Got young athletes in your family? Budding champion gymnasts, brilliant cheerleaders or future NBA players? Whatever their sport feeding them requires knowledge and planning.
Not only do young athletes need optimal nutrition for fueling and recovery from training and competing, but they also must meet energy demands of growth. You can help your kids by learning the right way for them to refuel with the nutrients they need before and after practice or game day.
Nutrition for Everyday Athletes
Focus on carbs for energy.
The no-carb lifestyle is not one that should be adopted by young athletes. To provide lasting energy encourage them to eat whole-grain bread, crackers, cereal, pasta and potatoes for lasting energy. Save sports drinks for an energy boost during endurance sports or training sessions lasting more than an hour.
Spread out protein foods.
Active young bodies need protein to support growth and build and repair hardworking muscles. Young athletes should spread protein foods throughout the day, having some at each meal and with most snacks, such as eggs and whole-grain toast with fruit for breakfast or a sandwich with low-sodium deli meat on whole-grain bread with yogurt and raw veggies for lunch. Plant-based protein foods like tofu and beans also are great choices.
Limit fatty foods, especially on meet day
Fatty foods slow digestion, which is not ideal for an athlete facing a competition. Greasy, fried foods and fatty desserts are filling and may leave your athlete feeling tired and sluggish. Skip the fries or pizza before practice or meet day, and keep fat content on the light side.
Eat with food safety in mind
Nothing will slow down your young athlete more than food poisoning – having stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea after eating. Ensure you store snacks at proper temperatures to prevent spoilage. Keep cheese, yogurt, meat, eggs and salads made with mayonnaise in a refrigerator or cooler. Shelf-stable items such as nuts, granola bars and whole fruit can be tossed into a sports bag without a problem.
Keep the fluids flowing
Good hydration should begin early in the day before kids even set foot in the gym or on the playing field. Make sure your kids stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water during the day leading up to a game, especially in the two to three hours before physical activity.
Continue to drink during the session (about 1/2 cup every 15 minutes) and afterward to rehydrate after sweat loss. Water should still be kids’ go-to drink for exercise that’s under 60 minutes. Training sessions over an hour may require a sports drink to replace electrolytes lost through heavy sweating.
In addition to water, fat-free and low-fat milk also are smart ways to help young athletes meet their fluid needs. But that’s not all. Just one cup of milk packs 15 to 24 percent of the protein most school-aged kids need in a day.
Milk also delivers important nutrients of which most young athletes don’t get enough, such as calcium, which is critical for building strong bones, transmitting nerve impulses, and helping muscles contract, as well as potassium for fluid balance.
Timing is everything.
When your gymnasts and other athletic kids eat is just as important as what they eat. their body needs two to three hours to digest a regular meal such as breakfast or lunch before an athletic event, while a small snack such as a granola bar can be eaten 30 minutes to an hour in advance. Load up at meals but don’t overeat, and keep snacks light as you get closer to competition or game time.
Celebrate together with a healthy dinner
For a tasty and filling post-game family dinner, include all five food groups — protein, grains, vegetables, fruit and dairy. Serve baked or broiled lean cuts of meat such as chicken breast, salmon or tuna.
Include whole grains, for example, whole-wheat pasta with a low-fat tomato or cheese sauce. Toss in vegetables or include a side green salad. Then, complete your meal with fruit for dessert, such as baked apples or pears accompanied by a glass of low-fat or fat-free milk. Or create an instant yogurt parfait with layers of low-fat vanilla yogurt, fresh, frozen or canned fruit, and crunchy whole-grain cereal.