Summer is snack season. At the beach, kids feast on cotton candy and fudge, popsicles and soda pop. At ballgames, they wolf down hot dogs, hot pretzels, Cracker Jacks and more soda pop. Then there are picnics and visits to state fairs (Want some fried dough?). There are camp outs (Hand me the marshmallows, please!) and auto trips with lots of stops at fast-food restaurants. If you stay home, there's the traveling ice-cream truck.
It's hard to resist all these treats -- and most kids don't. The trick is to make treats a small part of your summer diet and to make sure the rest of what you eat is healthful and well-balanced. Every day, you should eat a variety of fresh foods from the four basic groups: milk, meat, fruits and vegetables, and grains.
Kids' bodies actually need snacks. According to nutritionists at Boston Children's Hospital, young kids and teenagers often need to eat snacks because they don't get enough calories in just three meals.
This is especially true if kids are physically active. And during the summer, most kids are pretty active whether they're swimming, hiking or playing games all day at summer camp. So eating snacks is fine -- as long as they're good for you. That means keeping fat, sugar and salt levels pretty low. No, potato chips are not a healthy snack.
When you do snack, try to choose foods that are good for you -- and still taste like a special treat. Munch on some popcorn, for example. Last year, Americans ate 13.9 billion quarts of popcorn. That's 56 quarts apiece for every man, woman and child in the country.
Popcorn has always been popular. According to experts at the Orville Redenbacher company, popcorn was served at the first American Thanksgiving celebration along with the turkey. Colonial Americans used to eat popcorn for breakfast. Popcorn is good for you because it's high in fiber, which helps you digest your food. The American Cancer Society, the American Dental Association and other health groups have recommended popcorn as a snack food. Just don't drown it in butter and smother it with salt! Here are some other good choices:
Fresh fruits. Summer brings peaches, plums, cherries, apricots, blueberries, melons -- and more. Go to the grocery store or a local fruit stand with your parents, and choose the freshest, juiciest fruits you can find. Maybe you can go to a pick-it-yourself farm to get the freshest fruit possible, and get some exercise at the same time. Fresh fruits are full of vitamins and other good things that will give you energy and help you grow. Don't get in a fruit rut. Strawberries, blueberries and watermelon are great. But try a nectarine, too. Or even some kiwi fruit.
Raw vegetables. Again, summer brings tons of fresh vegetables that taste better now than at any other time of year. Snack on cherry tomatoes, carrots from the garden, cucumber slices, green peppers and sugar snap peas. Ask your parents to help you experiment with making a dip from yogurt and herbs.
Wholesome drinks. Instead of sugary soda pop, mix soda water with fruit juice, fresh-squeezed lemonade (easy on the sugar) or skim milk whirred with strawberries or bananas.
The list of wholesome snacks goes on and on. You can eat rice crackers and peanut butter, whole-wheat crackers with cheese, frozen bananas (great on a hot day), graham crackers, cotton candy . . . Wait a minute. How did cotton candy get in there? Obviously, cotton candy, which is just plain old sugar and food coloring, doesn't rank too high on the nutrition charts. Dentists aren't too fond of it either, since sugar leads to tooth decay. But does that mean you should never, ever, under any circumstances eat a cloud of cotton candy? No. Every now and then, it's okay to have a sugary treat, according to nutritionist Mary Marcus, who works in the hospital and clinic of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Just don't make it a daily habit. The secret to healthy snacking is to be sensible.
Tips for Parents
Trying to keep your kids' eating habits on track this summer? Clinical nutritionist Mary Marcus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Hospital and Clinics suggests:
Keep treats out of the house. Cookies, candy and potato chips should not be staples in the family cupboard. If they're not there, kids won't eat them.
Buy treats in small amounts. Buy a pint of ice cream instead of a gallon. Better yet, substitute frozen yogurt, which is lower in fat.
Involve kids in preparing foods. It's more fun to eat a banana smoothie you've made yourself.
Give kids choices. Choosing between an apple and a banana allows kids to feel some control over food habits.
Remember, an occasional sweet treat once or twice a week won't hurt if a child's general eating habits are good.
Catherine O'Neill is a freelance children's writer.