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Healthy food and drink choices outside the home

Healthy food and drink choices outside the home


Tweens and teens are gaining independence and are likely to making up their own lunch or start eating out more often with their friends. They should be encouraged to make healthy choices when they eat out, whether at school or a local restaurant.

Bringing lunch 

Let your child choose healthy school lunch items that they enjoy. Here are just a few options to get them started if they are bringing lunch from home.

  • Leftovers from the night before make for easy lunches. Your tween or teen can take their pick and mix and match. For example, leftover cooked pasta makes for an easy cold pasta salad with vegetables and Italian salad dressing. If you have left over chicken breast, your tween or teen can add some to the pasta salad or make a grilled chicken sandwich.
  • A whole grain pita stuffed with vegetables and hummus makes for a portable, easy and tasty lunch. Other options include egg salad, tuna salad or cheese. Keeping your fridge stocked with a range of vegetables allows your tween or teen to get creative with the pita fillings. You can also use different flavours of whole grain tortillas to suit your tween’s or teen’s tastes.

Buying lunch​

If your tween or teen is buying school lunches from the cafeteria, they need your guidance about how to select healthy foods. For example, advise them to choose:

  • chicken or fish that is grilled or baked rather than deep fried
  • burgers with vegetable toppings
  • steamed rather than fried rice
  • salad bar options, with a small amount of dressing on the side
  • fruit salad for dessert.


Tweens and teens see a lot of advertising for sugary, nutrient-poor drinks. A lot of popular beverages such as soft drinks, vitamin waters, sports drinks, energy drinks, iced teas and specialty coffee drinks contain high amounts of sugar and calories. For example, a large iced coffee might have more calories than a fast food hamburger!

Tips to curb your tween or teen’s desire to buy a soda or other high-calorie drink

  • Keep a re-usable water bottle filled with cold water in the fridge for when your child is ready to leave for school. When your child starts off drinking water, they are more likely to re-fill the bottle at school and stay hydrated throughout the day.
  • Have individual milk cartons on hand for lunches.
  • Encourage your child to have fruit instead of fruit juice. Your child will get nutrients from the fruit as well as the fibre that is missing from the juice.
  • Talk to your tween or teen about drinks that contain caffeine, such as energy drinks, soda and coffee. Energy drinks, which can contain high levels of caffeine, are marketed towards tweens and teens.

Balancing convenience with nutrition

One of the biggest concerns with frequent eating out is weight gain. Eating fast or convenience foods is easy and enjoyable for teenagers, but it comes at a price: high calories, large portion sizes and higher fat, sugar and sodium content. Because of this, teens need to be aware of what they choose, how much they have and how often they eat out.

To find a balance, consider healthier choices at most meals, using options from the four food groups in Canada’s Food Guide. This still leaves room for less healthy choices at other times.

You can encourage a healthy attitude towards food by encouraging your tween or teen to make a variety of choices from all food groups without labelling any food as “good” or “bad”. Instead, you might want to teach your tween or teen about “everyday foods” and “sometimes foods”. You can also encourage your tween or teen to keep portion sizes in check by ordering the smallest portion or splitting orders with friends.

Restaurant tips

Most restaurants now offer nutrition information online (see next page). Tweens or teens can use their online search skills to learn about the food choices they are making when they eat out. Encourage your tween or teen to check out the menu options ahead of time to find out if that double cheeseburger they are craving is worth the calories, or if there are healthier alternatives, such as those suggested below.

Healthy restaurant menu choices

  • Options with more vegetables, such as salads, stir fries, sandwiches, pita pockets or soups
  • Lean protein choices such as turkey, chicken, beans, peas and other legumes, soy (tofu), nuts or fish
  • Sauces, dressings or cheeses that are on the side

Your tween or teen can still make better choices when eating out with friends if they balance food groups, portion sizes and drinks. This will help make sure that eating out is both enjoyable and healthy.

Original author: 
Samantha Thiessen, RD, MHSc. ​
Reviewed by:
Elly Berger, BA, MD, FRCPC, FAAP, MHPE


American Psychological Association (2011). Healthy habits for healthy families. Washington, DC: American Psychological Assocation.
Dietitians of Canada (2011). 5 Steps to a Healthy Body Weight for Teens. Toronto: Dietitians of Canada.
EatRight Ontario (2013). Facts on Caffeine. Toronto: Dietitians of Canada.