With school-free days often comes sedentary screen time and those tempting summer treats. That combination turns summer into a ticking time bomb for weight gain. Here’s how to keep that from happening.

Be the leader


As a parent, one of the most helpful things you can do to keep kids healthy over the summer is lead them in that direction. There are smart ways to encourage your kids, and terrible ones—make sure you know the parenting advice you should ignore. Shelly Summar, MSEd, RD, LD, program manager of Weighing In at Children’s Mercy Kansas City, says, “Kids pay attention to their parents’ behavior and use it as a guide. Parents should role model healthy eating and ensure healthy options are readily available.” How can you do that? Be prepared and keep healthy foods at hand. Make small changes in your own diet that can impact your child’s habits, like drinking more water or eating an extra serving of fruit or vegetables every day. Summar suggests placing healthy food options in plain sight wherever possible, like fresh fruit on the counter or table. “Healthy options should be the first thing you see when you’re hungry,” says Summar.

Follow the 1-2-3-4-5 rule


Summar also suggests focusing on five important behaviors for a healthy lifestyle for kids, as outlined in a Healthy Lifestyle Initiatives program called 12345 Fit-Tastic. According to the 1-2-3-4-5 rule, kids should have 1 hour of physical activity, 2 hours of screen time, 3 servings of low or non-fat milk or yogurt, 4 servings of water, and 5 servings of fruits and vegetables each day. Although this recipe is perfect for kids to stick to all year, parents can really focus on it over the summer when there’s more time to instill this healthy approach. Summar advises thinking outside the box for physical activities that don’t cost a lot of money. Museums and arts and crafts programs get kids moving and out of the house, or try free activities at local playgrounds like canoeing, swimming, or other fun outdoor water activities to stay active and cool in the summer. As for screen time, keep phones, tablets, computers, and TVs out of bedrooms and away from the meal table for less distraction and temptation. To help you and the kids stick to the 3-4-5 diet rules, Summar says, it’s all about making food fun. Use Greek yogurt for vegetable or fruit dip, add frozen fruit ice cubes to water, and make fun, colorful fruit kabobs for a refreshing, tasty treat. Do you want some more fun ways to add healthy options to the menu? A Unicorn Poop Vegetable Dip will surely get your kids excited to eat some veggies!

Teach kids about their food


“Summer is a great time to focus on family health,” says Michael Carlston, MD, a general physician and author of Better Than Medicines: The Ten Essential Health Habits. Dr. Carlston suggests utilizing some of the best things about summer, like farmer’s markets and planting your own veggies and fruits, to teach kids about their food. Visit your local farmer’s market or orchard and let your kids pick out some fresh foods. Then, work with them to create your own recipes to try out their picks. You can also get kids excited about growing their own fresh foods with a small garden patch. They’ll get to see how their food grows and find excitement in caring for it and contributing to their meals. Plus, gardening is an incredibly healthy activity that keeps kids enjoying the outdoors.

Ditch the sugar for homemade frozen treats


There are so many tempting treats in the summer months, from ice cream to popsicles. But, our favorite summer treats are often loaded with sugar, fat, and calories. Instead of spending money on pre-made frozen treats at the supermarket, make homemade frozen desserts with your kids. Karen Thomas, a Food, Families & Health educator at the Penn State Extension, suggests using 100% fruit juice for popsicles or using frozen yogurt as a substitute for ice cream sundaes. You’ll have more control over the portion sizes and health content, and you can give your kids control over the ingredients by giving them several healthy options for mix-ins or juices.

Schedule some sleep


Parents may find it difficult to ensure that their children get enough sleep over the summer with busy schedules and long daylight hours—though of course, the easiest fix is activity and exercise lead to better sleep. A 2008 study published in Sleep showed that adults and children who slept less than the recommended number of hours per night for their age were more at risk for obesity than those who got the necessary number of hours of sleep per night. So, it may help to create a set schedule for kids over the summer with a specific bedtime and wake time to align their bodies with a good sleep pattern. According to experts at Medical West Hospital, shoot for 11 to 13 hours of sleep for ages three to five, 10 to 12 hours for school agers, and about nine hours for teens. With plenty of outdoor time, kids will tire out enough to want to have a good night’s sleep!

Send them to camp prepared


A lot of kids venture off to camp for a few days over the summer. They’ll likely participate in tons of outdoor sports and activities, but how can you make sure they’re staying on track with healthy meals and snacks? Not to mention water: Staying hydrated is key to keeping weight off and beating the summer heat. Pack their own! Monica Auslander, MS, RDN, and founder of Essence Nutrition, suggests packing healthy lunches and snacks for your child in lieu of camp food. If you’re close enough to your child’s camp that you can send over a pre-packed lunch each day, go for it! Before you send your child to camp, have her choose her own healthy proteins, veggies, fruits, and healthy fats for the week. You can then place some of her picks into a sectioned container and deliver her lunch. If your child will be at a camp further away for a few days, Auslander suggests packing several healthy, non-perishable snacks. Crackers high in fiber, sunflower seed butter, and protein-packed granola bars low in sugar are all great choices. And, don’t forget to send a refillable water bottle with your child.

Reward them for staying active


You’ll want to be creative when you’re looking for ways to motivate your kids to stay active. Katrina Haghighi, RDN, and Michael Russo, MD, of Smart Dimensions™ recommends combining active chores with rewards for more sedentary activities to give kids a good balance of activity and relaxation through the summer. Choose chores that will keep your kids moving, such as mowing the lawn, cleaning their rooms, or even washing the family vehicles. Provide rewards in the form of electronics or other non-active activities they enjoy, such as watching TV or playing a computer game, based on how much activity a chore provides. For example, mowing the lawn could give them more minutes with electronics than cleaning their rooms would. When you leverage active tasks for sedentary activities, you’re giving kids an opportunity to be more active while also getting something they enjoy in return.

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