Barbecues, picnics and vacations are the stuff of summer fun. But the foods commonly found at such gatherings, often grabbed on-the-go as parents rush from activity to activity, can mean more calories and unhealthy ingredients like sugar and trans fats surge into a child’s diet.
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“There are a lot of opportunities to eat junk food during the summer,” says Dr. Lonna Gordon, the adolescent medicine fellow at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “But things like barbecues and going for ice cream have to be seen as treats, and not something they eat every weekend, or every day.”
Gordon, who specializes in childhood and adolescent obesity, advises parents to plan the cookout or picnic menu well and prepare fruits and veggies ahead of time. “Parents do need to be vigilant about packing healthy foods. Prepare peaches, watermelon, fruit salad, and include vegetables like portobellos to grill alongside the meats.”
This advice, Gordon says, doesn’t just count for children who are already overweight.
“An obese child doesn’t necessarily become an obese adult, and the skinny child doesn’t necessarily stay skinny,” she says. “They’re told because they’re skinny they can eat what they want. That’s not true.
“Learning healthy eating habits and learning how to eat well nutritionally maintains health throughout life.”
Gordon adds that summer brings plenty of healthy upsides for kids and teens, including more time outside playing.
“That can counteract some of the extra calories,” she says. “Also, take children to the farmers market and to pick-your-own farms, and get them involved in healthy eating. Kids like to eat what they’ve had a hand in.”
But summer wouldn’t be the same without ice cream and hotdogs. Even for already overweight or obese children, Gordon advises parents not to outright ban their kids from enjoying the same foods as siblings and friends.
“We don’t want to stigmatize [obese] children by separating them out from their friends or by denying them,” says Gordon. “One plus is that kids have time on their side. They still have time to grow, which is why we don’t put kids on diets. They need a wide variety of foods, including carbs and fats. Just not too many; it really is a matter of moderation.”
3 tips to keep summer eating healthy and fun
Cool treats: “Ice cream can’t be an everyday thing,” she advises. “There’s a lot of sugar and a lot of fat in it. Also, vary it with fruit bars, sorbets and Italian ice to decrease the calories. At home, make fruit pops — put a piece of fruit on a stick and put in the freezer.”
Super salads: “Take advantage of summer produce and create healthy, tasty salads. Avoid mayonnaise and choose olive oil-based dressings as opposed to creamy. And don’t use too much. Salad dressing can ruin the good healthy veggies.”
Be creative: “Make it fun, especially for young kids; they tend to eat things that look fun. Use cookie cutters for veggies and fruits. Make faces on the plate. Get your child involved in the prep. They tend to eat things when they’re helped with the prep.”