We have entered that long-awaited, exciting time of year: Summertime! Children are out of school and your family can enjoy picnics and other outdoor gatherings, vacations and travel. This also means less structure, posing challenges to overseeing your child's diet.

For a child with disabilities or special needs, these unstructured times away from the consistency of the home routine can pose even greater challenges. Your child may resist eating when in an unfamiliar environment. If this is the case, do plan on taking along the utensils, cups and plates or bowls that he uses in your home. This may help him to feel more comfortable and allow him to take in more nutrients. This is especially important for the child who is underweight or may have nutrient deficiencies.

Children with disabilities may be impacted by health issues that necessitate closely overseeing their nutritional health and the adequate intake of healthy calories. These include slower oral-motor development, larger tongues and smaller teeth, causing chewing challenges, defensiveness to some food textures, strong preferences to other textures, celiac disease and acid reflux. Your child's doctor and other service providers, such as speech therapists, can guide you in keeping your child's nutrition intake at an appropriate level.

Whether at home or away and upon the recommendation of your child's doctor, you can boost calorie and protein intake by adding nonfat dry milk into soups, mashed potatoes, hot cereals and other favorites of your child.

Just as important as closely monitoring the underweight child is close oversight for the overweight child. Some children with disabilities have hypothyroidism or body metabolism that burns fewer calories. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood obesity rose over the past 20 years and continues to rise.

To maintain a healthy weight, your child's food intake must be balanced with his activity level. Make certain that your child is active while he is off from school. Plan your schedule to include daily physical activity that your child can enjoy with you. Hiking, jogging, brisk walking with the dog, biking, swimming, running races and playing tag are all fun ways to burn calories.

Teach your child how to make healthy food choices. With summertime comes the high calorie foods that through the years have come to be associated with certain events and pastimes. Unless your child has an allergy or intolerance, allowing him to enjoy these treats in moderation is acceptable. Do make sure, however, that high calorie foods, sweetened beverages and high sugar and high salt snacks are not readily available in your home.

Instead, have on hand plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables for healthy snacking. Low fat, low sugar snacks that can be enjoyed at about 100 calories include a medium apple or banana, a cup of blueberries or grapes and a cup of carrots, broccoli or bell peppers with two tablespoons of hummus. Select whole grain breads and pastas. Provide low or no fat dairy products. Serve lean meats, fish or lentils and beans for protein. Ensure that your child drinks plenty of water. Also, be a role model for your child by you choosing and appreciating healthy choices.

Advocate for your child's healthy eating by becoming informed about the food served to your child at school, camps and childcare. Know what is being served and what steps are taken to promote nutrition. While it may not be reasonable to expect these facilities to serve only organic or local products, there are smaller steps that can be taken to boost quality. If not already in place, you can suggest that whole grain products be selected, sugar sweetened products kept to a minimum, salty snacks eliminated and products with high fructose corn syrup avoided as much as possible. Fresh fruits and vegetables should definitely be included in the menus.

Have a fun, safe and nutritionally healthy summer with your children. Guiding them to life-long healthy eating habits will contribute significantly to good health.■

Dori Buschke is the director of programs at St. Francis Children's Center.

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