Weekdays can be exhausting for parents. You get the kids up, take them where they need to go and help with homework. You supply the proper food to fuel brains and bodies. By the weekend, everyone is exhausted and ready for fun. Out comes pizza for dinner, fizzy drinks and popcorn with a movie and icecream for dessert, because it feels like it's time to unwind and indulge.
If this is your habit - to generally enforce dietary rules on weekdays and get a little lax on weekends - you're not alone.
Sibylle Kranz, a registered dietitian, nutritionist and nutrition expert at the University of Virginia, says that for most, "weekend dietary intake is very different from weekday. On weekend days, we seem to have more of what we call celebration food. It's birthday parties, or going to the pool and getting something from the vendors there, or families getting together and having big meals."
A recent survey of 192 mums of kids aged 7 to 11 backs this up. "On weekends, kids are eating less healthy foods and beverages more often, and having larger portions of them," says Debra Hoffmann, a clinical health psychologist at Ohio's Bowling Green State University and the lead author of the study based on that survey.
The study looked at the eating habits of children, including their consumption of healthy and unhealthy foods at weekends.
The kids in the study ate bigger portions of unhealthy foods and beverages, more often - while their consumption of healthy foods dipped.
"I think it's possible that parents view weekends as a time to let loose and relax," says Hoffmann. "Children may be eating out more often. And the concern there is that foods at restaurants are generally high in calories and low in nutrients, and often have large portion sizes."
Hollie Raynor, a professor of public health nutrition at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, and a registered dietitian and clinical psychologist, co-authored a 2011 study on weekday/weekend differences in overweight and obese children. She too believes the difference is caused by the lack of structure on weekends compared with weekdays.
But does a little thoughtlessness matter? Nutrition experts say yes. Hoffmann points out the big concern - "What's this going to mean for children's weight?" She notes increasing numbers of kids are overweight or obese.
Raynor's study also found that children watched twice as much TV on weekends, while other studies have shown children get less exercise on weekends. So if weekends mean more calories and less movement, many of the health benefits kids get on weekdays could be offset by poor weekend choices.
Kranz adds that a healthy diet is "especially critical because growing children have very high nutrient needs". The body is actively making tissue, and micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals are important for proper development, including in the brain.
Raynor suggests that all adult caregivers need to be aware of how weekday/weekend differences "can create challenges for kids, especially if they're working toward healthier eating goals or being more active".
Parents should also watch out for summer holidays, which posed similar challenges to weekends, in terms of structure and activity level. "There are data that show that children gain weight during the summertime as compared to during the academic year," Raynor says.
As a parent, then, how can you keep your child healthy all week, and all year? Hoffmann suggests implementing small changes, rather than drastic edicts such as banning all sugar.
To help kids establish healthy long-term practices while watching calories and nutrition in the short term, promote sparkling water instead of soda, or aim for fresh fruit instead of cake.
"I'm not saying that parents need to say, 'Nope, we can't have our fun weekend routine,' "Hoffmann says. "I think it's okay if weekends are a time to let loose a bit. It's about finding a balance, because the key really is moderation."