A little planning keeps kids on healthy track during the summer

Free time in the summer shouldn't be spent on the couch.

With school out for the summer, there’s no scheduled recess or lunch time, so it’s up to parents to ensure their kids are physically active and eating right, say University of Alabama at Birmingham experts.

Obesity has more than tripled in children in the past 30 years because of poor diet and physical inactivity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Alabama, 36 percent of youth ages 10-17 are considered overweight or obese, according to a 2009 report by Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The CDC says a healthy lifestyle for kids will lower their risk of becoming obese and developing related diseases.

Stephenie Wallace, M.D., UAB assistant professor of pediatrics, suggests parents start with a minimum commitment of one hour of physical activity per day.

“Set an expectation of doing something at the house — chores, set some goals and rewards for your young person,” Wallace says. “Get them to play basketball with their friends or spend some time in the neighborhood, and really encourage them to do so.”

Also, kids at play need to stay hydrated, Wallace says, with water — not sugary drinks that have more calories.

Beth Kitchin, M.S., R.D., UAB assistant professor of nutrition sciences, says this also is a time to reinforce healthy eating habits.

“One key is to keep healthy foods in the house, such as fruits, vegetables and whole grain granola bars, but don’t deprive the kids either.”

Kitchin says good food does not have to be boring. Instead of serving carrot and celery sticks plain, add some ranch dressing for dipping. Little touches help. Let a few sweets slide from time to time, too.

“Get the kids involved in choosing foods. Take them grocery shopping. Show them some healthy choices and have them choose.”