Ahhh summer. The perfect time for children to play outside…swim…and get fatter? That is the finding of a recent study that tracked the physical condition of 5,000 children as they made their way through kindergarten and first grade. Their biggest gain in body mass index, the researchers found, came during the summer. Through examination of government data collected from 1998 to 2002 on 5,380 U.S. children, researchers found the average weight gain over the summer, as measured by body mass index, was triple that during the kindergarten school year. While no definitive conclusion was reached, researchers speculate that the weight gain could be because the summer months lack the structure of the school year, when kids have plenty of free time to play video games, watch TV and eat.
These findings point to the need for parents to become more actively involved in encouraging their kids to develop healthy habits. First and foremost, parents can assist their children in making healthier food choices and engage in regular physical activity by being a good role model. Parents, you are children's biggest influences when it comes to healthy behaviors, so provide your kids with opportunities for family fun. For example:
- Initiate regular family activities, such as bike riding, hiking, and walking.
- Take your kids to the park to play, inline skate or toss a ball or Frisbee.
- Make walking the dog a fun game by counting how many times the dog stops or how many rabbits or squirrels the dog sees.
- Involve children in daily chores that require activity such as washing the car, vacuuming, raking the lawn, planting flowers or sweeping the garage.
- Set limits on the amount of time spent in passive activities. Children should spend no more than 1-2 hours per day on TV and computers combined.
- Make sure your kids know they are part of the team and that health and fitness are a family affair.
When it comes to food, parents are the gatekeepers of food available in the home. Making wise decisions at the grocery store avoids policing foods allowed throughout the week. Purchase fewer processed foods and more fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and lower fat milk, yogurt and cheeses. Start noticing the fiber content of the foods you buy. Oversee snacking by:
- Making sure there are plenty of healthy snack options available at all times and ready-to-eat.
- Avoiding sweets and other sugary snacks. Limit fruit juice to one small glass a day and make it 100% real juice.
- Focusing on foods that are lower in fat to help kids feel more energetic.
- Banning mindless eating while watching television.
- Serving only healthy beverages in the home, preferably milk or soy milk.
These nutritious snack ideas can help make it easy:
Wrap and Roll — Roll kids' favorite cheese and lean meat in a tortilla spread with low fat ranch dressing; cut into bite-size portions
Enjoy Summer Bounty — Kids eat fruit when it is easy. Serve a platter of cut melons, peaches, nectarines or berries along with yogurt for dipping. Do the same with vegetables. Cherry tomatoes, baby carrots, celery sticks, pea pods and cucumber slices are some of kids' favorites. For dipping, serve hummus, low-fat dressing or plain yogurt mixed with salsa, taco seasoning or ranch salad dressing mix.
Fondue in a Few — For a fast fondue, microwave shredded Swiss cheese with lowfat milk and Dijon mustard. Serve with broccoli florets, cherry tomatoes, cooked chicken strips or cubes of whole-grain bread.
Just Add Milk — Serve a bowl of blueberries, sliced strawberries, peaches or nectarines with low-fat milk and a sprinkle of sugar. Vanilla wafers or chocolate graham crackers are great on the side.
Flavor the Grains — Kids love cereal most any time of day. Serve unsweetened cereal with strawberry or chocolate flavored milk.
Easy Bake — Bake your own potato, beet, or sweet potato chips. Slice vegetables thinly, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and bake in oven at 350°F until crispy.
Remember, along with everything else, children learn their eating and physical activity habits from role models: parents, older siblings or other caregivers. Role modeling may be the most powerful, effective way for you to help your child eat smart and be physically active. Start now.
Jennifer Fleming, MS, RD, LDN is the clinical dietitian at Mount Nittany Medical Center.