Students gladly leave textbooks and homework behind for the summer but they shouldn't close the door on healthy eating habits, says a Baylor College of Medicine pediatrician.
"There is some suggestion that kids may gain weight during summer months, but whether it's because of changes in eating or physical activity is not clear," said Dr. Teresia O'Connor, assistant professor of pediatrics – nutrition at the USDA/ARS Children's Nutrition Research Center at BCM and Texas Children's Hospital. "But certainly it is just as important to eat healthy over the summer as it is any other time of the year."
Check out food groups
That includes eating a variety of foods from all food groups. Fruits and vegetables should be incorporated into all meals, portion sizes should be appropriate and snacks should be limited, O'Connor said.
A healthy summer lunch should include a fruit, a vegetable, some form of protein and whole grains.
"An example of this might be whole-grain pasta or a sandwich served on whole-grain bread with a low-fat meat, such as turkey, along with a fruit and a vegetable. The quality of lunches served to our children should not change over the summer," O'Connor said
Breakfast still reigns
Breakfast is still an important meal and should not be skipped, she said. In fact, children and teens should maintain a routine of getting enough sleep, waking up and starting the day with a healthy breakfast. This will help start their day right and later with the transition back to school.
"It's important to keep eating three meals a day with one to two snacks," O'Connor said. "Kids should not be at home grazing throughout the day instead of eating three meals."
Another key to healthy summer nutrition is staying hydrated. There are many different beverages available for kids these days, but water is still the best and healthiest way to stay hydrated, O'Connor said.
Parents and children should be aware of how much sugar is in sodas, sports drinks and fruit drinks, she said. While it's okay to drink a small amount of these types of beverages over a week's time, the primary drinks should be water and low-fat or skim milk.
Parents who are concerned that their children are eating large amounts of cookies, chips and other high-calorie snacks or drinking a lot of soda and other sugary drinks can address this by changing the food environment in the home, O'Connor said. Don't bring such foods into the house and instead have plenty of fruits and vegetables and filtered water on hand.
Family time in the kitchen
Parents can also use the summer as an opportunity to get their kids involved in grocery shopping and meal preparation.
"There is some evidence showing that when kids are more involved in preparing foods that are new to them, they are more likely to try it," said O'Connor. "And giving children a couple of choices of healthy foods, such as vegetables, makes it more likely they will eat it. Ultimately we want to teach kids to make healthy decisions on their own."
Children and teens should be encouraged to help prepare their own meals so they can learn to take responsibility for their own healthy eating, she said.
Parents whose children accessed free and reduced lunch plans during the school year may be able to find similar programs available in the summer from their local school district or other community resources. Families who are interested should contact their school for more information.