How to Help Your Kids Avoid Summertime Sugar Bombs

The flood of excitement that comes with summer vacation is often followed by a tidal wave of treats that can quickly lead your kids straight to a sugary overload of unhealthy calories. While parents might relish the opportunity to indulge their kids with some not-so-healthy treats on vacation, it can be difficult to judge just how much sugar they are actually slurping down during summertime activities and celebrations.

With a few tips and tricks, you can figure out ways to get your kids to eat something other than sugar during the summer. Here are five of the most common sugar bombs, plus some ideas on how to cut back on sugar despite the bombardment that comes along with summer fun.

Sugar Recommendations for Kids

One teaspoon of granulated sugar contains only 15 calories. But when the average can of soda pop contains 6 or more teaspoons on its own, you can see how the sugary calories can add up quickly. Like soda, many foods high in sugar also lack other nutrients.

Sugary foods are highly processed and tend to be filled with unhealthy fats, preservatives, and artificial colors and flavors. Eating processed and sugar-filled foods means an influx of empty calories, which in turn can lead to weight gain and obesity, not to mention cavities.

A large part of the problem surrounding excessive sugar intake is that most folks are consuming way more sugar than they realize. According to data from the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), Americans consume 57 pounds of added sugar per person, per year. That tall order of sugar shakes out to about 5,245 teaspoons and a whopping 80,780 calories. Finding ways to cut back on sugar can not only benefit dental health, but also help reduce unwanted weight gain and possibly help reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes​ and cardiovascular disease.

So how much sugar should little ones be taking in? The recommendations for kids varies by age and weight. According to the American Heart Association (AMA), children and teens age 2 to 18 should not have more than 6 teaspoons of added sugar per day for optimal health. Capping it at 6 teaspoons (which is equal to about 25 grams) comes out to around 90 calories of sugar per day, which is reasonable. A coated granola bar or one bowl of rainbow loops cereal for breakfast, however, and this sugar allotment is already spent.

Added vs. Natural Sugars

There is a distinction between added and naturally existing sugars. The types of added sugar are defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as “sugars and syrups that are added to foods or beverages when they are processed or prepared.”

Added sugars must be listed on food labels and can be referenced in a wide variety of ways, as there are many many added sugars to choose from. Some of the most common added sugars include sugar, maltose, fructose, high-fructose corn syrup, malt syrup, brown sugar, dextrose and invert sugar. While it is true that honey and maple syrup can be less processed and contain trace amounts of minerals compared to other added sweeteners, they are still categorized as added sugar.

While the various types of added sweeteners may taste slightly different, they are all processed in some fashion and contain an average of about 15 calories per teaspoon. As you might suspect, added sugars are most commonly added to foods like candy, soda, and baked goods, but they are also found in many breakfast cereals, snack foods, condiments and flavored yogurt. 

Natural sugars are in a league of their own. Natural sugars come from whole food ingredients, these foods also contain nutrients like fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals—certainly better choices than processed sweeteners.

Natural sugars are found in foods that contain dairy or fruit, but they also are found in foods along with some added sugars. For example, apples and plain milk contain only natural sugars, while foods and beverages like applesauce, juices, and fruit-flavored yogurt will contain natural sugars but may also have added sugars in the mix. 

The added versus natural sugar debate can make assessing the sugar content of foods confusing even for the most conscientious label reader. The sugar tally on the nutrition facts panel can be a bit vague. Checking the ingredient list is the best way to determine if added sugars are present.

Current food labels tend to combine all sugars (added and natural) into a value for “total sugars.” Other newly formatted food labels will decipher between total and added sugar, plus set the daily recommendation at 50 grams or about 12 teaspoons of added sugar per day.

Most manufacturers should begin implementing the new "Nutrition Facts" labels by January 2021. In the meantime, paying attention to the sugar tally and checking for the presence of fruit or milk is the best way to determine how ​much added sugars are lurking in your kids' favorite foods as they go about their summer days.

Frozen Treats

ice cream

 istetiana/ Getty Images

You and your kids are surrounded! From the snack bar to the baseball field to the neighborhood ice cream truck that just. wont. stop. driving. down. your. street.

Sugary frozen treats are the cornerstone of summer afternoons and evenings, but that doesn’t mean you should give in to those screams for ice cream at every yelp. A typical ice cream sandwich or multi-colored ice cream pop contains about 2.5 teaspoons of sugar each, not to mention a plethora of artificial colors and flavors. Most of these frozen confections contain multiple types of added sugars, many of which are impossible to pronounce.

Less Sugary Solution

Give kids control over the decision—give them the option to choose one or two ice cream treats a week that count as dessert, period! Look for fruit-based ice pops that contain actually fruit and tend to be lower in added sugars (check ingredient lists). Also consider making homemade version from real fruit—leftover smoothies make great DIY ice pops.

Summer Barbecues

Summertime parties from Memorial Day to Labor Day are filled with red, white, and blue confections such as cookies, cupcakes, and trifles, all containing around 6 to 8 teaspoons of sugar per serving. Who can eat just one?

Party goers also need to beware of classic BBQ beverages. A typical 16-ounce serving of lemonade tips the scales at 14 teaspoons of sugar, and the same-sized glass of sweet tea contains upwards of 11 teaspoons. A few too many sips and cookies adds up one sugary backyard gathering.

Less Sugary Solution

Pass on the sugary drinks and cool off with water and other calorie-free drinks instead. Volunteer to bring a naturally sweet fruit platter or sliced watermelon to potluck gatherings.

Camp Festivities

Parents and kids love camp! But along with the bracelet-making and water play comes a backpack filled with potential sugar traps.

Whether it’s a weekly visits from the ice cream truck (see bomb #1), a field trip to the arcade, care packages from home, or kids hoarding and sneaking candy into their bunks to trade with their friends, candy seems to find its way into the hands of young campers.

Less Sugary Solution

Set ground rules for field trips and count the weekly visit to the ice cream truck toward the tally of agreed-upon treats. Empower your kids to choose which treats they really want to have and which they are OK to pass on. This will benefit everyone in the long run.


Busy summer mornings can lead to numerous handheld breakfasts, visits to the drive-thru, and several opportunities for the calories from sugar to pile up.

Breakfast pastries like donuts may be obvious sugar bombs, but there may be even more sugar hidden in your kids’ favorite breakfast cereal. Two cups (a typical portion) of cinnamon-spiked toast or multicolored loops contains nearly 6 teaspoons of sugar. Many other convenient grab-and-go breakfast items like mini muffins and bottled yogurt drinks can also sneak in plenty of processed sugary calories.

Less Sugary Solution

Breakfast just isn’t the place for added sugar. Plan morning meals with minimal amounts of added sugar like fruit smoothies, whole grain cereals, breakfast burritos, or whole grain waffles topped with natural peanut butter. These foods are easy to prepare, portable, and will help kick off the day with whole food fuel. 


Packing snacks for camp, sports events, and summer vacations can either be a great way to fuel activities or another pitfall for a sugar overload. Popular snack foods like granola bars, bottled yogurt drinks, and pudding cups contain at least 5 teaspoons of sugar per serving, if not more.

Less Sugary Solution

Here is another opportunity to save sugar for designated treats and pack nutritious snacks instead. Snacks should balanced with healthy carbs, fat, and protein. Try hummus and crackers, Greek yogurt with fresh fruit, baked chips with guacamole, string cheese, apples, or bananas with peanut butter. Or opt for naturally sweetened snack options such as unsweetened dried fruit, homemade smoothies, or trail mix.

A Word From Verywell

Take a few simple steps to avoid the influx of sugar for your kids this summer. Read labels, and take the time to make a few things from scratch. Compromise with your kids and make smarter choices together—it will be well worth the effort.

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Article Sources
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