When I was a kid (a chubby one at that), summertime was when I normally lost a few pounds through increased daily activities—riding my bike to the public beach, swimming and goofing around all day, then riding my bike home for dinner. Even though my lunch money was typically spent on ice cream sandwiches and soft-serve, the amount of time I spent being active during the day was enough to enable me to slim down before September.
Today, however, thanks to open kitchen pantries and too much TV time (not to mention cheese fries, as the New York Times suggested this week), many kindergarten and elementary school children—at critical points in their lives for optimizing body weight—are actually packing on pounds during summer vacation.
In a 2007 study, researchers at Ohio State and Indiana universities analyzed the body fat of more than 5,000 kindergarten and first graders in schools across the country. Body mass index (BMI) measures were taken for these children throughout the academic year. From these data, the researchers compared BMI changes over the nine-month school year versus with changes during the three-month summer vacation.
The results? During summer vacation, the average BMI increased more than twice as fast as during the school year.
Summer has turned into a vacation from healthy eating, and children are getting plenty of "screen time" but not enough playtime to compensate for warm weather faves such as ice cream and lemonade. They also have a tendency to snack more due to the irregular meal patterns that often occur during summer break.
School may be out, but now is the time to enroll your child in the summer session of healthy eating. Here's what you can do.
- Keep kids on an eating and snacking schedule: Breakfast, lunch, dinner, and two snacks. This helps them feel signs of hunger and stops mindless munching between meals. Make the kitchen off-limits unless it's time for a meal or a planned snack. (This one is good advice for everyone in the family to follow!)
- Plan family vacations that focus on physical activity rather than just relaxation. Consider an active getaway with lots of swimming, cycling, or hiking.
- Enroll your children in organized sports camps for swimming, soccer, or tennis. Most community centers offer some type of youth sports programs.
- Limit "screen time" to no more than one to two hours a day—that includes both the computer and TV.
- Make summer's perfect produce the centerpiece of your meals. Visit a farmers market with your children and prepare meals together using fresh, wholesome ingredients. Better yet, designate a section of your yard as a place where your child can plant his or her own vegetables. Then let your child harvest the veggies and help decide how to eat them.
- Limit calorie-rich juices, sodas, and other liquids. To keep kids hydrated in the heat, give them plenty of water and help them avoid sugary beverages that have no effect on satiety.
By Julie Upton, RD