We have all heard that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but if your child is active in sports, proper nutrition throughout the day becomes essential. The right foods and drinks will fuel their bodies and their minds.
There are many resources parents can consult for information about this important topic. There is the Canada Food Guide, your child’s coaches, nutritionists and your paediatrician. In general, experts will agree that it’s essential for your child’s diet to include foods from the following categories:
- protein – meat, eggs, nuts and dairy
- carbohydrates – whole grains, vegetables and fruits
- vitamins and minerals – dairy, fruits and vegetables
- fats – meats, cheese, nuts and oils
Make sure they start their day off right with foods such as eggs, oatmeal, nut butters and fruit. Pack a healthy lunch and snacks to keep their energy up between meals. Lunch options might include a turkey sandwich on whole grain bread, a whole grain pita with banana and peanut butter or leftovers from dinner. Great snack options might include cheese, fruit or a handful of nuts.
To improve performance before a game or practice, children should eat two to four hours in advance to give food time to digest. Fuel up pre-game with a snack that includes carbohydrates and protein but is also low in fat and fibre. Bring a snack for longer practices, competitions or events, such as a sandwich, fruit or nuts. Energy bars are convenient, but whole foods are just as energy rich. After a game, aid recovery by drinking water and having a snack that also includes carbs and protein. Carbs give the body and brain energy while protein helps build and repair muscle.
Active kids might need more calories than the average child because they are burning more energy when they participate in sports. As a general rule, kids ages 6 to 12 need between 1,600 and 2,200 calories a day, but every child is different.
It’s also important that children hydrate with water, not juice, pop or sports drinks, which can have added sugar, caffeine and calories. Use a refillable water bottle and ensure your child drinks before, during and after activity to prevent becoming sick from dehydration. It’s recommended that kids have between 6 and 10 cups of fluid a day.
Typically, children should not diet no matter the sport or activity. As they are still growing, they need a balanced diet. Restricting calories, skipping meals, or adopting a diet high in protein or low in fats or carbohydrates can be harmful to both their physical development and mental health.
Studies show that there are many ways to encourage healthy eating habits in children. Many kids tend to naturally prefer carb-heavy diets, which isn’t good for kids in general, let alone athletes. If your child’s diet is limited to specific foods, for instance, you might want to take them to the grocery store and allow them to select a new food each time. Have them help out in the kitchen and prepare dinner or lunches with you. If they don’t like a certain food once, make it again and and again, and encourage them to try a bite every time. Eventually they might find their tastes change or that they are open to new experiences. Even if your family has a hectic sports schedule, try to plan healthy meals in advance so you’re not rushed or temped to feed them junk food in the car. When you can, sit together as a family. Eat slowly, spend time together, make it an enjoyable experience and model healthy eating habits yourself.
Parents concerned about their children’s diet or nutritional needs should contact their pediatrician or a dietician who specializes in children and athletes.