Creating a Healthy Summer Meal and Snack Plan for Children

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A pediatric nutritionist from a top American hospital, Cleveland Clinic Children’s, gives pointers for parents on hydration, healthy snacks and consistent eating habits

 Jennifer Hyland, R.D.

Cleveland, Ohio: With longer days, hotter temperatures, and often more free time, there are many ways for children to fill their summer. To ensure they stay healthy, a pediatric registered dietitian from a top American hospital, Cleveland Clinic Children’s, says parents should be focusing on hydration as well as providing structured meals and snacks at this time.

According to Jennifer Hyland, R.D., there is no particular nutrient or vitamin children need more during the summer. “The challenge is typically kids aren’t getting the necessary vitamins and nutrients they need anyway,” she says. “Truth be told, we hope kids are active all year long, so needs don’t significantly change in the summer.”

Instead, she says, the most important thing to keep in mind during the summer is keeping children properly hydrated.

It’s all about hydration

“If kids are outside, being active and sweating, they need to stay hydrated,” Hyland says. Although it may be tempting to just let them grab whatever they want out of the fridge, she says it is important to keep control over what they drink.

“Sugar-sweetened drinks are not recommended at any time of year,” she says. “That includes sweet teas, lemonade, juice or soda.” Instead, she suggests adding fruit to water for flavor, or even sparkling flavored waters as a way to keep things fun and interesting.

She also says 100% fruit juice is alright in moderation. But no more than a cup a day. “Kids, especially when they’re thirsty, can down several cups of juice at a time, so you want to keep them from drinking too much sugar,” she explains.

She adds that food can also be hydrating, pointing out, “Fruits and veggies generally have great water content. Fruits like watermelon, melons and berries are great for that. And veggies like cucumbers, celery and bell pepper have a lot of water, too.”

No need to ditch cold treats

Summer is high time for ice cream, popsicles and other tasty, cold treats to help children stay cool, and keeping children healthy doesn’t mean you need to ditch these items altogether, says Hyland.

“We never want to say no, your kids can never have ice cream or popsicles or other cold treats. There’s absolutely a place for that and giving them those treats from time to time can keep them from craving it as much,” Hyland says.

That said, she points out there are some great alternatives to use for more regular treats that do not load children up with as much sugar. “You can find 100% fruit pops at your grocery store or, if they like something creamier, Greek yogurt bars,” she says. “They taste like ice cream but they’re made of Greek yogurt so your kids are getting more protein.”

Hyland adds that parents can also whip up homemade treats, which can be more convenient and save money, as well as allowing parents to have more control over the ingredients.

Some ideas from Hyland include:

  • Blend various fruit and yogurt combinations and pour them into reusable popsicle molds.
  • Cut up various fruits and dip them in chocolate or yogurt then freeze them.
  • Use frozen fruits like bananas, mangoes or strawberries to create homemade ice cream.

“Again, we don’t want to deprive kids of these fun things,” Hyland says. “It’s about giving them snacks from which they can get key vitamins and nutrients. If you can use fruits and as well as protein in a snack, you’re giving them long-lasting energy rather than energy from sugar, which will not stick with them as long.”

Avoid grazing on processed snack foods

Many popular snacks like chips and pretzels are high in refined carbohydrates, which turn to sugar in the body.  “Those sugars are quickly digested and don’t sustain a child’s energy or keep them feeling full as long,” Hyland notes.

The goal is to give children food that gives them more sustainable energy throughout the day and keeps them feeling full so they do not fall into a cycle of over-eating. “Again, it’s all about fruits, veggies, healthy fats and proteins,” she adds. “We might think that it’s simply about giving them calories but we really want to make sure the calories we give them will keep them full and won’t be burned so quickly.”

Keep the schedule consistent

One other important aspect of summer eating, according to Hyland, is keeping kids’ eating schedules consistent throughout the school year. “When kids are in school, they don’t have free access to snacks whenever they want,” she says. “And we want to keep that same pattern going while at home.”

“Keeping them on their main three meals a day and then having planned snacks is a good way to approach it,” she says. “As a parent, you might not always be able to swing it. But as much as you can keep them to that set meal structure, the better behavior it sets.

About Cleveland Clinic:

Cleveland Clinic – now in its centennial year – is a nonprofit multispecialty academic medical center that integrates clinical and hospital care with research and education. Located in Cleveland, Ohio, it was founded in 1921 by four renowned physicians with a vision of providing outstanding patient care based upon the principles of cooperation, compassion and innovation. Cleveland Clinic has pioneered many medical breakthroughs, including coronary artery bypass surgery and the first face transplant in the United States. U.S. News & World Report consistently names Cleveland Clinic as one of the nation’s best hospitals in its annual “America’s Best Hospitals” survey. Among Cleveland Clinic’s 70,800 employees worldwide are more than 4,660 salaried physicians and researchers, and 18,500 registered nurses and advanced practice providers, representing 140 medical specialties and subspecialties. Cleveland Clinic is a 6,500-bed health system that includes a 173-acre main campus near downtown Cleveland, 19 hospitals, more than 220 outpatient facilities, and locations in southeast Florida; Las Vegas, Nevada; Toronto, Canada; Abu Dhabi, UAE; and London, England. In 2020, there were 8.7 million total outpatient visits, 273,000 hospital admissions and observations, and 217,000 surgical cases throughout Cleveland Clinic’s health system. Patients came for treatment from every state and 185 countries.