Creating a balanced plate: Understanding teens’ nutrition needs

Teenagers navigate many different stressors that can impact their eating habits, and their nutritional needs are very different from those of younger children or adults. We sat down with clinical dietitians Denise Crowley and Christina Gross to learn what some of those stressors look like, why intuitive eating is so important for teens and how to develop a relationship with food that values finding satisfaction as well as nourishment.

How do teens’ nutritional needs differ from other age groups?

When we meet with teenagers to discuss nutrition, we focus a lot on bone health and variety. The nutritional needs of someone who is 13 to 19 years old are quite high as they go through puberty: vitamin needs are higher and caloric needs are higher. Adolescence is a time of great growth in terms of brain and body development and kids need to eat well to support this rapid growth.

We talk a lot about how each food group has a purpose and try not to label foods as “healthy” or “not healthy.” Kids internalize that diet culture messaging really quickly and it’s powerful. They need messaging that talks about neutralizing food – or just doesn’t frame it in a polarizing, shameful way.

We created a visual tool, the My Balanced Plate handout for teens and their parents or caregivers to review to help understand how to make a complete meal and how to schedule out their meals in a way that is best for them.

How does diet culture impact teens’ eating habits?

Diet culture can often lead to a restrictive mindset, especially within a growing adolescent. During the pandemic, we’ve seen an uptick in eating disorders, including an increase in prevalence among teenage boys.

We really try to focus on intuitive eating: Teaching kids how to listen to their hunger, how to listen to their fullness, how to develop a relationship with food that isn’t associated with any judgment. We want kids to know that any food can fit somewhere on their plate.

Creating a balanced plate for teens

  • Fill half your plate with a variety of vegetables and fruit
    • Examples: Leafy greens, broccoli, carrots, apples, pears and berries. Limit fruit juice.
  • Fill a quart of your plate with protein
    • Examples: Chicken, fish, lean beef, cheese, nuts, beans, lentils and tofu.
  • Fill a quarter of your plate with grains, starchy vegetables or legumes
    • Examples: Potatoes, beans or lentils.
    • Make half of your grains whole grains, such as brown rice, whole wheat pasta, quinoa, oats or whole wheat bread.
  • Choose small amounts of oils, such as olive oil or canola oil, for cooking or to flavor foods. Nuts, seeds and avocados also contain healthy fats. Limit butter, tropical oils (e.g., coconut, palm) and stick margarine.
  • Drink mostly water. For variety, try infused water, seltzer water or seltzer water with a splash of juice. Aim for 8-10 glasses of liquids a day to stay hydrated.
  • Choose two to three servings of calcium-rich foods, including low-fat milk, yogurt or non-dairy alternatives like soy, rice or almost milk. One serving is 8 oz.

What’s the purpose of each food group?

Protein: Important for bones, skin, muscles, hair and nails.

Grains: Carbs for energy and brain function. Whole grains provide fiber, vitamins and minerals.

Fats: Needed to make hormones and help your body use certain vitamins, such as A, D, E and K.

Fruits and vegetables: Give you vitamins, minerals and fiber. Can lower your risk of certain diseases like diabetes and heart disease.

Dairy: A great source of calcium and vitamin D for strong bones. Low fat and nonfat dairy are good for your heart.

Fiber: Helps keep your digestive system moving and your heart healthy.

Learn more about the Doernbecher Healthy Lifestyle Clinic

Can you share some more tips for good health for this age group?

Move your body: Find ways to be more physically active each day by doing activities that you enjoy. Physical activity helps mood, builds strength and stamina and reduces health risks. Take frequent movement breaks if you need to sig for more than an hour at a time.

Eat regularly: Your body needs energy all through the day. Balanced meals or snacks every three to five hours works best to keep you feeling energetic and satisfied.

Get natural light and vitamin D: Being outside, even in the rain, exposes you to the entire spectrum of natural light. Ask your health care provider if you need to take vitamin D.

Share your table: There are many benefits to eating with someone. Teens whose families eat meals together do better in school and are less likely to take dangerous risks.

Try and try again: Taste buds change. What you didn’t like last year, you may like now. Remember to keep trying different foods to challenge your taste buds.

Drink plenty of water: Carry a water bottle and drink 8–10 cups of water daily. For variety, try water with a slice of fruit or veggie in it for flavor, such as lemon or cucumber. Or drink seltzer water or seltzer with a splash of juice.

Get cooking: Try different ways of cooking. Healthy ways to cook foods include baking, roasting, grilling, stir-frying, steaming and boiling. Ask your dietitian for a list of recipes.


Denise Crowley, M.S., R.D., L.D.
Clinical dietitian
Adolescent and Young Adult Clinic
OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital

Christina Gross, M.P.H., R.D., L.D.
Clinical dietitian
Healthy Lifestyle Clinic
OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital