A frequent question on a parent’s minds is what to feed their children that a) will boost their sporting performance, b) is healthy for growth and development and c) their child will actually eat. The nutritional needs of children vary greatly, however there are some guidelines that are generally applicable to ensure they are strong and healthy young athletes.
Establishing healthy eating patterns needs an approach that benefits the whole household. It involves eating well on a day to day basis, not just the day before a game. We need to prepare and recover from each training session, using and storing fuel in muscles and having sufficient nutrients left for growth and development. If we take care during the week, we will be ready to perform at our best on game day.
When we think of kids being active, we think of the energy they need. Energy or fuel is provided mainly by quality, nutritious carbohydrate-rich foods. This includes wholegrain breads and breakfast cereals, rice, pasta, fruit, starchy vegetables (e.g. potatoes, sweet potato, corn), quinoa, legumes, milk and yoghurt. These carbohydrate-rich foods are important as they also provide valuable nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and dietary fibre.
Low nutrient carbohydrate foods such as sugary drinks, lollies and cakes should be kept to a minimum and are not good for teeth and overall health when eaten regularly. On game day, put aside bags of lollies (where handfuls are grabbed) and bring back half time oranges, bananas or other delicious fruit.
When it comes to fluid, provide water as the main drink. Although sugary drinks provide plenty of carbohydrate energy, it’s often more energy than is needed in one hit and with no other nutritional value. Soft drink and fruit juice both contain around 10% sugar, with sports drinks around 7%. Use sports drinks sparingly, for example, in very hot conditions or in individual cases as recommended by a sports dietitian. Keep fruit juice to half a glass (125ml) occasionally. The best moto is, ‘Eat fruit, drink water’.
Protein is important for muscle repair and growth for the junior athlete. Spreading the protein out over the day is best for absorption. Choose a range of protein-rich foods, as they contain other valuable vitamins and minerals, such as iron and zinc. Consider eggs, red and white meat, milk, cheese, soy drinks, tofu, legumes, fish, nuts, seeds and even cereals such as oats and quinoa can contribute to our protein intake.
After strenuous exercise, consuming some protein and carbohydrate-rich foods has been shown to speed up muscle recovery in adults and, even though there hasn’t been research in children, it makes sense this would also be the case.
We also need a little fat, which is important for brain development and growth. Unsaturated fats found in foods such as fish, nuts, seeds, avocado and extra virgin olive oil should be included in a daily diet. There is no need to keep everything low fat. Add extra virgin olive oil to vegetables and salads, you will be surprised how much better they taste and - most importantly - get eaten.
Dairy foods such as milk and cheese are important foods to include and the saturated fat they contain is not bad for health like the saturated fats found in highly processed biscuits, crisps and pastry foods can be. Dairy is an important source of calcium for bones.
What’s on the menu?
Now we have the information, let’s see at what this looks like in practice. Here are a few ideas which include protein, carbohydrate and plenty of nutrients to nourish your child to perform as a superstar.
- Rolled oats with milk and berries
- Wholegrain toast topped with eggs or baked beans or cheese and avocado
- Milk or soy smoothie with yoghurt, fruit and nut butter
- Wholegrain crackers with tuna and tomato
- Hummus Dip with cut up carrots and brown rice crackers
- Trail mix (dried fruit, nuts, seeds)
- Brown rice sushi with chicken
- Hardboiled egg and fresh fruit
- Corn cob with cheese
- Minestrone soup (with pasta, kidney beans and veg)
- Wraps or sandwich with lean meat or egg and salad
- Stir fry with noodles, veg and lean beef
- Spaghetti bolognaise with grated vegetables inside the sauce
- Roast meat, roast potatoes, carrots and greens
- Homemade fried rice (preferably brown) with vegetables and tofu or chicken
- Grilled fish, salad and potatoes
- Zucchini slice
And to drink: Water, milk, soup and more water
Eat to compete!
Learn more about sports nutrition for kids - and a whole host of other dietary information - in Simone Austin’s new book, Eat Like An Athlete (Hardie Grant Books).