Do you think the long days of summer mean more time for active play and kids eating lots of healthy, ripe fruits and veggies? Think again. The 2015 YMCA Family Health Snapshot Survey—conducted in partnership with the American Academy of Pediatrics Institute for Healthy Childhood Weight—says kids' healthy habits decline during the warmer months, and nutrition is on the list of habits that fall by the wayside. Here are some ways to help you prevent a nutritional "summer slide" for your kids.
Follow the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 Rule
It's tough sometimes to know if your kid is getting enough exercise and nutrients, but there's a benchmark that's pretty easy to remember, says Matt Longjohn, MD, MPH, National Health Officer of YMCA of the USA. Every day, your child should be getting:
- 5 servings of fruits and vegetables (make it more veggies than fruits)
- 4 full glasses of water
- 3 servings of lowfat dairy
- 2 or fewer hours of screen time (including TV, video games, tablets and computers)
- 1 hour of physical activity
"The activity doesn't have to be vigorous," says Longjohn. "It could be walking, or some of it could even just be standing rather than sitting. Make sure they're getting outside and moving."
Not only is activity important for your child's physical fitness, but it also prevents extra snacking that can occur when sitting around the house playing video games.
Give Them Water, Water and More Water
In the YMCA survey, about 75 percent of parents said their kids drank sweetened beverages at least weekly during the summer, and about 1/4 of them drank them daily or nearly daily. And while it might seem simple to stock the fridge with juice boxes for hot days, you should avoid them as much as possible. That's because even an extra 60 to 80 calories per day can cause weight gain, and kids are likely to gain unwanted weight over the summer time. Instead, stick to water as much as possible. The more active your child is, the more water they need to stay hydrated, so encourage them to keep drinking up.
Get Them Involved
Kids are more likely to get enthusiastic about healthy foods and drinks when they're involved in making them, says Keith Kantor, PhD, nutritionist and author of "The Green Box League of Nutrition Justice." To beat water boredom, Kantor suggests making your own fruit-infused water together.
"Take a pitcher of water, and let kids crush in their favorite fruits—let them mush it with their hands," he explains. "Strain out any seeds, and let it set overnight before drinking. Now they made it, so they take ownership of it."
He also recommends making fresh fruit smoothies together. Instead of fruit juice, pour in almond or coconut milk, and add other healthy ingredients like protein powder and spinach.
Step It Up with the Fruits and Veggies
Now, for more bad news: Less than 50 percent of parents surveyed said their kids ate enough vegetables. What many people don't realize is that about half of our plates should be covered with colorful fruits and veggies. Think about your last meal—was yours?
It can also help to avoid as much processed food as possible. If you're not opening boxes and packages, you're more likely to reach for fresh fruits as a snack.
Get Creative with the Grill
Take advantage of grilling season. When you're throwing your lean burgers or chicken on the grill, put on some tasty veggies too.
"Potatoes, carrots, asparagus, broccoli—you can grill basically any vegetable," says Kantor.
Even some fruits, such as pineapple and watermelon, can be grilled.
Repeat This Mantra: Dips, Sticks and Skewers
We don't know what it is about dipping, but it makes any meal more fun for kids. Make healthy guacamole or hummus—instead of fatty dressing—for your kids to dip carrots and celery into, suggests Kantor.
And, he jokes that kids tend to love food served on anything that can be used as a mini-weapon. Load skewers with their favorite lean meats, veggies and fruits, or make turkey meatballs with shredded carrots that they can pick up with toothpicks, and you've got instant crowd-pleasers.
Pack Snacks and Lunches for When You're On the Go
It may seem like a no-brainer to hit the concession stand at the boardwalk or to pack a bag of chips for the pool, but as much as you can, pack your own healthy snacks instead to prevent falling into a junk food trap.
Trail mix made with nuts and raisins is easy to transport and provides healthy protein and some fiber (as long as your kids aren't allergic to nuts). Ants on a log (celery with natural peanut butter and raisins) can be wrapped in foil and taken along in a tote bag. You can also bring containers of fresh grapes—and refreshing grape tomatoes—to enjoy on the beach.
Get Them into a Routine
Another contributing factor to unhealthy eating is getting out of the routine of the school year. With nowhere to go, kids don't have school lunch or may not have your lovingly packed lunches to rely on for balanced nutrition.
And, as we mentioned above, being less active can lead to overeating. In the YMCA survey, 64 percent of parents said that their children spend three or more hours a day online, playing video games or watching TV in the summer; that's up from 35 percent during the school year. Longjohn recommends getting active as a family.
"Take weekend bike-rides, walk the dog, or if you don't have a dog, just take a walk after dinner," he says. "Having a healthy routine and spending time together as a family is so important for kids."
Also, he says, look into summer camp (you could start with your local YMCA), which can provide kids with more structure and more active things to do during their time off school.