Healthy food and drink choices outside the home

PDF download is not available for Arabic and Urdu languages at this time. Please use the browser print function instead

Find out how to encourage your tween or teen to make healthy food and drink choices when eating out.

Key points

  • Let your tween or teen make their own healthy lunches from dinner leftovers or nutritious food choices in the fridge.
  • Encourage wise choices at the school cafeteria and restaurants by emphasizing vegetables, fruit, whole grain and lean protein foods.
  • Have refillable water containers available and encourage your child to drink water. This will help them avoid high-sugar and high-caffeine drinks.
  • Try not to label foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

Tweens and teens are gaining independence and are likely to start making their own lunch, buying lunch at school and eating out with their friends. You can help them learn how to make healthy food choices that will carry forward to a lifetime of healthy eating habits.

How can I improve my child's diet?


For more videos from SickKids experts in collaboration with Youngster, visit Youngster on YouTube.

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 are great for easy lunches. Your tween or teen can take their pick and mix and match. For example, leftover cooked whole grain pasta, brown rice or quinoa make for an easy cold salad base. Add toppings like vegetables, chicken, shredded cheese, avocado and sunflower seeds, just to name a few. Drizzle with a simple but delicious dressing made of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Your tween or teen can also use leftover chicken breast or grilled salmon to make a tasty sandwich that is perfect for eating on the go.
  • A whole grain pita stuffed with vegetables and hummus is a portable, easy and healthy lunch. Other options include paneer, tofu, no-nut butter, sliced steak, tuna 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 may need your guidance on how to select healthy foods. You can discuss how eating a variety of nutritious foods will help improve their concentration and energy throughout the day. Suggest that they limit vending machine food and highly processed foods that can contain too much sodium (salt) and sugar. Aim for fresh food with lots of protein, whole grains and vegetables. For example, they can choose:

  • Baked or grilled chicken or fish
  • Burgers with lots of vegetable toppings
  • Roasted potatoes or steamed rice
  • Salads with a variety of brightly coloured vegetables—dressing can be on the side so your child can control how much they eat
  • Whole grain bagels with cream cheese or tuna
  • Fruit or yogurt for dessert

Drink choices

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, sweetened juices, iced teas and specialty coffee drinks contain high amounts of sugar, caffeine and calories.

Below are some tips to help your tween or teen choose healthy drinks:

  • Have re-usable water bottles available. Get your child into the habit of bringing water to school every day. They can re-fill their bottle at school and stay hydrated throughout the day.
  • Have individual milk cartons on hand for lunches.
  • Try sparkling water beverages that are sweetened with a small amount of 100% fruit juice.
  • Talk to your tween or teen about avoiding drinks that contain caffeine, such as energy drinks, soft drinks and coffee. Many of these drinks are marketed towards tweens and teens and can seem enticing. One reason that these caffeinated drinks should be avoided is because they can have a negative effect on sleep patterns.

Eating at restaurants

Encourage your tween or teen to look for healthy menu options such as those suggested below.

Healthy restaurant menu choices

  • Look for options with more vegetables, such as salads, stir fries, sandwiches, wraps or soups.
  • Try lean protein choices such as turkey chili, chicken kebobs, bean burritos, pea soup, quinoa or lentil salad, steamed edamame (soybeans), grilled tofu, or fish.
  • Sushi

Balancing convenience with nutrition

Eating at fast food restaurants or buying convenience foods is easy and enjoyable for teenagers, but the reality is that many ‘fast foods’ have poor nutritional value and are high in calories and sodium. 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, the key word to keep in mind is ‘moderation’. Talk to your tween or teen about setting up a plan where they bring their lunch to school 80% of the time and eat out 20% of the time. Make realistic plans that are achievable and still allow for enjoyment of lunchtime.

You can encourage a healthy attitude towards food by encouraging your tween or teen to make a variety of choices without labelling any food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Instead, you might want to teach your tween or teen about ‘everyday foods’ and ‘sometimes foods’. A lifetime of healthy eating habits starts with a solid understanding that eating out of the house can be both enjoyable and healthy.

Last updated: April 16th 2020