Food and nutrition for adolescents

Eating healthy food is important at any age, but it’s especially important for teenagers.

As your body is still growing, it’s vital that you eat enough good quality food and the right kinds to meet your energy and nutrition needs.

Being a teenager can be fun, but it can also be difficult as your body shape changes. These physical changes can be hard to deal with if they aren’t what you are expecting. There can be pressure from friends to be or look a certain way, and this might affect the foods you eat. It’s not a good time to crash diet, as you won’t get enough nutrients, and you may not reach your full potential. Following a sensible, well-balanced diet is a much better option, both for now and in the long term.

As a teenager, you’ll start to become more independent and make your own food choices. You’ll hang out with your friends or get a part-time job so you can buy the things you like. Because you are still growing, you need to take extra care to get enough of some important vitamins and minerals to feel good and be healthy.

What should I eat?

Eating three regular meals a day with some snacks will help you meet your nutrition needs. Skipping meals means you will miss out on vitamins, minerals and carbohydrates, which can leave you lacking energy or finding it hard to concentrate. Here is a guide to help you understand the value of what you eat.

  1. Breads, grains and cereals are carbohydrates that provide energy for your brain and muscles. They’re also an excellent source of fibre and B vitamins. Without enough carbohydrates you may feel tired and run down. Try to include some carbohydrates at each mealtime.
  2. Fruit and vegetables have lots of vitamins and minerals which help boost your immune system and keep you from getting sick. They’re also very important for healthy skin and eyes. It’s recommended you eat two serves of fruit and five serves of vegetables a day.
  3. Meat, chicken, fish, eggs, nuts and legumes (e.g. beans and lentils) are good sources of iron and protein. Iron is needed to make red blood cells, which carry oxygen around your body. If you are menstruating or have your period, this leads to loss of iron. If you don’t get enough iron, you can develop anaemia, a condition that can make you feel tired and light-headed and short of breath. Protein is needed for growth and to keep your muscles healthy. Not eating enough protein when you are still growing, or going through puberty, can lead to delayed or stunted height and weight. Not enough protein is common when you go on strict diets. Include meat, chicken, fish or eggs in your diet at least twice a day. Fish is important for your brain, eyes and skin. Try to eat fish 2 to 3 times a week.

    If you are vegetarian or vegan and do not eat meat, there are other ways to meet your iron needs, for example, with foods like baked beans, pulses, lentils, nuts and seeds.
  4. Dairy foods like milk, cheese and yoghurt help to build bones and teeth and keep your heart, muscles and nerves working properly. You’ll need three and a half serves of dairy food a day to meet your needs.
  5. Eating too much fat and oil can result in you putting on weight. Try to use oils in small amounts for cooking or salad dressings. Other high-fat foods like chocolate, chips, cakes and fried foods can increase your weight without giving your body many nutrients.
  6. Fluids are also an important part of your diet. Drink water to keep hydrated, so you won’t feel so tired or thirsty. It can also help to prevent constipation.

It is better not to drink flavoured waters or sports drinks because they can lead to more weight gain.

Following is a sample meal plan for 12 to 18 year olds:

Breakfast 1 bowl oat flake-based cereal with
milk and banana
Recess or morning tea 200 g tub yoghurt and
1 cup air-popped popcorn
Lunch Ham, cheese and tomato sandwich and
1 cup fruit salad 
After-school snack or 
afternoon tea
¼ cup hommus dip and 3 crispbreads and
40g dried fruit and nuts
Dinner Chicken and vegetable stir-fry with
Supper (if hungry) 1 -2 slices fruit bread with ricotta and
1 glass milk

Why should I eat breakfast?

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. It can help with memory and concentration at school, and give you energy to study and play. Regular breakfast eaters tend to have a healthier weight than those who skip breakfast.

Look for breakfast cereals that are high fibre and low fat and with not too much added sugar or salt. Here are some healthy breakfast options:

  • porridge with honey and cinnamon
  • muesli with yoghurt
  • fresh fruit and yoghurt
  • higher-fibre cereals like Weet-Bix, Vita Brits, Mini-Wheats, Just Right, Fibre Plus,  Sustain or similar
  • multigrain toast with a boiled or poached egg
  • baked beans on toast
  • raisin toast
  • pita bread with olives and feta
  • melted cheese and vegemite on toast or an English muffin
  • crumpets with jam
  • banana milkshake or fruit smoothie
  • pancakes with yoghurt and fruit.

What’s a healthy school lunch?

If you don’t look forward to your school lunch, then change what you are preparing. School lunches don’t have to be boring. Does a parent or carer usually make your school lunch? If you don’t like what they make for you, talk to them about what you would like instead. Tell them what sandwich fillings you like, or what your favourite healthy snacks are.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Chicken, grated carrot, cucumber and cream cheese pita bread
  • Turkey, cheese and salad on multigrain bread with cranberry sauce
  • Vegetable and lentil soup in a thermos with a bread roll
  • Smoked salmon, salad and cream cheese bagel
  • Leftover pasta with lots of cooked vegetables
  • Quiche and salad
  • Cheese and salad sandwich
  • Boiled egg and salad on multigrain with a smear of mayonnaise
  • Ham, cheese and spinach wrap
  • Cold cooked cheese, salad and lean meat quesadillas
  • Chicken with avocado and salad in a grainy bread roll
  • Beef, tomato and lettuce sandwich with tomato chutney or salsa

Eating for study

When at school or studying, your brain needs extra energy. Eating healthy foods is also linked to better concentration. Here are some tips for eating healthier when studying and during exams.

  • Eat small frequent meals. 
  • Easy and convenient nutritious meals include: frozen dinners, tinned soups, peanut-butter sandwiches, breakfast cereal, cheese sandwiches, tuna or chicken and salad sandwiches, baked beans or eggs on toast.
  • Snack foods like chips and lollies can cause you to feel grumpy, irritable and low in energy. That’s not what you want while you are studying. Try healthier snacks such as yoghurt, nuts, dried fruit, fresh fruit, plain popcorn or vegie sticks with dip.
  • People use caffeine for a ‘pick me up’ to feel more awake or alert. Too much caffeine from coffee, tea, cola and energy drinks can disrupt your sleeping patterns, send your heart racing, make it difficult to focus and/or cause nervousness in some people. Try sticking to one or two cups of coffee or tea a day, or try decaffeinated coffee or herbal teas as an alternative. Enjoy cola or energy drinks only occasionally as they have too much sugar and little nutritional benefit.
  • Drink plenty of water. When you are dehydrated you can feel tired.
  • Eat only when you are hungry. Be aware of your hunger signals, like stomach pangs, grumbling guts, dry mouth etc. If you need a study break and do not have hunger pangs, have a drink of water or go for a walk.
  • Regular exercise helps to improve your blood circulation, which keeps oxygen and nutrients flowing to your body and brain helping you to concentrate.

Eating for sport and play

Eating good foods before exercise can boost stamina and endurance. The following foods will help:

  • breakfast cereal with milk and fruit
  • dried fruit and nuts
  • yoghurt and fruit
  • English muffin with peanut butter and honey
  • banana and peanut-butter sandwich
  • fresh fruit smoothie with milk and/or yoghurt
  • low-fat muesli bar
  • small muffins made with oats or wholemeal flour and fruit or vegetables
  • low-fat custard and fruit
  • raisin toast and cream cheese
  • sushi handrolls
  • fruit scone
  • trail mix with dried fruit, nuts, seeds and some choc chips.

Achieving a healthy weight

It is easy to grab biscuits, potato chips, cakes, sausage rolls, pies, doughnuts or chocolate bars when you’re hungry, but regularly choosing those foods will make it easier to put on excess weight. Enjoy these kinds of convenience foods, takeaway and fried foods occasionally only.

Other things to avoidr are drinks with lots of sugar, for example, fruit juice, cordial, soft drinks and energy drinks.

250 ml drink No. of  teaspoon sugar *
orange juice 4
coke cola 5
low fat milk 3
diluted cordial 4 ½ 
sports drink 3 ½
iced tea 4
energy drink 5

* Note: 1 teaspoon = 5g sugar

Here are some healthier alternatives to your usual snack foods.

Swap this … For this …
Chocolate bar 50 g Low-fat chocolate milk drink 250 ml
Lollies Dried fruit
Large coffee Small coffee
Ice-cream Low-fat frozen yoghurt or sorbet
High-sugar breakfast cereal High-fibre cereal e.g. untoasted muesli
Hot chips Baked potato
Large soft drink Small soft drink, diet soft drink or water with lemon or lime
Chicken schnitzel BBQ or roast chicken
Burger meal deal Burger and water or small soft drink/diet drink
Doughnut Fruit scone
Fried egg and bacon sandwich Poached egg and ham in an English muffin

Eating disorders

People with an eating disorder experience extreme disturbances in their eating behaviour and related thoughts and feelings. They have an overwhelming drive to be thin and a morbid fear of gaining weight and losing control over their eating. Eating disorders can cause serious physical and psychological problems. They are not a lifestyle choice.

Eating disorders can be effectively treated and the earlier the treatment the better the recovery. Families and friends often need support and assistance too, and are involved in the treatment process.

A physical health check is essential to rule out possible medical complications that can arise from the condition. It is also very important to have the right information about your diet and about healthy eating, as there is plenty of wrong or misunderstood information about food and nutrition out there.

Talking with a professional counsellor is necessary to help change your thoughts, feelings and behaviours related to the eating disorder, and to help deal with the stressful things that might be happening in your life, like relationship problems, school issues and other things.

If you have complications like severe depression or anxiety, medications may be useful.

Preventing acne

No single food causes acne, but what you eat may influence acne. For some teenagers, foods like chocolate or greasy takeaways can have an effect on their skin. As a general rule to prevent acne, try to eat fewer processed foods, and eat and drink healthily.


The Women’s does not accept any liability to any person for the information or advice (or use of such information or advice) which is provided on the Website or incorporated into it by reference. The Women’s provide this information on the understanding that all persons accessing it take responsibility for assessing its relevance and accuracy. Women are encouraged to discuss their health needs with a health practitioner. If you have concerns about your health, you should seek advice from your health care provider or if you require urgent care you should go to the nearest Emergency Dept.