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Provide healthy food for kids home alone
By Laura Whelan
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- The school cafeteria may be closed for the summer, but children still need nutritious, balanced meals.
With many parents and caretakers working full time, children are home alone for longer periods of time during the summer. While leaving children alone is not recommended, many parents must work and cannot afford child care. The goal then becomes providing a safe, healthy environment in their absence.
"The level of obesity in America's children has reached epidemic proportions, and one factor contributing to this is the high number of 'latchkey kids' who prepare their own meals and cannot go outside to exercise because they are alone," said Melissa Mixon, nutrition specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service.
Mixon said eliminating unhealthy foods and replacing them with nutritious options is the first step parents should take to help their children make healthy food choices.
"Kids like high-sugar, high-fat and high-sodium foods -- cookies, cakes, chips, soft drinks -- and if they are available, kids will choose to eat them," Mixon said. "Children don't need these unhealthy foods, and they drain the family's food budget."
Parents can also prepare healthy meals to refrigerate before leaving the house for the day.
"When kids get hungry, they are ready to eat at that moment. They won't take time to find the healthiest option unless parents can make that option easily available," Mixon said.
The specialist suggested planning a healthy menu for children based on the Food Guide Pyramid. Created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Pyramid is available in a pictorial version for 2- to 6-year-olds and recommends daily consumption of six servings from the grain group, three vegetables, two fruits, two servings of milk or other dairy products, and two servings of lean meat. At the tip of the Pyramid is the fats and sweets category, which includes foods that should be eaten only on occasion. Older children can use the traditional Food Guide Pyramid, which includes the same food groups but more daily servings.
Healthy snack ideas for children include pre-washed, precut vegetables like baby carrots, celery sticks and cucumber slices coupled with low-fat dip. Containers of yogurt, fruit-juice popsicles, pretzels, whole-grain crackers and graham crackers are also good for snacking.
Kitchen safety is another health concern when children are home alone. Mixon said that setting age- and maturity-appropriate guidelines for kitchen use is essential. Parents can teach children how to wash dishes correctly, use potholders, take lids off containers and clean up spills. The stove and microwave should not be used without parental supervision.
"It may be necessary for parents to rearrange the kitchen for the summer if kids will be home alone, placing often-used items within reach and moving dangerous objects out of reach," Mixon said.
Children also need at least one hour of exercise per day to be healthy. Without adult supervision, children should remain in the safety of their homes and not venture outside. Parents can teach children creative ways to use larger rooms to get some exercise. Providing children with soft-textured balls, jump ropes, an indoor bowling set or a small indoor trampoline will encourage movement and play.
After work hours, the whole family can engage in outdoor activities together, like going on a walk, riding bicycles or going swimming. Exercising together keeps bodies healthy while providing quality time with family members.
In many Mississippi counties, MSU's Extension Service offers a nutrition education summer mini-camp called "Kids in the Kitchen," which teaches children kitchen safety, nutrition and healthy recipes.
Sharon Allen, nutrition and food safety area agent in Bolivar County, said one highlight of "Kids in the Kitchen" is exposing children to a variety of new foods.
"Kids in the program try unfamiliar nutritious foods, and then they go home and ask mom or dad to buy the new food for the family," Allen said. "Parents like to give kids the foods they want, so if we can introduce kids to new, healthy foods they like, the whole family will start eating better."
For more information about nutrition education, contact the local county Extension office.