Conventional wisdom would say summer is the time when kids eat the healthiest and have the lowest risk of gaining weight. After all, it’s sunny and warm outside, kids are playing or going to camps during the day, and all the best fruits and vegetables are in season and easy to get. However, according to a 2016 study by The Obesity Society, obesity rates in young elementary students increased during summer breaks!
Although, youth athletes are at lower risk of gaining weight during summer break due to their high activity level, there are still some important nutritional tips to consider for a healthy and active summer break.
Keep Eating On a Schedule
The constant availability of food during summer break was a contributing factor for weight gain in the Obesity Society study by von Hippel and Workman.
During the school year, kids followed a more structured schedule of meals and snacks. While not necessarily intended to restrict caloric intake, this schedule created significant portions of the day when no calories were available. At home in the summer, kids ate more frequently and ended up eating more calories overall during the day.
If kids increased their activity level during summer break, then increasing eating frequency and caloric intake would make sense. However, there are many kids who are actually less active during summer break.
Some kids spend their days watching TV or playing video games. In other families, finances may not allow for day camp opportunities. Unfortunately, many parents are reluctant to let their kids freely play and wander their neighborhood due to either real or perceived danger. The combination of increased eating and reduced physical activity is a perfect recipe for weight gain.
Youth sports athletes are typically quite active during summer break, but sticking to a structured eating schedule – or at least putting some parameters around what foods can be eaten at what times – helps kids establish positive eating habits.
Start With a Hearty Breakfast
During the school year, starting the day with a good breakfast has been shown to improve cognitive performance during class. Conversely, it’s been shown that hungry kids don’t perform as well in class. Breakfast is still important in the summer, particularly if your kids have a full day of structured or unstructured activities ahead of them.
What should a summer breakfast look like? Your goal is to provide long-lasting energy, so kids can get engrossed in whatever they’re doing instead of looking for snacks every 60-90 minutes. To accomplish this, aim for foods that are high in protein and high in fiber. For example, a breakfast of Greek yogurt, a higher-fiber cereal, and fresh fruit provides protein and fiber for satiety as well as natural carbohydrates for energy. Adding eggs further increases the protein and fat content of breakfast.
At the other end of the spectrum, a breakfast that is loaded with added sugar and contains little or no protein (e.g. frozen waffles and Nutella, sugary cereal, fruit juice) won’t keep an active kid satisfied for very long, meaning that despite consuming a high-calorie breakfast, they’ll be on the hunt for food again be mid-morning.
Stock Up on Healthy and Easy Lunch Options
In the study by von Hippel and Workman, poor nutritional quality was one of the other contributing factors for weight gain during the summer. As much as you may have not-so-fond memories of school cafeteria food, for many kids the nutritional and portion size structures of the school lunch program provided more balanced nutrition than they got at home.
As parents know all too well, a hungry kid is likely to eat a lot of whatever is most convenient and at least moderately appealing. The trick is figuring out what foods your kid will reach for and which foods they’ll leave to rot. For instance, open containers of grapes, blueberries, or raspberries make fresh and cold fruit a quick and easy option to reach for. Deli meat and sliced cheese makes a sandwich a quicker option than boxed mac-n-cheese or frozen pizza. Sparkling water with flavoring is refreshing and may be more appealing than plain water, and it’s a much better option than sugary soda.
Make Good Snacks and Treats Readily Available
If you don’t want a teenager to eat an entire bag of Doritos in one sitting, you should provide an alternative and leave the Doritos at the grocery store. It is unrealistic to expect kids and teenagers to, left to their own devices, make consistently healthy food choices. However, if there are reasonable alternatives and the opportunity to indulge in occasional treats, parents can help instill a healthy relationship with food that can last a lifetime.
Here’s a sample of foods to encourage and provide your athlete, as well as a sample of foods to limit access to. Some of the items in the recommended list have added sugar (popsicles) or are heavily processed (tortilla chips), but on balance are still better choices than other alternatives.
|Snacks to Encourage||Snacks to Discourage or Limit|
|Fresh vegetable sticks||Fried snack chips (potato, Doritos)|
|Minimally processed nut butters (peanut, almond, etc.)||Nutella or high-sugar added peanut butter|
|Salsa or Hummus||Queso Dip|
|Tortilla Chips & Guacamole||Nachos|
|Dry Roasted Nuts||Honey Roasted Nuts|
For many families, even with a schedule of activities, summer break represents a period when kids are at home more hours during the week compared to the school year. With a bit of planning, parents can stock their kitchens and pantries with convenient, healthy, and appealing foods to keep everyone from grade schoolers to teenagers fueled for summertime activities. At the same time, parents should help kids stay on a reasonably structured eating schedule to reinforce good habits and minimize mindless snacking driven more by boredom than hunger.
Hippel, Paul T. Von, and Joseph Workman. “From Kindergarten Through Second Grade, U.S. Children’s Obesity Prevalence Grows Only During Summer Vacations.” Obesity, vol. 24, no. 11, 2016, pp. 2296–2300., doi:10.1002/oby.21613.