By Rita Zapien Miles, Registered Dietitian
In a few weeks, kids across our area will hear the last bell of the school year—officially welcoming the start of summer break. While this highly anticipated time away from homework sounds relaxing, too much of a break may also be unhealthy for kids. A 2016 study by the University of Texas at Austin found that without the structure of school, many children tended to gain excessive weight during the summer months.
There are many reasons why the school day helps to prevent excessive weight gain. Most schools offer students some level of exercise either through physical education classes or daily recess periods. In addition, school districts are required to provide meals rich in whole grains, lean protein and fruits and vegetables; with a focus on eliminating sugary drinks, candy and other junk food from lunch lines and vending machines.
It’s often the reverse during summer vacation. Children spend more time idle in front of a television screen or playing video games. They also tend to eat and drink more sugary snacks and beverages and consume fewer fruits and vegetables. This can be especially true of children living in low-income households that depend on school meals.
Fortunately, too much summer weight gain does not have to be inevitable. Below are some steps that parents and guardians can take to help keep your child’s nutrition on track this coming summer.
Focus on Good Nutrition Year Round
Even if your kids are not in school, you can still plan (or even pack) their meals and snacks. Swap out the junk food in your pantry and fridge (soda, punch, Sunny D, cookies, chips, fatty frozen foods) for healthier items like fruit, veggies, whole grains and healthy proteins. That way when your kids get bored and decide to go on the hunt for snacks, they’ll have better food options to choose from. Those snacks can include: tortilla with melted cheese or beans, banana with peanut butter, or string cheese and melon.
Start the Day with Breakfast
Breakfast should provide roughly 1/3 of the key nutrients your child needs for proper growth and development, such as iron, calcium and protein. Breakfast eaters tend to have better grades, memory, focus and fewer behavioral problems. Ideas for breakfast include: eggs with a side of grits, whole grain cereal with fruit (look for at least three grams of dietary fiber per serving) or egg and bean tacos.
Create a Summer Time Routine
The school year is highly structured and all that scheduling actually encourages healthy habits. That is why it is important to find summer activities that will keep kids active as well as reduce screen time and excessive snacking. For example, consider signing your child up for day camp or swimming lessons.
Come up with your own plan for regular activities to cut down on boredom and encourage playtime and joyful movement. The goal is one hour daily of physical activity. Free or reduced cost options include dancing to your child’s favorite music, taking the dog for a walk as a family or summer enrichment programs at your local parks and recreation department.
Plan Family Meals
Kids who eat with their families tend to eat more nutritious foods than children who eat alone. Their palate for new foods grows and those that eat with their families or caregivers tend to be less picky with their food choices. Regular family dinners are associated with lower rates of depression, anxiety, eating disorders and higher rates of resilience and self-esteem. Eating at a table, without distractions such as a TV and phones, can help form strong family bonds and relationships.
Keep Those Regular Bedtimes
Sleep routines are as important during the summer break as they are during the school year. Tired children have less energy to do the things that can help keep them healthy. In addition, sleep deprivation is more likely to cause kids to make unhealthy food choices or overeat.
School aged children need between nine-to-eleven hours of sleep every night. Exceptions can be made for a party or family event, but a set bedtime should be the norm. Since teens are asked to wake up early during the school year, consider allowing them to follow a more natural sleep schedule during the summer break. Teens are typically tired between 10 and 11 p.m. and wake up naturally between 8 and 9 a.m.
Limit Screen Times
Too much screen time often replaces healthier activities like playing outside or taking a nap. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids ages two-to-five spend no more than one hour per day with high-quality TV programs or apps, and that older kids are given consistent limits on time spent watching TV or playing on smartphones and computers.
Consistency may just be the key to keeping your kids active and healthy this summer break. If are concerned about your child’s eating habits any time of the year. Help is available at Legacy Community Health. Nutrition counseling at Legacy can help with a variety of health and wellness issues for both you and your child. Talk to your Legacy provider if you want to meet with a Registered Dietitian. Visit our website or call (832) 548 5000 to schedule an appointment.