Three strategies for no-fuss, healthy summer eating

Put the 'care' in 'carefree'

All parents want their kids to be happy and healthy, but the rates of childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes tell us we're missing the mark. School lunches and vending machine options have often been the focus of diet improvement efforts, though if we're being honest, meals at home aren't always the greatest either.

Summer eating brings extra challenges and temptations. Kids spend more time at home, maybe with access to snacks; mealtimes may be less structured; the ice cream trucks patrol the neighborhoods; and concession stands are everywhere from the beach to the zoo.

But some wise shopping and a few minutes in the kitchen can result in delicious and nourishing snacks to eat all week. A summer of wholesome snacking can help give kids the knowledge they need to make good food choices all year long.

Wet and wild

High temperatures and high spirits make for sweaty kids. Keep the liquids coming, but skip the soft drinks and straight-up juice. Your ice-cold quencher can be as simple as a big pitcher of ice water with cut up lemons, limes, oranges and strawberries - or you can get a little fancy.

A great house drink is the Arnold Palmer. Typically half iced-tea and lemonade, it has a zillion variations. Brew some of your favorite tea, squeeze in some citrus, and add a few splashes of 100% juice to sweeten it; serve over ice with a straw. Try hibiscus tea, squeezed lime and pomegranate juice, or black tea, squeezed lemon and peach nectar.

Agua fresca, a popular fruit refresher in Latin America, is another kid-friendly drink loaded with vitamins. Puree half a medium ripe watermelon, cantaloupe or a pint of strawberries in the blender until ultra-smooth. Push the liquid through a fine-meshed sieve to remove the solids. Mix three parts fruit to one part cold water and squeeze in some lime.

Cold comfort

Keep the freezer loaded with homemade ice pops and you'll never have to scramble for change when the ice cream truck comes ringing. Most anything that is yummy and healthy to drink can be frozen into a stellar popsicle. One tip: Things taste less sweet when frozen, so your liquid should be slightly sweeter than you want your frozen treat to be.

Purchase a ready-made mold, or use small paper cups and wooden sticks. When using paper cups, let the mixture freeze for one to two hours, then put in your popsicle sticks so they stand up in the slushy liquid. Freeze until solid.

Combine plain yogurt and juice or pureed fruit, or make an herb-infused simple syrup mixed with fruit. Try this: Puree fresh strawberries or peaches and set aside. Mix together ½ cup water and ½ cup sugar over low heat. Stir until sugar dissolves. Add a small bunch of basil to the simple syrup, and let steep for a few minutes to a few hours. Strain out basil leaves and add basil syrup to the pureed fruit by the tablespoonful, until it is as sweet as you like. Freeze in molds. (Use leftover syrup to make a smashing cocktail for mom and dad.)

I rarely recommend one-trick ponies for the kitchen, but I'm totally smitten with the Zoku quick pop maker. It is similar to the contemporary ice cream maker, with a bucket filled with mystery liquid that you keep in your freezer. The Zoku can freeze liquid into popsicles in seven minutes flat. A three-pop maker is about $50 and can be used three times consecutively to make nine pops before it needs to be refrozen. A little spendy, but depending upon how spontaneous you like to be with your frozen treats, it may be worth it. It will save hours of listening to your children asking if the pops are ready.

Small-plate dining

Summer sun and activities eat up the kcals quickly, and a hungry kid is a cranky kid. Use snacks and lunchtime as an opportunity to refuel with whole grains, protein and lots of fruits and veggies.

Think about "assembling" lunch rather than preparing it. Throw together a meze platter with pantry and fridge staples, fresh fruit, vegetables and dips. Options include pitted olives, pickles (try the fermented kind), whole-wheat pita, hummus, black bean dip, salsa, tzatziki, sugar snap peas, cherry tomatoes, carrot sticks, leftover grilled chicken, cheese cubes, nuts and dried fruit. A simple dessert can be cut-up fruit, frozen on skewers. Mix together yogurt, nut butter and a little honey for fruit dip.

For a protein-rich snack or dessert, serve peanut-butter-coconut "energy bites" - a healthier riff on what your mother may have referred to as peanut butter balls. Times are definitely changing.

Energy Bites
Makes approximately 40 "bites"

  • 1 cup natural peanut butter
  • 1 cup malted milk powder
  • 2 tablespoons wheat germ
  • 1 tablespoon ground flax seed
  • 1/3 cup agave syrup
  • 1/3 cup unsweetened, shredded coconut
  • 1/2 cup brown crisped rice cereal
  • 1/2 cup dried fruit, chopped fine

Add all ingredients to large bowl and stir well. Roll rounded teaspoons into small balls and store in a single layer in the fridge.

Anna Thomas Bates blogs about cooking and feeding kids at www.tallgrasskitchen.com.

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