YES, the kids all scream for ice-cream in the sun – but you can make sure they eat well whatever the weather
After three Julys of feeding ducks in the park, for entertainment, day after very wet day, in the hope of getting my kids exercised, I am more than delighted with this year's July weather. Our children are outside playing, all day, every day, and our only concern is whether or not they need more sun cream on their neck. For them to get their requisite hour of activity, needed for health, every day, seems easy this year.
The electronic gadgets have been forgotten about; the television is never on; we go to the beach instead of the cinema. As a result, you would be under the impression that our kids are having a fabulously healthy summer holiday. And they are, to an extent.
HELLO SUMMER, HELLO CALORIES
How many ice-creams did your child have yesterday, though? How much orange squash or juice did they drink, in the name of 'thirst'? Did they not have a hot dinner and instead, spend all evening snacking, where all you see is their back, as the rest of them is stuck in the fridge? Did the picnic in the park include more sweets than you could shake an average-sized stick at?
For many kids, the summer holidays mean they get to have an unstructured approach to eating. Dinners are casual, sweets are plentiful and trips to the local shop are frequent or endless. How, then, do we hope to keep our children at a healthy weight over the summer and send them back to school, in September, fit, healthy and of an appropriate weight for their height?
Do you know that by consuming a mere 100 kcal (calories), per day, in excess of what they need, they put on one pound of weight in just over a month? Two pounds over the summer, that is. Fat weight is what I'm referring to here. Isn't there a very smart ad on television at the moment detailing the amount of jiggling it takes to burn over 130 kcal?
SUMMER SOFT DRINKS HAVE HUNDREDS OF CALORIES
The fact is that giving your child free rein over the soft drinks, alone, will add hundreds of calories to their daily intake, let alone the number that will be added by endless sweets, treats and ice-cream. What is wrong with your child putting on weight over the summer though? Why should we be worried?
We need to sit up and take notice of our kids getting fatter. Yes, we adore them. Yes, they are beautiful, on the inside as well as on the outside, at whatever weight they are. But, no, they are not meant to be fat. If our children are allowed to become overweight we are, in essence, lessening their quality of life and potentially shortening it.
As an overweight or obese child you are likely to become an overweight or obese adult and suffer the health consequences. I always notice how mine shoot up over the summer holidays. Trousers that fit in June are well past their ankles by September.
I love that. I am convinced that they grow so much because of good rest, lack of stress and good, summer eating. To grow is good. Weight, too, increases for many kids over the summer. Do not concern yourself with your child's weight per se. Never, ever, stand your child on weighing scales, and place a spotlight on the numbers. What I am referring to here is excess fat. We do not want to allow our kids to put on too much fat over the summer holidays.
IS YOUR CHILD'S WAIST EXPANDING?
How do we measure this? By measuring their waist circumference in clothes, is the answer. We do not need a tape measure to do this (never, ever use a tape measure). We can achieve it very subtly in jeans. As long as your child wears something structured, even once a week, you can do this. The jeans, with a button and zip, that fits their waist in June should do so week after week over the summer, with no extra overhang (muffin-tops on pre-teens are not cute and they are not healthy).
We all store extra fat around our mid-section when we initially put on weight and it is this mid-section fat that is most dangerous to health, as it represents what is going on internally, around and within our organs, such as heart, liver, lungs.
How can we manage our kids eating over the summer then, in order to keep fat at bay, when they have all the freedom in the world to eat what they want? Well, the fact is that 90pc of the food eaten by five to 12-year-olds in Ireland comes from the home. We are giving it to them. If they get ice-cream more than once a day, because of the heat, because we are on the beach, or because the ice-cream van turns up at your door, we are giving it to them. This needs to stop.
ARE YOU SHOWERING YOUR CHILD WITH SWEETS?
There are other challenges. I have a mother-in-law who brings sweets, when baby-sitting, by the cup full. Gone are the days when pic 'n' mix was expensive and so she brought small amounts. Now it comes, not by weight, but by volume. As a result, this enormous wax-paper cup comes packed so tightly with sweets that when its contents are emptied out by my excited kids it stands like a sand-castle, on the counter-top, before they devour it.
Of course, I exaggerate here a little, but in all honesty, the joy of having their Nana to stay the odd Friday night to babysit is, in part, due to the fact that she will, if not policed, feed them sweets late at night and, believe it or not, first thing after breakfast on the Saturday morning.
I see it as my job (as 'bad' cop) to police their consumption of sweets and 'junk' in general. Kids cannot be trusted to self monitor. It is not their job; it is yours, as parent and minder. How? Have a strategy.
MAKING FRIENDS WITH FIVE FRUIT AND VEG A DAY
Our kids need no less than five portions of fruit and vegetables every day. How can they get this when the fruit and vegetables have to compete with junk food? What does five fruit and veg look like in a day? It comes in the form of a banana mid-morning when they come to you looking for toast or juice. It is chopped-up melon (very inexpensive at the moment) in the afternoon, in place of an ice-pop from the freezer. It's chopped pineapple (always a favourite of kids for its sweetness) in the evening.
It is having a very full fruit bowl that takes centre stage in the kitchen. Fruit has never been so cheap. We have always used the expense of fruit as the reason not to have too much of it about the house. Nowadays, the price of fruit in all shops has nosedived.
It is all good for them; there are none better than the others. Try to get your kids accustomed to citrus fruits – oranges, lemons, grapefruits as soon as possible, for thier high Vitamin C content and also let them try as many different types as you come across, to keep their interest. Try not to get stuck in the apple, orange, banana rut we all grew up in.
For vegetables, I use many tricks such as soup and curries all year long. Right now they are more likely to come as chopped up salad ingredients at both main meals of the day, if eating at home or as a picnic. I chop carrots, cucumber and beetroot always and add different things to the mix different days, such as baby tomatoes, scallions and lettuce and place them on the table before their cheese-on-toast for lunch or home-made burger for tea, arrives.
Of course, my six-year-old will not touch the onion or beetroot (yet), but my eight-year-old adores cucumber and my 10-year-old is the most adventurous of all. However, my 12-year-old is starting to see through the ruse.
RATIONING MR ICE-CREAM VAN
As for Mr Ice-cream van that terrorises parents all summer long, my trick here is (for once) to indulge my kids in ice-cream when the occasion arises. They get to choose "do you want a 99 now or do you want ice-cream for dessert at home after dinner?" You can guess the answer every time.
You are right. What do they have in place of dessert then? The most beautiful Wexford strawberries was yesterday's answer; today it might be those furry flat white peaches currently on bargain in all larger supermarkets.
Ice-cream and sweets are good for kids, within reason.
Anna Burns, a nutrition educationist for 17 years, is author of The Food Nanny and runs a countrywide corporate nutrition consultancy. www.annaburnsnutrition.com