Staying on Track with Healthy Eating Habits During the Summer
Summer vacation from the traditional school calendar is in full swing, offering families a welcome reprieve from the packed schedules of recent months. But for some kids the lack of routine may easily lead to careless eating habits.
A definitive pattern of increased summer weight gain among kids and teens was identified in a recent CDC review article (Preventing Chronic Disease 2014; 11:130355). Of note is that the rate of weight gain was even greater for those kids who were already overweight at the start of summer vacation. While the exact cause or causes of unhealthy summer weight gain have not been specifically identified, it has been speculated that weeks of unstructured eating do play a role.
Ways to keep your kids on track with balanced eating over the remaining weeks of summer break:
Maintain a sense of structure with meals and snacks and avoid “grazing”.
Although the actual timing of meals may differ during the summer months, it is important to continue with a generally consistent meal pattern. Some kids get into the habit of staying up very late and sleeping in so that all meals are stacked into the second half of the day. Others end up snacking heavily during the hours they are awake, instead of eating actual meals. Either way, the result is a general lack of structure around eating.
The ability to self – regulate food intake relies in part on the timing of meals and snacks: ideally kids will be hungry when they sit down for meals. This is often not the case for those who have been “grazing” all day between meals. Conversely, arriving “starved” for the meal (possibly due to “forgetting” to eat while playing video games) can be a set up for over-eating.
Promote snacking for the “correct” reason.
It is normal to feel hungry at some point between meals. Eating a balanced snack in response to hunger is the right thing to do!! Help your child learn to differentiate between true hunger and other external motivators for eating (such as boredom, fatigue, stress, seeing others eat, etc.).
Young children may often be easily re-directed away from food. To head off frequent food requests try reading to them, dancing with them or taking them outdoors to look for bugs. The specifics of what you do are not important. You are simply reinforcing the message to wait for snack until hunger is actually felt.
Remind older kids and teens to always “check in” with themselves before grabbing that snack. Fake hunger often masquerades as the real thing. By postponing the snack for a few minutes, it is often forgotten! Simple distractions such as drawing a picture, doing a few minutes of stretching or even collecting and emptying the waste baskets can serve to effectively delay the snacking behavior. Encourage your teen to make a personalized list of things to do instead of eating when not hungry.
Eat a balanced snack when the hunger is real.
If it has been over 3 hours since the last meal AND the stomach is starting to ask for food by growling, it’s probably the real thing! A balanced snack that includes protein and/ or needed fats will provide lasting satiety. Here are some ideas for satisfying cool summer snacks:
Cottage cheese, dusted with cinnamon and served with apple slices
Frozen grape halves, served with cubes of cheddar or Swiss cheese
Assorted raw veggies with hummus
Cucumber “sandwiches” (spoon chicken or tuna salad onto a thick slice of cucumber and top with a second cucumber slice)
Stir mashed fresh peaches or berries into plain 2% or full fat Greek yogurt. Freeze, then whip with hand mixer before serving.
Home- made guacamole served with a few blue corn tortilla chips
Classic “ants on a log”: fill a piece of celery with peanut butter, then top with a few raisins (or dried cranberries if red “ants” are desired).
Top a bowl of fresh fruit salad with a handful of chopped nuts.
NOTE: Grapes, raw veggies, peanut butter and nuts may pose a choking risk for kids under the age of two.
Don’t confuse snacks with treats.
It’s OK to enjoy treats! There are no hard and fast rules about how often or how much is appropriate. Treats are just that…..they are fun diversions which are not specifically intended to be “healthy”. When enjoyed in moderation, treats may compliment an otherwise balanced and healthful diet.
Treats are generally NOT good stand-alone snack choices. Sugary treats such as brownies, popsicles, cereal bars and cookies fail to satisfy the between meal hunger and in fact may trigger appetite, making it difficult to stop eating. Salty treats such as chips, pretzels, cheese puffs and other processed carbohydrate based items are also poor snack choices. As with sugary treats, salty treats cause rapid blood sugar surges and do nothing to promote feelings of satiety.
In general, it’s best to try and incorporate treats with a meal. For example if having chips with lunch, consider going open-faced with the sandwich. Or if ice cream sounds good, have it as the dessert component of the meal. When paired with the protein, fat and fiber from meals, treat items have less of an impact on blood sugar levels.
Relax and avoid rigid rules though when it comes to treats. Many parents have discovered that when treats are put off limits, kids sneak them or over-indulge when the opportunity comes up. Help your child to foster a guilt free relationship with food (including treats) by not over-thinking it. We don’t need to aim for dietary perfection and sometimes that means having a mid –day frozen treat!!