Ahh, summer! You might envision your kids swimming, biking and playing outside all day long, but in reality, most kids spend the days inside snacking in front of the TV or computer.

Ahh, summer! You might envision your kids swimming, biking and playing outside all day long, but in reality, most kids spend the days inside snacking in front of the TV or computer. Although school lunches, lack of exercise during the school day, and vending machines in school buildings have taken much of the blame for childhood obesity, the real problem may be summer.

Many kids are home alone during the summer while their parents work. The resulting lack of routine or structure, unlimited access to TV or Internet and unhealthy foods, and possibly restrictions on going outside due to safety concerns, are all contributing to summer weight gain. Weight gain can triple during the summer, meaning kids often gain as much during the summer as they did the whole school year.

Childhood obesity is frequently in the news because there are now three times more overweight children than 20 years ago. Although many parents consider a few extra pounds to be “baby fat” their kids will outgrow, the truth is 80 percent of kids who are overweight between the ages of 10 and 15, will likely be obese by age 25, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Kids who are overweight have more health problems, including problems once thought to affect only adults. Children now have high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol levels, diabetes, arthritis, sleep apnea and gallstones. Too much weight can even contribute to early puberty and cause permanent bone and joint disorders. And, kids that are overweight often suffer from poor self-esteem and depression.

Parents, before you do anything, remember it’s not the child that has to change. It’s you. Kids can’t eat what you don’t buy. They aren’t going to eat vegetables if you don’t have them easily accessible. They follow your example — it’s hard to get kids to go outside and exercise if they see you sitting on the couch all evening. If the kids are home alone this summer, what can you do to keep them active and eating healthier? Following are some ideas to help you get started.

Start with the groceries you buy. Don’t keep soda, sports drinks, Kool-aid or other sweet drinks on hand. Water should be the default beverage in the house. Buy fresh fruits and vegetables. Keep a bowl of fruit on the counter or in the fridge so it is the first thing the kids see when they are roaming the kitchen for a snack. Cut up the veggies and put in a clear container in the fridge. Keep a low-fat dip, salsa or hummus available for dipping the veggies. Stock up on ingredients for healthy lunches.

Limit screen time, including TV, video games and Internet. This may be difficult to enforce when you’re not home, but it’s worth exploring options. Maybe you can set the TV on a timer, or disconnect the Wi-Fi during the day. Kids who get more than 4 hours of screen time a day are more likely to be overweight.

Establish a routine. Don’t let kids stay up as late as they want and sleep in all morning. Keep regular bedtimes, although it might be later than during the school year. Give the kids a list of daily chores. Consider summer camps, sports, visits with the grandparents, summer school or encouraging your teenager to get a job to help alleviate summer boredom.

Portion size matters. If you keep chips and other snacks in the house, portion them in baggies rather than letting the kids eat out of the large bag. Determine how much snack food you are going to buy each week. Let the kids know that when it’s gone, it’s gone; if they eat it all they day you buy it, then there is no more until the next week.

Educate your children. Explain why they can’t eat unlimited snacks all day long, why exercise is good for their growing bodies and how they can eat healthier. Lead by example.

Following are some healthy lunch and snack suggestions that kids can make.

Frozen banana pops: roll a banana in yogurt, coat with crushed graham crackers or cereal and freeze

Banana sushi: spread a tortilla with peanut butter and roll around a banana. Cut into slices

Pinwheels: spread a tortilla with cream cheese, add some deli meat, roll up and cut into slices

Homemade lunchables: cut lunchmeat and cheese into little squares and serve with crackers

English muffin pizzas: spread pizza sauce on an English muffin, top with shredded mozzarella cheese and microwave to melt the cheese

Bean burrito: spread canned refried beans on a tortilla, sprinkle with shredded cheddar cheese and microwave to warm

Yogurt parfait: Layer yogurt, cut up fruit, and cereal in a bowl

Precooked pasta: Precook some pasta. Drain, toss with a little oil and store in a Ziploc bag in the fridge. Kids can add jarred sauce and heat in the microwave.

PBB waffles: Spread a toaster waffle with peanut butter and banana slices

Frozen grapes: Keep grapes in the freezer for a cool snack

Quick quesadilla: Sprinkle shredded cheddar cheese and some canned black beans or corn between two tortillas and microwave for a simple and fast quesadilla

Anita Marlay, R.D., L.D., is a dietitian in the cardiac rehab department at Lake Regional Health System in Osage Beach.