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Top 10 Healthy Summer Foods for Children

Can kids eat healthfully, yet still enjoy their favorite summer foods?

From the WebMD Archives

Ball games, cookouts, festivals. Summer is ripe with our children’s favorite foods. Yet so many summer foods -- from BBQ turkey legs to ice cream and hot dogs -- are dietary disasters.

Can children eat healthy, yet still enjoy their favorite summer foods? Yes, they can have hamburgers, hot dogs, ice creamy treats, and desserts -- if you handle it right.

Healthy Food Rule #1: Let them eat sweets, says Sarah Krieger, MPH, RD, LD, a dietitian in St. Petersburg, FL, and an American Dietetic Association (ADA) spokeswoman. "It's really important to treat sweets like any other food, to have a little bit every day. That's how kids develop a healthy relationship with sweet foods."

Healthy Food Rule #2: Make sure they burn off the calories, says Elisa Zied, MS, RD, a nutrition consultant in New York City, author of the book Feed Your Family Right!, and an ADA spokeswoman.

At a carnival, "if your kids want a funnel cake or corn dog, go for it," Zied tells WebMD. "You don't want them to feel deprived. Pump up their activity that week or that day so they can burn it off." She also teaches kids to share sweet and fatty foods -- so everyone gets a taste, but no one overeats.

Healthy Food Rule #3: "Be a good role model," says Sheah Rarback, MS, RD, director of nutrition for the Mailman Center for Child Development at the University of Miami School of Medicine. "Expose kids to healthy foods -- or at least healthier versions of their favorites. If you eat them, your kids will eat them."

Here are healthy tips for children’s favorite summer foods:

1. Top Summer Food: Nachos & Quesadillas

Mexican food is always a treat -- and has lots of healthy elements. Start with whole-wheat chips and tortillas for extra fiber, then add your favorite toppings. Done right, you can sneak lots of veggies, protein, calcium, and fiber into these snacks.

  • Create your own nacho platter, Rarback suggests. "Top tortillas with beans, salsa, guacamole, and melt low-fat cheese over it all. Kids love those kinds of healthy carbs." Toss a bit of fat-free sour cream on top if you want.
  • Puree different veggies -- then slip them into a chip dip, or use it as a nacho topping. Your kids won't know the difference!
  • Quesadillas are another kid favorite. Top whole-wheat tortillas with beans, low-fat cheese, veggies (like red bell and green peppers, corn, green onions, spinach, mushrooms), and chicken. On the side, you've got the classic quartet -- low-fat sour cream, lettuce, salsa, guacamole -- also healthy.

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2. Top Summer Food: Hamburgers & Hot Dogs

This all-American duo has always been trouble -- full of fat, sodium, and cholesterol. The good news is, you can improve nutrition by making a few wise choices.

  • If you grill burgers at home, mix it up. Use one-half lean beef and one-half ground turkey. Add a little applesauce or egg white for extra juiciness, Krieger suggests. Fun toppings -- lemon or orange zest, black pepper, salsa, BBQ sauce, pineapple. A slice of a summer tomato and some fresh-from-the-garden lettuce tops off the taste.
  • Frozen veggie burgers on whole-wheat buns are another good option. Try grilling them, and toast the bun, too. Lots of fixings boost the enjoyment factor.
  • Try light and reduced-fat hot dogs, including chicken and turkey dogs. They taste best hot off the grill, Krieger says.
  • Switch gears: Grill skinless chicken breasts and lots of veggies -- onions, bell peppers, carrots, squash, eggplant. "These taste great with a little olive oil brushed on," says Zied. "Serve them cut up into small pieces -- or with some melted cheese on toasted French bread."

3. Top Summer Food: Ice Cream

It's hard to resist ice cream. But premium ice creams have about 15 grams or more fat per 1/2 cup serving.

  • Sweet news here: Many well-known brands -- Dreyers/Edy's, Breyers, and Haagen-Dazs -- are making super-creamy "light" and "slow-churned" ice creams that cut lots of fat and calories. Read labels carefully. Plain flavors like chocolate and vanilla have about 100 calories per half-cup, while other flavors are 120 to 130 calories -- even 250 calories per serving.
  • Another option: "If kids get a Fudgsicle or Popsicle, they'll be dodging lots of fat and sugar," Krieger says. In fact, Fudgsicles now come in fat-free or low-fat, no sugar added versions. Popsicles are fat-free, even sugar-free if you want. And both have built-in portion control, she adds.
  • Make your own frozen fruit pops. Buy molds and sticks at a crafts store. Pour in your favorite fruit juice (with fruit chunks, if you want), and freeze. It's an easy yummy treat for a hot summer day.

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4. Top Summer Food: Frozen Yogurt

Frozen yogurt sounds healthier than ice cream -- or maybe not. "You have to read food labels to see," says Krieger. "Some have more sugar than low-fat ice cream. Others are the equivalent of sherbet. It can be tricky."

With desserts, you don't want to go for empty calories -- and that's where frozen yogurt fits in, says Bonnie Taub-Dix, MA, RD, a New York City dietitian and also an ADA spokeswoman. "Go for foods that are valuable and taste good at the same time."

  • How about frozen yogurt pie? Crunch up graham crackers (or buy a graham cracker pie shell), spoon frozen yogurt into it, top with fresh strawberries or raspberries, then freeze.
  • Fruit and yogurt parfait, topped with granola, is another easy dessert. Or, spoon frozen yogurt between two low-fat cookies. You could also make a smoothie, using fresh blueberries, grapes, and strawberries.

5. Top Summer Food: Waffles & Pancakes

This classic breakfast food is fun for kids. It's made easier with frozen, whole grain, reduced-fat products. The toppings boost the nutrition: natural applesauce, blueberries, sliced banana and strawberries, and a little light syrup, Zied suggests.

  • Another classic: Scrambled eggs mixed with low-fat shredded cheddar, tomatoes, asparagus, mushrooms (or whatever veggies your kids like).
  • Scrambled-eggs-in-a-cup: Take a slice of whole wheat bread, break it up into a cup, top with the cooked egg mixture. You're good to go!

6. Top Summer Food: Marshmallows

What's cool about marshmallows? "Even kids with food allergies can eat them," Krieger says. "Give one to a child who can't eat a chocolate chip cookie and you're sure to get a smile."

  • Four large marshmallows have 90 calories -- mostly sugar. To give 'em a nutrition boost, try skewering marshmallows with strawberries and other fruit.
  • Of course, toasted marshmallows and S'mores are American standards. If your kids haven't discovered these classic treats, it's time! Just toast a marshmallow over a grill or campfire, place it over a chunk of chocolate. Put it between two graham crackers (a good source of whole grains).

7. Top Summer Food: Popcorn

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Whole grains help keep kids from gaining weight, and popcorn qualifies as a whole grain. In fact, a recent study showed that people who eat popcorn regularly get about 22% more fiber in their diet, compared to people who don't eat popcorn.

The only problem is all the fat that accompanies many brands of microwave popcorn. There are some low-fat versions out there, so read labels carefully, says Rarback.

  • Air-popping popcorn is your healthiest option. Or make your own microwave popcorn: Place 3 tablespoons of kernels in a brown bag, roll it up, and pop in the microwave. Then spray with butter and add Parmesan cheese or salt. That's about 80 calories.
  • Put limits on how much your child eats, Rarback advises. "Instead of putting it in a huge bowl, put a reasonable amount in a small bowl. Make that their serving."

8. Top Summer Food: Watermelon

There's no doubt that watermelon is good for kids -- with its high concentration of lycopene, an important disease-fighting antioxidant. Watermelon is 92% water and 8% sugar, and a favorite sweet treat for kids.

  • Make sure watermelon wedges make it to your table. But don't stop there. A platter or bowl of other seasonal fruits -- fresh blueberries, strawberries, cherries, peaches, plums -- makes a yummy treat, too.
  • Taub-Dix suggests putting the fruit bowl in the freezer, and serving it frozen. Her 13-year-old son, Jesse, would rather have the fruit in a smoothie instead. "You won't get kids to pick up frozen fruit," he says. "But a smoothie would be great."
  • Introduce kids to fun veggies, too, says Rarback. "Edamame is fun to eat because you pop out the little soy beans out of the pod. It's an engaging thing. But have most kids ever tried it?" Include edamame on raw veggie platters, along with baby carrots, celery sticks, asparagus tips, cherry tomatoes -- plus nutritious dips like hummus or low-fat yogurt.

9. Top Summer Food: Anything Sweet

Chocolate cakes, carrot cakes, cakes of every flavor are all-American picnic fare. Is that really such a bad thing?

If they eat just a slice, that's fine, says Rarback. "In the summer, kids should be active enough that they can eat a piece of cake if they want it -- especially if the majority of their foods are nutrient rich. It's all about balance and moderation."

  • Bake cupcakes, brownies, or dessert bars -- instead of layer cakes -- for portion control. Lighten up cake and brownie mixes by replacing oil with half oil and half applesauce (or another fruit puree).
  • To give kids a chocolate fix, use chocolate shavings for flavoring on angel food cake, frozen yogurt, seasonal fruit, or other healthier treats. "It's better than giving them a candy bar," Rarback says.
  • A naturally sweet treat: grilled bananas, low-fat ice cream, a drizzle of melted chocolate -- and light whipped topping .

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10. Top Summer Food: Thirst Quenchers

At the ballpark, at the carnival -- it's hard to find a good replacement for soda, says Zied. "Even lemonade isn't a great option, with all the added sugar."

"One soda once in awhile is fine," she says. "But I also give my kids the option of choosing whether they want a can of soda or three cookies instead. I let them make the choice. That empowers them to not waste calories."

  • Share those huge lemonades -- divide it in cups. Dilute with a bit with water.
  • Carry fruit juice with you. Or, flavor ice water with an artificially sweetened powder. "If it's hot, they're not going to fuss over drinking water," Zied says.
  • Another option: Make a spritzer with exotic fruit juices (like pomegranate or noni juice) plus sparkling water. Or, use blueberry extract with sparkling water. "Kids love blue food," says Rarback.
WebMD Feature Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on May 28, 2008

Sources

SOURCES:

Elisa Zied, MS, RD, nutrition consultant, New York City; spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association.

Sarah Krieger, MPH, RD, LD, dietitian, St. Petersburg, Fla.; spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association..

Sheah Rarback, MS, RD, director of nutrition, Mailman Center for Child Development, University of Miami School of Medicine.

WebMD Feature: "Light and Luscious Ice Cream."

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WebMD Feature: "Academy-Award-Winning Movie Snacks."

WebMD Feature: "Fruit of the Month: Watermelon."

WebMD Feature: The Race for Trans-Fat Alternatives."

IceCreamUSA.com

Grandjean, A. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, May 2008; vol 108: pp 853-856.

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