Kids are getting serious about sports at a young age these days. The benefits and drawbacks of this approach to activity are undoubtedly debatable – however, there is no question about the need to eat correctly to support the increased demand for sport.
It may seem simple, but fueling a sporty child or teen challenges the best of us. With a little patience, sound organization, and creativity, eating for child athletes can be as easy as 1-2-3.
1. Get Your Squares In
Eating regularly and healthfully is the most important element in your child, adolescent or teen’s sports diet. But, there are a few issues when it comes to the idea of eating three meals a day.
First, some children do not eat enough to support both their training, growth, and development needs. Not eating enough can mean consuming insufficient calories, carbohydrates, and proteins, or not receiving all the vitamins and minerals needed to be healthy. Research has shown that an adolescent’s ability to stay on top of their nutrition may be sport-specific. In 2013 study, adolescent athletes engaged in endurance sports ate more foods high in vitamins and fibre than their peers participating in strength sports, ball games, or aesthetic sports. (1)
Secondly, many adolescents often don’t adjust how much they eat to their training volumes (for example, light, moderate and heavy sessions) (2). Briggs and colleagues compared four training days and found no differences in the calorie, carb or protein intake (heavy and moderate training, match day, and rest day). (3) Your child should eat more when they are training hard and less on their rest days; they’ll be providing their bodies with more fuel on the days they need it most.
Finally, in the weekly schedule of an active child athlete, meal times are often interrupted by practices or games. Overcoming this challenge takes a little bit of finesse and proper planning. If they have multiple practices per day, some may find it helpful to break their meal into two parts. For example, eating ½ a sandwich before a lunch-time practice with the other half of the sandwich following the workout.
Also, don’t forget to include your kids in the process of meal preparation. They are more likely to eat the food they have a hand in making. It also gives them valuable cooking skills to use in the future.
Eating regularly is the key to staying energized. With a little planning, you can ensure your kids eat regular meals spaced by snacks as needed.
2. Pack Your Snacks
Make sure you have some healthy, nourishing snacks on hand and get your child in the habit of packing them in their training bag before practice. Eating within 30-60 minutes of exercise is the best way to refuel so that they are ready to go the next day. Early refuelling is particularly essential if your child has multiple practices or multiple games on the same day.
There is no need to use sports supplements and products for kids. Everyday foods will do just fine. In particular, children and adolescents should not include sports protein powders and supplements. Mostly because it is better for them to get their protein from whole foods. But also because the supplement industry is poorly regulated and contaminants like steroids, ephedra, and heavy metals have been found in even popular supplement brands. Instead, promote whole fresh foods with your kids and model good food behaviour by eating these foods yourself.
What are some examples of good snacks? Stock up on snacks that provide a combo of carbohydrates and protein and try and avoid those of the fried variety. Good examples include:
- Yogurt drinks and fruit
- Homemade granola bars or energy balls
- Fruit smoothie
- Dried fruit and yogurt
- Bagel and jam
- Cheese strings and crackers
3. Hydrate With Purpose
Last, but certainly not least, is to ensure adequate hydration. Your kids should be taking a water bottle to all types of practices, whether they are on the field, the slopes, or in the pool. Most kids will only need to drink water. A recent report from the Canadian Pediatric Society advised against the use of sports drinks for most kids. Some who have very long practices (longer than 1 hour), with high exertion, particularly in the heat, may benefit from a sports drink. Flavoured beverages are also helpful to encourage fluids in children who are reluctant drinkers. If you are unsure if your child’s practice fits the bill you can ask us, a dietitian, or your family doctor.
If you find your child may benefit from a sports drink, you don’t have to use a commercial brand. They are simple to make. In fact, we have a great recipe right here.
How much should your kids be drinking? Simple – the best practice is to encourage them to drink when they are thirsty. They should sip water throughout the day, have fluids (like milk and water) at all of their meals, and to drink water before during and after they exercise.
Feeding your adolescent athlete doesn’t have to be rocket science! Make sure they eat regular meals, pack their snacks in advance, and hydrate regularly throughout the day. Also, be sure to promote adequate nutrition and improvement of nutritional knowledge amongst adolescent athletes. Good nutrition know-how has the promise to benefit health outcomes beyond the end of their sports careers.
Nutritional planning is integral to achieve your optimal athletic performance – even kids. Gazelle Nutrition Lab delivers one on one or group nutritional counselling and consulting to both recreational and high-performance athletes. The Food For Thought Blog is a free resource for healthy recipes and health tips. Have questions? We’d love to hear from you! Get in touch!
- Diehl K, Yarmoliuk T, Mayer J, Zipfel S, Schnell A, Thiel A, et al. Eating Patterns of Elite Adolescent Athletes: Results of a Cross-Sectional Study of 51 Olympic Sports. Dtsch Z Sportmed. 2013;2013:126–131.
- Noll M, Rodrigues de Mendonça CR, Pereira de Souza Rosa LP, Aparecida Silveira E. Determinants of eating patterns and nutrient intake among adolescent athletes: a systematic review. Nutr J 2017;16:46.
- Briggs MA, Cockburn E, Rumbold PLS, Rae G, Stevenson EJ, Russell M. Assessment of energy intake and energy expenditure of male adolescent academy-level soccer players during a competitive week. Nutrients. 2015;7:8392–8401.