Kids are not mini-adults. Children have their own unique nutritional needs — especially athletic kids. But most child athletes aren’t eating or fueling properly in order to compete at their best. With the right nutrition, your young athlete can improve their sports performance, have more energy and overall feel better.
The Difference Between Fueling Children vs. Adults
Unlike adult athletes, young children and teens are still growing and developing. Their bones are hardening and lengthening and their muscles are growing and maturing. Child athletes will typically need more calories than older adults or non-athletic children since they need to fuel both their growth and their activity.
“A solid diet foundation should be the number one priority of a young athlete,” says Heather Mangieri, Author, Fueling Young Athletes and a Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Once those needs are met, they should focus on meeting the additional fuel needed to support their training.”
Mangieri says that she sees parents of young athletes often put more emphasis on specific sports nutrition, like pre and post-workout meals, but it’s really the day-to-day nutrition that the child is getting that should take priority.
Jill Castle, MS, RD, LDN, author and creator of Eat Like a Champion, an online course for young athletes and their parents agrees. “Growth demands energy and nutrients, so it’s important to provide a balance of nutrients and not go crazy with focusing on one macronutrient (i.e. high fat, low carb, high protein) – none of these adult approaches have been proven effective in children.”
Tips for Feeding Your Child Athlete
Eat on a regular schedule.
Make sure your child has a well-balanced breakfast with some carbohydrates, protein and fat. Some ideas: cereal with milk and a banana, yogurt with granola and berries, whole grain freezer waffles spread with peanut butter and sliced apple, overnight oats, or scrambled eggs and toast. Children should have three meals and one or two snacks throughout the day. Meals may have to be divided up into smaller meals depending on the practice or game schedule.
“Snacking is a challenge for many young athletes – they may not know what to eat and the timing,” says Castle. Healthy, nutritious snacks helps fuel your child for activity and keeps their energy up between meals and after sports. Check out these 70 Awesome Snacks for Young Athletes.
Encourage fruits and vegetables
Keep ready to eat fruits and veggies in the front of the fridge where you child can reach. Load up on a variety of raw fruits and veggies and pair them with yogurt-dip, hummus, guacamole or bean dip. These types of nutritious snacks encourage healthy eating and are quick and easy and fun for kids.
Limit bars, gels and sports drinks
One of the biggest mistakes Castle sees child athletes make is using sports and nutrition bars instead of meals. Bars and gels are not needed with kids, even those that are very active. Real food works well and will meet all of their needs. As for sports drinks, children should not need them as long as they are drinking enough fluids before, during and after activity. If they are practicing or playing for over an hour or are active in hot and humid conditions they will need electrolyte replacement along with fluid and carbohydrates. This could take the form of a sports drink, or it could be pretzels or salty crackers along with water and orange slices.
Having a food and meal game plan will ensure your child has good food choices to pick from. Pack a cooler to keep your child fueled. Fill it up with water bottles, pretzels, crackers, cheese sticks, granola bars, fresh fruit, yogurt and peanut butter sandwiches in the car.
Children are at higher risk for becoming dehydrated compared to adults. They produce more heat and sweat less, so it’s important to drink frequently before, during and after activity to prevent dehydration. The amount needed will depend on the child’s age and weight, along with the climate. A good rule of thumb is to drink two to three cups of water a few hours prior to sports activity then, while playing, drink a cup of water every 15 to 20 minutes.
Allow space for “fun foods”
There is no need to eat “perfectly” to have a balanced, healthy diet (for kids AND adults). There is room for some “fun” food in a nutritious diet, and your children may actually have trouble meeting their needs if you strictly limit their food choices. Remember that kids are great at naturally regulating their eating to their hunger and fullness cues, and won’t usually overeat unless they feel deprived or denied certain foods. If you make certain foods “off limits”, your child may over-indulge whenever they can since it feels like it is the “last time” they’ll be able to eat it. Avoid labeling foods as “good” or “bad”.
Encourage a healthy relationship with food
Avoid talking about weight or diets in front of your children. Talk positively about your body and your child’s, and focus on all the things their body can do, rather than emphasizing weight. Encourage your children to eat according to their hunger cues and to eat foods that they enjoy and really love. Get them involved in picking out new foods and recipes and helping in the kitchen – this can encourage them to try new foods and can make meals more positive.
How does your child athlete fuel up to play? Share in the comments and be sure to download Luvo’s 7-day meal and fitness plan for more nutrition tips and recipes.