The Right Foods For Young Athletes


For most parents who are juggling “pick-ups”, doctor’s appointments, and homework, anything that saves an extra few minutes in the day is a lifesaver.  This may mean giving your children whatever pre-packaged energy loaded food you can grab, like adult Powerbars or even candy bars.
   Giving kids the right foods and drinks, however, will help them get the nutrients they need to be better athletes and maintain excellent overall health.  Remember, your children are growing and need the right nutrients to grow, keep their energy up, and stay focused in school and on the field.  

   It is important for children to eat a balanced diet that includes a variety of different foods, including:

—Protein: found in meat, chicken, fish, eggs, tofu, soy, and dairy products.   Go for lean meats and low fat dairy when possible.

—Carbohydrates: found in grains, cereals, bread, crackers, and pasta.  It’s best to go for whole grains when possible!

—Vitamins and minerals: found in fruits, vegetables, dairy, meat, and whole grains.

—Fat:  it is important for children to go for the good fat as often as possible like that found in olive oil, nuts, and avocado.  Avoid saturated and trans fats like those found in candy bars, baked goods, butter and chips.

   If your children are athletes, you are probably wondering what else they need to be at the top of their game.

CALORIES: Often athletes need slightly more calories because they burn more playing their sport.  However, all children are different.  Most of the time, a well-balanced day of eating provides sufficient calories and nutrients.  However, if your children are playing particularly intense sports, they may need an extra snack or a slightly bigger meal.  Remember, even if they need a few extra calories, they should be nutrient dense calories, which means getting the most nutrition from the calories consumed.  For example, candy bars contain nothing more than sugar, fat, and calories.  They provide no nutrition — no vitamins and minerals, fiber, healthy fat, or protein.  Nutrient dense foods provide children with energy, vitamins and minerals and the right nutrients to help them grow — and even think!  A whole wheat pita with a thin smear of natural peanut butter, or a few whole wheat crackers and a part-skim string cheese, are both great snack options.

CALCIUM: Calcium builds strong bones.  It’s found in milk, yogurt, cheese, dark green leafy vegetables, and fortified foods.  So the next time you give your children a snack, try a plain yogurt with fresh berries, or bring some cheese and crackers to the game.  Remember, dark greens are a good source of calcium as well.  If your children aren’t big vegetable fans, try to make veggies a part of their favorite foods; make a homemade pizza topped with broccoli.

IRON: Having sufficient iron stores helps keep kids’ energy up.  Good sources of iron include red meat, eggs, dried fruit, and fortified foods.  A whole grain iron fortified breakfast cereal is one great way to get iron into children’s diets.  Not a cereal fan?  Try eggs for breakfast, or a hardboiled egg for a snack. 

WATER:  Drink, drink, drink is what you should be telling your children.  Drinking water before, during and after playing a sport is a must.  Kids sweat when they are active, and while sweating cools the body, it also gets rid of fluids.  Dehydration can cause weakness, dizziness, and fatigue, and can become more serious if left untreated.   Water is the best option for staying hydrated.  While sports drinks are OK once in awhile, they have a lot of extra sugar and calories and kids don’t need the electrolytes.  If your children are hungry, packing a healthy snack with water is usually a better option than a sugary sports drink.

   It is important to eat particularly well on the day of a practice or a game.  Try to feed kids one to three hours before a game so they have time to digest their food.  Fatty food can slow down digestion, so that’s another reason why an order of fast food French fries is not the best snack choice.  If it’s going to be a long practice or game, pack a healthy snack — a small turkey or peanut butter sandwich on whole wheat bread, a handful of nuts, and a small piece of fruit are all good options.  Always avoid candy and soda before or during a game.  While the sugar may give your children a quick energy boost, it will fade quickly, and kids won’t have enough energy to finish the fourth quarter! 

   Instead of giving kids a Powerbar or Gatorade, try some of these healthier snacks that will provide the nutrients they need to keep up their energy and have a great game: 

—Whole wheat pita with hummus
—Whole wheat bagel with natural peanut butter
—Whole grain crackers and part-skim string cheese
—Apple or banana and a handful of nuts
—3 cups air popped popcorn

KERI GLASSMAN, M.S., R.D., C.D.N., is a nutritionist and New York City mom of two.  She is founder and president of KKG Body Fuel, Inc., a nutrition counseling and consulting practice, and KeriBar, a nutrition snack bar company; and is also the nutrition director for Citibabes, the private club for moms and families in Soho, and has partnered with maternity design company Liz Lange to better educate pregnant women about pre and post-natal nutrition and the importance of healthy snacking.  She is also a tri-athlete.

—KeriBar for Kids (manufactured by the author)
—Santa Cruz individual applesauce
—Yogurt shake (Stonyfield Farm Organic yogurt smoothie)
—Trail mix: chopped apricots, almonds and Wheat Chex