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Parents can help kids develop healthy habits during summer months

  • Published Saturday, May 24, 2014, at 2:03 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, May 27, 2014, at 7:09 a.m.

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Summer is here! What’s your child eating?

As parents are at work and youth are left at home to fend for themselves, the summer months can have a negative effect on health. Less structure, higher access to unhealthy foods and a lack of physical activity can increase the likelihood of children gaining weight over the summer when compared to the normal school year. In fact, research indicates that children gain weight twice as fast over the summer months.

But, while summer schedules can make healthy eating challenging, there are ways parents can help their child eat smarter and stay healthier this summer. Here are a few suggestions:

Let kids have some ownership in their diet. Take them shopping with you and let them help select healthy foods and snacks. Avoid processed foods such as frozen dinners and opt for fresh meats and low-fat cheeses along with whole grain bread and plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. Once home from the grocery store have the kids prepare their own bags of snacks – carrots, grapes or pretzels. A snack should be the portion of no more than two of the child’s handful.

Have plenty of ready-to-eat fruits and vegetables available. Most school-age children should have five to six servings of fruits and vegetables per day. Save ice cream and chips for special occasions as they are two of the highest calorie (and most consumed during the summer) treats.

Implement house rules. For example, have children select only two items from a snack basket or drawer. Snacks should consist of individual servings of healthy items – low-fat string cheese or yogurt, low-fat crackers, animal crackers, vegetables and fruits.

Suggest meal and snack times, giving kids a schedule vs. eating all day. Encourage meals and snacks to be eaten at the table vs. in front of the TV or other screens. Have electronic-free meals.

Educate about portion sizes. Using the plate method from choosemyplate.gov can help for meal planning or sack lunch tips. Using hand tricks can teach kids portion sizing.

• A fist is the equivalent to a piece of fruit, serving of vegetable, cereal, pasta, potato or rice.

• The palm of their hand is equal to the meat protein they need at lunch and dinner.

• The tip of their thumb is the amount to use for fats and condiments, such as margarine, jelly or honey.

• Estimate a golf ball portion for peanut butter, ketchup, barbecue sauce, dipping sauces and salad dressings.

Limit the amount of sugary beverages, such as regular soda, juice, Kool-Aid and sports drinks. Instead encourage milk, water or unsweetened tea. Children should have two to three servings of milk each day. Have the child drink plenty of water throughout the day to stay hydrated.

Limit screen time to two hours per day.

Encourage physical activity. Children should get a minimum of 60 minutes of physical activity per day. Organized group or individual athletic activities are the best way to get a workout, but there are other ways. Make walking the dog and various cleaning projects part of kids’ daily responsibility. Require them to do certain activities before the scheduled lunchtime or before they are allowed to have a snack. If activities are limited to the indoors until parents get home, consider making a game or goal sheet that consists of walking in place, jumping rope, doing jumping jacks or dancing until the child builds up to 60 minutes most days.

At the evening meal together, discuss options for meals, snacks and activities so your child doesn’t sleep the whole summer away. Staying active and eating nutritious during the summer can be a challenge for children, but by planning ahead and helping them make smart choices, staying healthy is manageable.

Sheryll Clarke is a dietitian at Via Christi Clinic.

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