Fuel For Feeding Bottomless Teens
When my kids were toddlers, I felt like getting them to eat was a never-ending slog. Both of them subsisted on air and the occasional glass of milk, and my son, especially, was known as “The Littlest Breadatarian” for years. (Yep, if it was bread, he loved it, though that meant he’d take a bite or two and then shape the remainder of the roll or slice into a squishy plaything.) Plus there was the whole delightful issue of, “You seem really cranky, I think you need a snack,” while said cranky child screamed that s/he was! not! hungry!! It’s not that I fretted about food all the time—I knew that toddlers are notorious for being picky eaters, and I tried to serve reasonable options and remove any power struggle from the mix—but I wondered if there would ever come a time when one or both kids would be able to 1) recognize/verbalize hunger, 2) obtain a reasonable food option for themselves, and 3) eat it.
Well, you know the saying about being careful what you wish for? Now I have two teenagers, and they want to eat all the time. Hooray…?
My little breadatarian, oddly enough, has blossomed into an adventurous eater with a sophisticated palate. He loves all things seafood and spice, and often helps me prepare meals. My daughter, on the other hand—once a decent eater in her tween years—is now a vegetarian (strike 1) with multiple OCD-related food issues (strike 2) that can make mealtime especially challenging. Both kids, like most teens, are never too full for ice cream or potato chips, but are often uninterested in the fresh veggies I cut up for them. And both kids are even crankier when hungry now than when they were toddlers.
So: I’m not into Sneaky-Chef-esque tactics, not really. I see no point in hiding squash in my macaroni and cheese; both my kids will eat squash served as squash (provided it’s an alternate Tuesday when the moon is full, mind you), and while fruits and veggies are nutritious and wonderful, what active, growing bodies need even more is protein, and lots of it. Sure, I can put out a bag of chips for my son and his friends and they’ll demolish it in under five minutes and think they’re full, but that’s not the kind of sustained energy source that they need. My goal these days is to pump up the protein everywhere I can, plus provide complex carbohydrates, plus get the kids thinking about food-as-fuel so that they can make good food choices on their own, too.
Protein powders are your friends
I do a lot of my own baking, which I know is not everyone’s thing, but at any given time I have two or three canisters of protein powders in my pantry. Hemp protein substitutes well for up to half the flour in recipes for things like muffins, and is high in both protein and fiber (both help make you feel full). Just be aware that, well, it’s green, and can make your creations appear unappetizing if you’re not careful; I tend to use this in pumpkin breads as the orange counteracts the green pretty well. Whey protein doesn’t have as much fiber, but is high in protein and can be purchased in a variety of flavors (for smoothies) or unflavored (for baking), and is versatile and colorless. (Two tips: read labels carefully, as flavored wheys often have chemical additives, and if you don’t want to shell out for the sports-grade stuff, just buy a box of powdered milk and start adding a couple of packets to your baked items to up the protein.) I tend to avoid soy powder because I think it has an aftertaste, but if you have a milk allergy and/or dislike the hemp, that’s another option.
I often bake on the weekends and freeze big batches of muffins, cookies and other items that can be grabbed for breakfasts or snacks, and adding protein means I can say, “Sure, grab one of those cookies for breakfast” without guilt.
Remember chia pets? Chia seeds are coming into their own as a trendy “superfood,” and a search on the ‘net will yield a zillion different chia-based recipes (apparently you can make it into pudding…?), which frankly scares me a little. But I always have a bag of chia on hand because those nearly-invisible, mostly-tasteless little seeds are a powerhouse of nutrients, fiber, and protein. I add them to everything. They go in all my baked goods, into my pancake mix, meatloaf, veggie burgers, dips, smoothies, on salads; seriously, once you start using chia, you will put it everywhere.
Beans are good food, even in desserts
Legumes are nutritional powerhouses, and they have a lot of lasting power in terms of filling you up. We eat a lot of bean dishes in the general course of our meals, but a friend recently turned me on to this cake recipe (and its counterpart, this brownie recipe), both of which are gluten-free, high in fiber and protein, and delicious. The cake recipe makes a dozen muffins, and I let the kids have them for breakfast, even. I know the recipes sound crazy, but I promise they taste nothing like beans in the end.
Brown is better than white
The rule of thumb about complex carbohydrates—which make you feel fuller or longer, and have more protein and other nutrients—is that they’re not white. Sweet potatoes are better than white potatoes; oat bran is better than refined flour; brown rice is better than white rice. We all know this stuff. It doesn’t mean you have to give up the simple carbs your family probably loves, it just means that you start thinking about swaps and compromises more often than not. In our home, for example, I simply don’t buy white rice; I go for a brown basmati or jasmine rice, which we all like just as well, and no one misses the alternative (especially when I cook it in coconut milk; sticky coconut rice tastes decadent no matter what kind of rice you use). On the other hand, we still have white potatoes sometimes, but we have sweet potatoes more often. I’m gluten-free, so I don’t really eat pasta (rice pasta is a good substitute but not very nutritious), but I’ll make pasta for the rest of the family, I’ll just buy the whole grain or “extra fiber” or “hidden veggie” kind for them. We have pancakes once a week, but I make my own multigrain mix (complete with oat bran, chia, and whey protein) so that it’s not an empty carb-fest.
Pair snack favorites with nutrition-dense counterparts
All things in moderation, right? I’m the last person to suggest you ditch the Oreos or cheese curls; that only turns foods into “forbidden fruit,” and besides, a little bit of junk food is fine. So let them have their Oreos with a glass of milk (or milk-substitute, if you don’t do dairy), their chips along with a Greek yogurt dip, etc. My kids are far too big/old for those tiny little-kid cups of yogurt and squeeze pouches of applesauce, but you know what? I buy them anyway, because they’re an easy sell as a, “Sure, and why won’t you grab one of those to go with that” kind of snack. No one is happier than me when a kid opts for a banana or an apple, but in terms of filling them up, I’ve learned to suggest they smear it with some nut butter or grab a yogurt or a handful of almonds to go with it.
Do you have any great tips/tricks or recipes to share that are getting you through the hollow-leg years? Someone is always hungry ’round here, so I’ll take all the suggestions I can get.Published August 13, 2013. Last updated July 14, 2017.