This summer, not unlike many families across the country, we were fortunate enough to visit a theme park while celebrating our break from another challenging school year. Being a mother and a pediatrician, I must admit how concerned I was to witness the number of children with obesity attending the park.
While we waited in line for the various rides, I couldn’t help considering how best to advise families on making better dietary choices while on vacation. As you can imagine, during an all-day adventure in the summer heat and humidity, we found ourselves sharing several meals with the other families at the park. Even in the middle of a celebratory moment, I knew I had to make some conscious choices to help my family maintain a balanced diet.
As part of our recent experience, I wanted to share five helpful tips that pediatricians can provide to their patients’ families when preparing for a summer trip to a theme park:
1. Challenge families to plan ahead of time to say “no” to sodas, juices, and other highly sweetened drinks.
The best beverage for a hot summer day is water. I observed on numerous occasions how families would carry reusable cups throughout the day in the park while requesting soda (often with free refills) as the beverage of choice for their children. By eliminating soda, not only do we decrease the number of intake calories, but also the overall grams of sugar consumed by a child while attending the park. When ordering their child’s meal, advise families to choose water or skim milk as the drink of choice.
2. Instruct families to watch for serving portion sizes when ordering kid’s meals.
Don’t assume, just because you choose a meal from the kid’s menu that the serving sizes are appropriate for children. Consider splitting an order up between children or request a healthier alternative. When selecting sides for the meals, don’t automatically go with french fries as the default. Consider alternative sides or even a healthy appetizer that can be shared as a family. There is clear potential for a family to save money, reduce food waste, and eat healthier by feeding children reasonable serving sizes for their age.
3. Encourage families to partake in frequent healthy snacks throughout the day with plenty of water.
Don’t wait until the family is “starving” to eat a meal. Waiting until children (young ones and grown-up ones) are famished or dehydrated can lead to overindulgence and poor dietary choices, especially when waiting in lines to order long-awaited meals.
4. Ask the family whether they truly need to use a stroller while attending the park.
Another thing I noticed on our trip was how many older children were being pushed around the park in strollers. Encourage children to walk and to be physically active during the family’s park excursion. Although strollers represent certain understandable conveniences, children should be encouraged to be physically active and to walk with an adult as much as possible.
5. Advise the family not to skip breakfast before heading to the park in the morning.
Although a plan to arrive early and “beat the crowds” is understandable, it is important for the family to make the time to provide a healthy breakfast for their children, especially if an enjoyable theme park day is desired.
It cannot be stressed enough that skipping meals leads to poor dietary choices, and even worse, the temper tantrums of “hangry” or sugar-fueled family members. It is wise to strive to avoid these kinds of troubles by starting the day off with a healthy breakfast together.
Theme parks are a fun summer vacation activity for many families. What better opportunity is there to enjoy an active lifestyle, to exercise together and to role model good dietary choices all while attending the same venue together? As a pediatrician, I continue to wish a stronger, healthier tomorrow to all our children. Fighting the pediatric obesity epidemic is something we all must strive to do, one day at a time, even while on vacation at a theme park.
Johanna Vidal Phelan is a pediatrician.
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