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Teens Model Parents’ Eating Habits

Laws regulating nutrition content in school snacks may be effective, but healthy habits start at home.

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CHICAGO - APRIL 20: Students eat lunch before a bank of vending machines at Jones College Prep High School April 20, 2004 in Chicago, Illinois. The Chicago Public School system will introduce next fall a new vending policy restricting junk food and a new beverage contract banning carbonated drinks.

Banning sugary snacks and sodas from school vending machines may help reduce obesity rates in teens and young adults, according to a study published online Monday in the journal Pediatrics, which tracked the weight and body mass indices of 6,300 middle school students in 40 states over a 5-year span.

Students in states with regulations on food sold in public school vending machines and cafeterias were less likely than their peers in other states to be overweight if those laws were strongly worded and consistently enforced from middle school through high school, the study showed.

[Read what happens when students design school lunches.]

But teaching teens to make healthy food choices starts at home, says Joan Salge Blake, a registered dietician and clinical professor at Boston University.

"Probably the most important thing is 'Monkey see, monkey do,'" she says. "They'll just eat whatever you eat."

If mom and dad grab a donut on their way out the door in the morning, or even worse, skip breakfast altogether, their teen will likely follow suit, she adds. If McDonald's is a parent's go-to dinner option after a long day at work, their children may go the same route.

But eating healthy is possible, even with the early mornings and late nights that are part of back-to-school season, Blake says.

"We talk about fast food—can cereal get any faster? That is probably the ultimate fast food in the whole wide world," she notes.

To get your teen in the habit of picking healthy snacks, stock up on fresh produce, low-fat dairy treats, and food with whole grains, and make it easily accessible for your student to grab before and after school, Blake advises.

"When they walk in the door [from school] they're starving and ready to eat anything that's not moving. What I used to do, in clear plastic, at eye level in the refrigerator, is put cut-up watermelon, cut cantaloupe, a bowl of grapes, string cheese, yogurt—so that was the first thing that they saw when they got home," she says. "They'll eat fruit, but they won't cut it up."

Take your teen grocery shopping with you and have him or her pick the fruits and vegetables, Blake says. This gives your child a little bit of independence and ownership over food selections, making him or her more likely to eat it, she adds.

[Learn how to become a healthy snacker.]

For some parents, building healthy eating habits in their high schoolers may mean changing their own habits, which can be overwhelming. Websites such as Eatright.org and Kidseatright.org, both from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, give nutrition tips for parents and teens, and include recipes ideas and instructional videos.

The MyPlate guide from the U.S. Department of Agriculture is also a good, simple visual for parents to refer to when planning meals for their teens and themselves, Blake says.

Have something of interest to share? Send your news to us at highschoolnotes@usnews.com.