating disorders.

Chicken: cold roast chicken is good grazing food for hungry teenagers, low-fat, supplying good protein, zinc and B vitamins.

Apples: keep a bowl of apples on the kitchen table for a super-healthy between-meals snack.

The Eating Plan

Much of the time, as the teenage years go by, your children will be eating and drinking away from home - lunching in the school cafeteria, socialising, going out on the town. Make sure that the meals they do eat at home make up for any deficiencies in what they're eating elsewhere.

Breakfast, hopefully, will by now be established as a meal the family sits down to: make porridge in winter; in summer serve wonderful muesli with sunflower and sesame seeds, soaked overnight, to which you add a little cream a few berries for breakfast. Try and make a point of at least one weekly evening which is sacrosanct for a family meal together - perhaps Friday. And as far as possible, weekend midday meals should be more occasions for relaxed eating together.

Many parents can't be bothered to put up with constant invasion by strange teenagers dropping in for meals or snacks at all hours. But if your home is open house for your childrens's friends, not only will you see much more of them - you’ll also have the pleasure of meeting their friends who may be delightful. And you’ll have the chance to see that on these occasions too, your kids are eating food that's healthy as well as delicious.

Grazing seems to be an established habit of modern teenagers. If your fridge and store-cupboard is junk-food-free, healthy snacking is what they'll be doing. Make some real beef and veggie burgers for them to find in the freezer any time, plus whole-wheat baps; tomato or Bolognese sauce from the freezer are the makings of a quick pasta; they should find, too, cottage and ordinary hard cheese, hummus, eggs, tinned sardines and tuna, smoked mackerel, plain Greek yogurts, and plenty of fruit.

Limitless crisps and fizzy drinks - usually with artificial sweeteners, since most teenage girls are on semi-permanent diets - are the danger foods most likely to prove irresistible to them, since that's probably what the rest of the gang will be enjoying. Your children should know by now that these are treats which will have to come out of their own pocket-money.

They should also know that artificial sweeteners may be a serious health risk - in fact by this time they should be savvy enough to be reading the small print on the list of ingredients without any urging from you.

Superfoods do not mean that parents have to turn into Delia, Marco, Raymond, Hairy Bikers, Jamie or even Aldo Zilli. Life is, after all, too short to stuff a mushroom, but there is time to make simple, nourishing and delicious food and to teach youngsters the basics of cooking at the same time.

One of the best cookbooks I have ever read (not counting my own of course) is called COOKING IN TEN MINUTES by a wonderful French gourmet and food writer called Edouard de Pomiane. He starts with two instructions, put a saucepan of water on to boil, you may not know why but if you don't use it for veg, pasta or poached eggs it will do for the washing up or coffee; second, put your frying pan on the heat before you take your hat off – the ten minutes starts when you put food into the water or the pan.

I have one golden rule for healthy cooking – if it tastes awful no child will ever eat it, so be prepared for a little compromising. Sandwiches with one slice of white and one of wholemeal; chips once a week not every day; water, diluted juice or milk to drink during the week and canned drinks at week ends if they must; make your own burgers and grill or griddle them; real cheese not strings and fake stuff; turkey or chicken that you get from a butcher rather than twizzlers or nuggets.

All it takes is a bit of thought, a little experimenting, some extra work and an enormous amount of courage and perseverance to battle with the big budgets of the junk food peddlers.

Good luck!


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