This article originally appeared in the June 21, 2012, edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
During the school year, kids walk through the cafeteria line or open their lunch bag at the same time every day. But when summer vacation starts and kids are home alone, who is in charge of feeding them the right foods at the right times? Although many working parents leave their kids home alone during the summer, kids can still eat healthy and follow a routine schedule.
Some kids might be old enough to stay home alone during summer days, but it does not mean that they are always old enough to prepare appropriate meals for themselves. In fact, some meal preparations might be dangerous for kids to try, particularly those that involve using the oven or stove.
Parents can determine if their child is responsible enough to use the oven and stove, and this decision should be based more on a child’s maturity level than age. For those children who aren’t yet mature enough to use the stove, parents can prepare foods that can be reheated in a microwave and eaten throughout the day.
It is also important to teach children the basics about when, what and how much to eat to stay healthy. Creating a meal and snack routine is key to cultivating good eating habits. If a child is grazing all day, the child will not know when he or she is really hungry and can spoil important meals.
It is important for parents to create routines for their children, such as always eating lunch at noon with a snack sometime later. Parents should generally try to schedule snacks two hours in between meals and make sure the snack is just that, a snack. Nutritious snacks include an apple with peanut butter, yogurt, or a piece of fruit.
Being a role model and purchasing food that is healthy will go a long way in shaping your child’s relationship with food.
“It’s about what’s available in the home,” said Kathryn Helling, clinical dietician at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center. “If the parents want them to eat healthy things, they need to make those foods available. Try to minimize buying any foods that have a lot of calories but not a lot of nutrition.”
Parents can make snacks like potato chips or cookies a special treat, rather than a common snack or side to a meal. If available, parents should buy low-fat options such as low-fat cheese or low-fat ranch dressing. This allows kids to eat some of their favorite foods and consume fewer calories at the same time.
Parents can always find healthy snacks with great flavors. Instead of letting kids enjoy sugar-filled popsicles, parents and kids can freeze yogurt and enjoy it as a dessert. There are other homemade snacks such as trail mix that kids tend to enjoy that is a nutritious snack.
Just because some foods can be prepared quickly doesn’t mean they are always unhealthy. Parents can help guide their kids to eat healthy foods and set a routine that works with their schedules.
Dr. Bob Wilmott is Chief of Pediatrics at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center and is a Professor of Pediatric Medicine at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. If you have a question about your child’s health, go to the “Ask Dr. Bob” section of the Cardinal Glennon website at www.cardinalglennon.com.