The 7 worst summer foods for kids

Keep these eats away from little ones, and find out what to serve instead this season
© Woman's Day // © Woman's Day

Forbidden bites

With the kids home from school, it’s okay to relax stringent school-year eating rules, right? Not a good plan.

“Children tend to be less active in the summer because they have more downtime,” says Melinda Johnson, MS, RD, a registered dietitian in Phoenix, AZ, and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “There’s more mindless eating potential because summer days are less structured and kids have access to the kitchen.” Less activity plus more junk food equals weight gain, and that could cause health problems like high blood pressure and high cholesterol, among other issues.

When little ones are running around outside, playing in the pool and swinging at the park, they’re active under hot conditions. Kids are particularly prone to dehydration in the summer, because their central nervous systems aren’t fully developed yet, according to Jessica Crandall, RD, CDE, a registered dietitian in Denver, CO, and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. So kids’ summer food choices are extra-important. Read on to discover which eats (and drinks) your darlings should ditch this season.

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Hot dogs

Since they’re filled with sodium, they zap water from kids’ bodies—and up children’s chances of dehydrating. Plus, those wieners are stocked with saturated fat, which is a factor in causing heart disease, even in tiny tickers. Another reason to ditch dogs: One study found that children who eat more than 12 hot dogs per month are significantly more likely to develop childhood leukemia than their weiner-eschewing counterparts.

Smart swap: Chicken apple sausages, suggests Crandall. They’re made with lean meat that’s lower in fat, calories and salt. The sausages also contain bits of real (and really nutritious) apple, which add a touch of sweetness that most kids love. 

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Pepperoni pizza

One slice packs nearly 300 calories, and your munchkin may want seconds. There are also gobs of saturated fat and dehydration-promoting sodium, about 700 mg per piece. Kids need only 1,000 to 1,300 mg per day.

Smart swap: Homemade veggie pizza on whole-grain crust. Besides being healthier, your pipsqueak can pitch in with this cooking project, which wards off boredom. Just buy a premixed ball of whole-grain dough, low-sodium tomato sauce and vegetables your little one loves. “Mushrooms, green peppers, red peppers and tomatoes are great choices,” says Marilyn Tanner-Blasiar, MHS, RD, LD, a registered dietitian in St. Louis, MO. “You can also add skinless chicken breast or lean hamburger for protein,” which keeps kids fuller, longer and means less rooting around in the kitchen for a snack.

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Sports drinks

You may think those electrolyte-replacing -ades are exactly what kiddos need for fun in the sun, but they actually contain high amounts of sugar, which research has linked to substantial weight gain. One study found that every additional serving of sugary sips a day increases a child’s risk for obesity by as much as 60%.

Smart swap: “Water can’t be beat,” says Johnson. “Kids may be upping their water intake when they drink sugar-filled beverages, but they’re also consuming hundreds of extra empty calories.” If your child finds H20 ho-hum, Johnson recommends freezing berries into large ice cubes and floating them in cups of water. Or add sprigs of mint and cucumber slices to create a hydrating “spa water.”

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Ice pops

Like sports drinks, they come with empty calories that can cause weight gain. And as refreshing as they might seem, they’re actually filled with sugar or high fructose corn syrup, artificial flavoring and dyes.

Smart swap: Frozen fruit. “Pop a few slices of watermelon into the freezer,” advises Crandall. “Watermelon has a high water content, so the result is a sweet treat that keeps kids hydrated.” You can also freeze grapes (just don’t give them to children under four years old, as they can be choking hazards), blueberries and orange slices as other tasty, nutritious options. 

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Ice cream

Depending on the brand, a one-cup scoop of plain vanilla ice cream contains more than 400 calories and 40 grams of sugar. That’s a heavy load for itsy-bitsy bodies to shoulder when they’re not as active in the summer. It can also have as much as 16 grams of saturated fat, a big problem because high-fat foods can leave kids without the energy they need to play outside.

Smart swap: Make your own “ice cream”: banana whip. Peel several bananas, cut them into chunks and freeze them. Once they’re frozen, put the slices into a food processor for about five minutes until they’ve turned into what looks like light-and-fluffy soft serve. Bonus: That’s exactly what it tastes like, too! “Kids lose potassium in warm weather because they sweat so much,” says Johnson. “Bananas contain a lot of potassium, so they’re super summer snacks.”

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Potato chips

Not only can all of that sodium cause dehydration, but it can also prompt kids to quench their chip-spurred thirst with sugary drinks, says Johnson. Plus, chips are high in fat.

Smart swap: Grilled corn. “An ear of sweet corn on the cob is a good source of fiber,” says Crandall. Fiber is important for kids year-round, but summer schedules mean kids get less of it, and it's necessary for optimum gastrointestinal health. How much fiber does your small fry need? The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggests adding five to your child’s age (if he’s between 3 and 18). For a calcium boost on top of the fiber fix, roll an ear of grilled corn in a bit of shredded sharp Cheddar or Parmesan cheese.

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Cookies

Yes, they’re the go-to nibbles for rainy summer days, but besides being filled with fat and sugar, they’re very easy to eat too many of while kids play computer games or watch TV.

Smart swap: Toss the cookies and install a bowl of cut-up fresh fruit in the fridge. “A lot of times, kids eat what’s easiest,” says Crandall. “If there’s a big bowl of berries, melon and bananas front and center, but no cookies anywhere, they’ll reach for the fruit.” 

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