We’ve made it. Our children have concluded the end of another school year, which means no more packing lunches that check off most of the healthful food groups. Now we’re considering padlocking the fridge and pantry doors shut so around-the-clock grazing doesn’t mean we’re out of snacks and drinks a day after our weekly grocery store visit.
But besides the impact on our grocery bills, summer offers another potential issue for our kids: added fluff.
Let’s face it, boredom and laziness and lack of school-day routines plus easy access to more food (and more junk food) during the summer mean our kids eat more and (probably) move less. Then there are the countless cookouts and pool parties and out-of-town vacations — not to mention sleep schedules that fly right out the window — that can be more detrimental to our children’s health than we realize.
In short, “nobody bored-eats celery or carrots,” said Sonya Islam, a registered dietitian with the Healthy Lifestyles Center at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU.
What she means, of course, is that many of us typically don’t reach for leafy greens and healthful veggies when we subconsciously start snacking, and summer is prime snacking time. But it’s not hard to help our children ward off the summer pounds and still enjoy all those wonderful grilled and chilled foods that make summertime so great.
Here are some tips to get your summer off to a good start.
Keep your school-year bedtime routines, or at least try to as often as you can.
People find it odd when dietitians ask about sleep, Islam said, but sleep and food really are connected.
That’s because “a lack of sleep can interfere with the ability to make our best decisions, and that includes food,” she said. For elementary children in particular, nine hours of quality sleep is the recommended amount, even in the summer. And quality sleep means limiting screen time well before bedtime.
Track what your kids are eating, even if it means keeping a daily or weekly diary on paper or, for the savvy folks among us, downloading an app to your phone or tablet. (This one is great for adults, too.)
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recommended dietary guidelines suggest that moderately active or very active children ages 9 to 13 eat 1,400 to 2,600 calories each day, with fewer than 6 teaspoons (25 grams) of added sugars and solid fats. It also suggests that their fat intake be no more than 25 to 35 percent of daily calories and should be mostly the healthful fats — those that come from nuts, such as pecans, almonds and walnuts (or natural nut butters); olive and other healthful oils; eggs; avocados; and fish, such as salmon and tuna.
Keeping a record of what we eat gives us clues as to where that extra 1 or 5 — or more — pounds came from rather than getting a larger surprise at the end of the summer and wondering what happened, Islam said. Summer activities such as cookouts and camps and vacations not only mean access to more food, she said, but also usually food in larger portions.
Stay hydrated with fluids that help the body and don’t add extra calories. Water is best, of course, but so is low-fat milk. If your children love juice, try mixing something sweet with other liquids, such as 1 part sweetened fruit juice to 2 parts sparkling water or sugar-free juices or just plain water. On the other hand, don’t let children drink their calories. Too many drinks get in the way of real meals with the nutrients and vitamins kids need. If you notice your children aren’t eating but drinking chocolate milk and sweet fruit juices all day, cut back on the drinks.
Give children choices and keep those choices healthful and readily available. Keep chopped fresh fruit and vegetables, yogurt, cereals and homemade snack mixes and other low-calorie options within easy reach (so that even if they’re sneaking snacks here and there, at least they’re sneaking the good stuff).
If you don’t buy or keep it where kids can get it, they won’t eat it. Let them help out in the kitchen by cutting foods while you supervise, or wash fruits and veggies, mix ingredients for granola, blend smoothies and any other age-appropriate task.
When traveling, pack foods ahead of time to avoid unhealthful (and often costly) pit stops for food.
Lastly, don’t deprive children of fun summer treats; just make sure they stay active to balance out those ice cream cones and boardwalk burgers and fries. If you know you’ll be eat something unhealthful, make sure your children get more playtime that day or that week. Unstructured playtime is one of the perks of the summer, and while it seems like common sense that children will spend more time playing, it’s not always easy to pry our youngsters off the couch and away from the television and video games and other stationary activities.
With just one full hour of active playtime, particularly for younger children, Islam said, they get the benefits of both physical activity and a little something extra.
“Active playtime helps with brain development,” she said. “School is not the only place where brains develop.”