Nutritionist Robin Werner shares nutrition guidelines for young athletes and active children, as well as ideas for healthy snacks for athletic children and how to teach your child to make healthy food choices.
When my son Holden turned 4, he started taking swimming lessons. I didn’t think much about his energy needs, as the class was only a half hour long and he had a buoy strapped to his back. But the following year, when Holden was 5, he joined our town’s youth soccer league and, watching him run all over the field, I started to wonder if maybe I could be fueling him better. Quantity certainly wasn’t the issue, but as a registered dietitian I was concerned about the quality of foods he was eating. In addition to making sure Holden was getting the sufficient nutrients to support his growth and development at that age, I had to take into account his increased energy needs.
More Than Counting Calories
To determine a child’s basic caloric needs, we need to take into account his or her age, gender, growth rate, body size, and level of physical activity. Girls ages 4-8 should be consuming an estimated 1,200 calories, while those 9-13 should have 1,600. Boys in the 4-8 category should be consuming about 1,400 calories daily, while those ages 9-13 should have a total intake of 1,800.
For both boys and girls, up to an additional 200 calories from their baseline needs are required if the children engage in moderate physical activity. Children who are very physically active will require an additional 200 to 400 calories. For example, Holden, whose base energy requirement at 5 years old was 1,400 calories, should have been consuming up to 1,600 calories, especially on days he played soccer.
As I learned with Holden, when your child engages in a sport or has a team practice, the amount of calories he consumes is not as important as the actual nutritional value of the food he eats throughout the day. And if you incorporate all five food groups, you ensure that your little athlete gets the appropriate fuel he needs to sustain him on more active days.
Snacks for Active Kids
A recommended normal diet for healthy children between ages 5-11 should include three meals a day with one to three snacks. It is important for the child to respond to his or her own internal cues of hunger and fullness. Reinforcing the child’s ability to self-manage food intake is an important component of successful, lifelong weight management.
Research shows that, typically, kids get a little less than half their daily calories from snacks—enough to qualify as a fourth meal. The problem is that most of those snacks are desserts, sugary drinks, and salty foods. The key is to find a balance between what your child enjoys eating and what is actually nutritious for her. Clementines, grapes, mini whole-wheat bagels with peanut butter, yogurt drinks, and whole grain-based cereal bars are all healthy and convenient choices.
Presentation alone can entice children, so feel free to get creative! Use packaging such as colorful bags, cups, or individual muffin cups. Get crafty and decorate small plastic containers with your child’s name, team, or school colors, then fill them with portable snacks such as sunflower or pumpkin seeds, dried cranberries, or dry whole-grain cereal (or any combination thereof).
Other good snack options:
- Toss fresh or frozen blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries into a low- or non-fat Greek yogurt
- Spread hummus with shredded carrots and cucumbers on a whole-wheat tortilla and roll it up
- Try dipping apple and/or banana slices into peanut or nut butter
- Stuff a whole wheat pita with a variety of shredded vegetables and reduced-fat ranch dressing
- Fill a snack baggie with 1-2 ounces of a dried fruit and nut trail mix
When you offer nutritious snacks, you’re providing your children with the food and nutrients they need for good health and well-being. More importantly, you are teaching them what a balanced diet looks like and how to eat well.
Keep these tips in mind when offering snacks to your child:
Variety is important. Try to provide healthful choices from all the different food groups. Limit empty-calorie snacks such as candy, cookies, and carbonated or fruit-flavored beverages. Completely forbidding these foods is only likely to make them more desirable.
Negotiate. You can get kids to try—and hopefully accept—new or not-so-liked foods by either offering them together with foods they already like or by negotiating. For example: “If you have this cookie now, then after dinner you can have watermelon for dessert.”
Limit sweet, sticky foods and foods that dissolve slowly in the mouth to decrease the risk of tooth decay. Frequent snacks that contain simple sugars can also promote tooth decay. Certainly carbonated sodas, sugary juice drinks, and even many sports drinks have a high sugar content. Gum, lollipops, hard candies, and jellybeans not only dissolve slowly, they easily get stuck in teeth. Likewise, snacks that contain caramel or marshmallow are culprits.
Keep an eye on portion sizes. Between school and sports, children are quite active, so snacks are an important part of their day. Snacking staves off hunger and provides them with energy. It is important to offer them foods that are nutritious and that are in portion sizes appropriate for their age.
Maria Flores’s 10-year-old daughter Cristina has been playing for Pelham’s youth softball league for the last two years and, in both the spring and fall, parked right alongside the field is the ubiquitous ice cream truck. As if that weren’t difficult enough to avoid, other parents often come to practice and games with bags of fast food, cookies, donuts—sometimes just for their own child, sometimes to share.
Flores didn’t want to look like the “bad” parent who always said “no” to junk food, but she wanted to encourage and teach her daughter and younger son Dante, who tagged along to games—both of whom were struggling with their weight—to make healthy choices.
When children are of school age, it is the opportune time to teach them the importance of healthful eating habits. Eating behaviors they learn now are more likely to stay with them into adulthood.
Flores and I chose to present Cristina and Dante with a compromise: As long as they actually eat the more nutritious snacks, they can choose a not-so-healthy snack. The children came up with a list of healthy snacks they enjoy such as strawberries, slices of turkey rolled up in a tortilla, low-fat cheese sticks, pretzels, baby carrots with ranch dip, and a mix of raisins, nuts, and chocolate chips. If they have any of these, they may also have a cookie, another sweet, or even occasional ice cream. The objective is to not have the kids feel deprived or, in a sense, punished, thereby making the junk food less desirable.
I also suggested Flores talk with the other parents. Perhaps they actually prefer their children to eat healthier snacks but just grab the most convenient food they know their child will eat. Or maybe they find it easier to indulge their children rather than encourage them to eat something more nutritious. However, knowing they have the support of other parents may motivate them to enforce better habits.
The good news for concerned parents whose younger children are now participating in sports or engaging in regular physical activity is that they do not need to provide them with a special diet. Nor do the kids have dramatically increased nutrient needs. By simply providing your little athlete with a balanced diet that follows the recommended guidelines (such as those that can be found on choosemyplate.gov), and offering them a variety of healthful foods from all the food groups in serving sizes appropriate for their age, you can be assured they will have plenty of fuel while also getting the adequate nutrition to support their growth and development.
More Nutrition Tips
Meal Ideas for Young Athletes
Got an active teen in the house? Read Werner's tips on fueling teenage athletes.
Robin Werner MS, RD, sees clients of all ages in Manhattan and Westchester. She lives in New Rochelle with her husband, Greg, and their three very active young children. For more information, visit wernernutrition.com or “like” the Robin Werner Nutrition page on Facebook.
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