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School’s Out! Healthy Summer Eating Is In

A clinical dietician shares her tips for healthy eating strategies for families

Sharon Mead headshot

Published on: July 10, 2024

family sitting around a table eating healthy in the summer

Editor’s note: This article was sponsored by Seattle Children’s Hospital.

Summer sometimes feels like a free-for-all when it comes to eating. And while you might have more ice pops now than in December, healthy eating as a whole doesn’t have to take a vacation. While many kids spend more time at home during the day, summer can be an opportunity to experiment with new foods and new habits.

Create good habits

According to Phuong V. Truong, RDN, a clinical dietitian with Seattle Children’s Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic, healthy eating starts at home with the parents. “Whatever you eat, the kids will follow. Modeling is the best and easiest way to create habits that kids will emulate,” says Truong. As you prepare meals, include at least three things from these five food groups: carbohydrates, protein, fruit, vegetables and dairy. This gives an easy framework to teach the habit of balancing out your plate. You can also refer to My Plate for more ideas about balanced nutrition.

Truong also suggests the adventure bites system to help your child explore foods they would not normally eat, especially if they are experiencing stress or difficulty with eating certain foods. Even if they are old enough for more adventurous foods, they may be hesitant to try them.

Experiment by creating a list of activities to use during and after meals to reward (reinforce) the bites your child takes, and keep track of their successes with a chart. Rewards don’t have to be food or monetary, especially for young kids. Instead, use rewards such as allowing your child to pick the family movie, or a special play time activity or favorite park on the next outing.

Having family meals together — even once or twice a week — will give you the opportunity to be creative and model good eating habits. And most of all, to enjoy the food and time together.

Set boundaries

Boundaries around meals and food help encourage healthy eating as well. Offer meals that include some choices at certain times, and avoid free-reign access to eat whatever is in the house. If your kids don’t like the prepared meal, limit access to a snack later. This will help direct them to eat at meal times and to try new things. Remember, it takes time for children’s taste buds to accept new flavors; these tips for introducing new foods from Seattle Children’s can help (also available in Spanish).

Being at home should not mean children have unrestricted access to food throughout the day. Constantly hitting the cabinet or fridge for snacks racks up unneeded calories, notes Truong.

Shop together

Another useful strategy Truong suggests is to bring the kids to the grocery store or farmer’s market so you can shop together. Plan ahead with a shopping list that allows you to create several meals. Once there, involve your kids and their senses in the shopping experience, especially when picking out fruits and vegetables. If they pick out the fruit, explains Truong, they are more likely to try it because they have touched, smelled and seen it before they taste it. Eating using more senses is a strategy that is effective for kids and makes food fun.

Always try to shop the perimeter of the store first to fill your cart with fruits and vegetables; then, breeze through the middle aisles for the packaged goods. Shop for things such as oatmeal, popcorn, frozen vegetables, beans and pasta before you add ice cream or sweets to your cart.

Welcome kids in the kitchen

Make a plan to have kids help in the kitchen once a week. Try age-appropriate activities such as tearing lettuce leaves for a salad, cracking eggs for breakfast, cutting up fruit or mixing ingredients in a bowl. When kids are part of the cooking process, it reduces the stress of trying new foods. It provides ownership in the process and the gateway to healthy eating.

Try watching videos with step-by-step cooking instructions for kids on YouTube or Instagram. Or garner some ideas from local Chef (and dad) Joel Gamoran, creator of Homemade.

Watch sweets between meals

Keeping sweets and snacks between meals to a minimum is important, but also avoid sugary beverages, reminds Truong. The more kids sip sugary drinks, the less likely they are to eat complete meals or try new foods when mealtime arrives. Offer water throughout the day so kids stay hydrated. If you need a good gauge, the general rule for children is to consume the equivalent of half of the child's weight (up to 100 pounds) in ounces of water each day.

Prepare some easy summer snacks

So what are some good snacks for kids while they are running through a busy summer day? Truong recommends easy options that you can serve kids between meals or for a light meal.

  • Make fruit and/or veggie kabobs with any fruits and cheese cubes. Add olives, if your kids like them.
  • Slice cucumber, bell peppers and halved cherry tomatoes and serve with grilled chicken or tofu.
  • Serve a fruit parfait with yogurt (dairy or dairy alternative).
  • For a power snack, your family can make savory dates and pistachio bites. Substitute sunflower seeds for a nut allergy.

When it comes to kids and healthy eating, Truong reminds parents to “Keep trying. As long as you keep trying, you’ll do well. Give kids time to try new things and don’t give up.”

Additional resources and healthy eating supports for Washington families:

Meals and resources for children and teens

  • USDA Food and Nutrition Services — Access a list of school meal distribution sites where all students can access free meals during COVID-19 school closures.
  • Summer Food Service Program — Visit your nearest Summer Meals site to receive free, healthy breakfasts, lunches and snacks during the summer months. Registration is not required; children between the ages of 1–18 are eligible.
  • Raise a healthy child who is a joy to feed — Learn about the Satter Division of Responsibility in Feeding on this informative website.

Washington state food resources

  • Local Farmers Markets — Find your local farmers market and pick up some yummy fresh fruit and veggies
  • Food Lifeline — Find local food banks in Washington state.
  • Washington 2-1-1 — For information on free meals and food pantries, call 2-1-1.
  • Help Me Grow  — Find local food resources and other information on support in Washington state.
  • Saving Dollars on Food — Get tips, recipes and resources for saving money on food in this informative article from Seattle Children's Hospital. 

King County

  • Fresh Bucks – Seattle residents may receive monthly Fresh Bucks vouchers in the mail to buy fruits and vegetables from participating grocers and farm stands. While program enrollment is currently full, they are working on new services. Check the Facebook page for updates. 

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