Suddenly, your kid is hungry all the time! Here's how to handle feed a teen's growth spurt (and growing appetite) the right way.

By Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD
December 16, 2019
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When my son was younger, there were days when I wished he would take a couple more bites of dinner. Now that he's 15, he's cleaning his plate, chasing it with a yogurt and a spoonful of peanut butter, then scrounging for a snack an hour later.

The growth spurt hunger surge is real for teens (and tweens), and it may catch you off guard. That's okay—because we've got you covered.

When do teens have growth spurts?

This is different for all kids, and there's a pretty broad range, says Parents advisor and pediatric dietitian Jill Castle. For boys it occurs between ages 9 and 16 and for girls between 8 and 15 years.

"These ranges account for early and late bloomers," she explains. "The intense phase of the growth spurt goes on for about 3 years, from ages 12 to 15 years for boys and 10 to 13 years for girls." An appetite surge isn't the only telltale sign. There's also growing feet, more body hair, and roller-coaster emotions (see the full list of growth spurt signs here).

What nutrients do teens need during a growth spurt?

Obviously, kids need calories to fuel all the growth and development happening. Sure, that means there's room in the diet for some treats, but nutrients are vital. In particular, protein is critical, since it's the building block of all the new cells and tissues, says Castle.

"Girls especially see an increase in iron needs during the growth spurt not only because of growth but also because of iron losses associated with menstruation," she says. At age 9, your child's calcium needs also rise from 1,000mg per day to 1,300--that's the calcium equivalent of a cup of milk or yogurt.

What are the best foods during a growth spurt?

Whenever possible, choose real, actual food over shakes and protein powders, advises Castle. "Teens are still forming their eating habits and whole foods are always packaged with other nutrients," says Castle, who says she likes to see teens eating a variety of both animal and plant protein sources (from eggs and beef to beans and quinoa). Fortified dairy or fortified plant-based milks supply protein, calcium, and vitamin D. "If teen boys or girls have a hard time eating enough, I often recommend 2% or whole milk for extra calories," she adds. Your teen also needs the fiber, vitamins, and minerals in fruits and vegetables.

With my growing teen, I try to keep the fridge and pantry stocked with nutrient-dense foods he likes--but that are also easy to grab for lunches and snacks. That means things like trail mix with nuts and dried fruit, boxes of chocolate milk, yogurts, his favorite variety of apples, cheese sticks, and jerky. I've also had to make more food at dinner to account for his larger portion and second helpings. Bonus: Dinner leftovers also make perfect hearty after-school snacks for really hungry kids.

What if you're worried about your kid's growth?

Your pediatrician will be able to tell you if your child's growth is on track--but in the meantime, don't compare your kid to his peers. And don't jump to conclusions about how big (or small) your kid is going to be and let it affect how you feed her. For instance, some parents get nervous when they notice weight gain (especially in the belly) but a lack of growth in height, says Castle.

"They may restrict calories, carbs or portions, not realizing these fluctuations in weight are completely normal for most children," she says. Other parents may seek out special shakes or supplements if they think their child isn't growing tall enough. "Often, children who are slow to grow are late bloomers, just needing more time for the growth hormones to fire up," she says. (Wondering when your child will stop growing? Here's information about girls and boys.)

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a Contributing Editor for Parents and a registered dietitian who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition, a no-judgements zone about feeding a family. She is the author of The 101 Healthiest Foods For Kids and Cooking Light Dinnertime Survival Guide. You can follow her on Facebook, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.

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