Go for the winning carbs and punch up protein power.
Parents are often so busy running their young athletes to sporting events and practices that preparing nutritious meals for them gets sidelined.
Even parents who think they’re fueling their kids with healthy fare are sometimes surprised to find out their children are missing key nutrients, says registered dietitian nutritionist Heather Mangieri, author of the book “Fueling Young Athletes”
The quality of food that children and adolescents consume can have a dramatic impact on their performance, health, growth and development, says Roberta Anding, a sports dietitian with Baylor College of Medicine and Rice University in Houston. Smart food choices need to be taken very seriously, agrees Jennifer Sacheck, an associate professor of nutrition at Tufts University in Boston and lead author of the paper “Optimal Nutrition for Youth Athletes: Food Sources and Fuel Timing” from the National Youth Sports Health & Safety Institute.
The nutrition experts offer these ideas for fueling young athletes:
- Keep hydration top of mind.
Good hydration is key to optimum performance. Dehydration can lead to headaches, light-headedness, muscle cramping, weakness and fatigue, Mangieri says.
Young athletes should start their day with milk, water or 100 percent fruit juice; drink water or milk at meals and snacks; and take scheduled water breaks during exercise and sports, she says. Hydrating foods, such as grapes, orange slices, smoothies and soups, boost fluid intake.
Anding tells students to stop and give her eight, which means take eight big gulps of water at the water fountain. That’s about a cup of water, and it takes about 18 to 20 seconds, she says.
Most children and adolescents should be consuming three to four servings of dairy a day, but they shouldn’t drink sugar-sweetened beverages (soda, fruit punch, juice boxes) or energy drinks with caffeine, Mangieri says.
Sports drinks may be helpful for those who are doing continuous activity for more than an hour. These beverages help replace electrolytes (sodium and chloride) that are lost in sweat, and they also contain sugar, which provides an energy boost to get through a training session or event, she says.
- Make sure kids’ diet includes the nutrition all-stars.
Young athletes should follow the same healthy eating pattern recommended for all Americans, Sacheck says. They should get about 45 to 60 percent of their daily calories from carbohydrates (fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains such as oatmeal, brown rice and whole-grain cereals); 25 to 35 percent from healthy fats (liquid vegetable oils, such as olive and canola, as well as nuts, nut butters and avocados) and 10 to 30 percent from protein (lean meat, poultry, fish, dairy products, eggs, beans and nuts), she says.
- Showcase the best and the brightest fruits and vegetables.
Fruits or vegetables belong on every plate at every meal, Anding says. “It’s best to have them both on the plate.” Colorful fruits and vegetables, such as blueberries, raspberries, broccoli, peppers, sweet potatoes and spinach, are rich in vitamins and minerals and contain powerful antioxidants that fight inflammation and help people recover from hard exercise, she says.
- Go for the winning carbs.
Carbohydrates fuel athletes’ engines, which are their muscles, but athletes’ storage tanks are limited so they need to regularly consume good sources of carbohydrates, Sacheck says. They should make sure their fuel tank is full an hour before exercise, and they should start refilling their tank within an hour after exercise.
The best high-grade fuel: nutrient-dense, fiber-rich carbohydrates, such as fruits, vegetables, beans and whole-grain foods, Sacheck says. Poor carb choices, such as cookies, cakes, candy, chips, fries and vegetables cooked in cream sauces, should be kept to a minimum.
- Punch up protein power.
Protein at each meal helps build muscle and control appetite, Anding says. “Muscles repair themselves 24 hours a day so athletes need to give their body regular protein to do that.”
For many athletes, that means adding some protein to breakfast, such as having a nut butter on whole-grain toast or lean ham and cheese on a whole-grain bagel with a glass of milk and piece of fruit, she says. Student athletes who eat well-balanced meals don’t need protein shakes or supplements, Anding says.
- Create a winning dinner strategy.
One-pot meals can be a lifesaver for busy parents, Mangieri says. Chili, made with ground meat, beans and tomatoes, is loaded with protein and carbohydrates, and it’s rich in iron, which is especially important for adolescents, she says. Garnish it with grated cheese and serve with fruit for a well-rounded meal.
Vegetable beef soup, bean soup, chicken tortilla soup, hearty stews and other soups are quick, nutrient-rich meals, she says. “Parents can keep these hot in a soup thermos or food jar so athletes can eat them on the go.”
Dinner may have to be eaten in the car on the way to practices and games, Anding says. She suggests “embracing the sandwich” and offering kids turkey and cheese sandwiches topped with spinach and served with grapes, apple slices or clementines and shelf-stable milk.
Good choices when eating out or grabbing takeout: grilled chicken or steak fajitas with rice and vegetables; a roast beef sandwich on whole-grain bread and fruit cup; a grilled chicken sandwich with a side salad and applesauce; pasta with chicken in marinara sauce and a salad; and grilled chicken breast with a baked potato, vegetables and multigrain dinner roll, Mangieri says.
- Grab nutritious mini-meals.
Foods and drinks consumed between meals need to be rich in nutrients, Mangieri says. She recommends replacing snack foods such as pretzels, chips, cookies and cakes with mini-meals that include high-quality protein and carbohydrates.
Mini-meals are simply smaller portions of the same foods served at main meals, she says. Some examples: half a turkey sandwich on whole-grain bread with an orange; Greek yogurt topped with fresh fruit and a teaspoon or two of crushed nuts; 3/4 cup of whole-grain cereal with 6 ounces of milk; a scoop of tuna salad in half a whole-wheat pita with carrot sticks; several cheese slices and whole-grain crackers with cherry tomatoes and an applesauce cup.
To help fuel young athletes, parents can keep food and fluids in a “portable pantry” in their car, Mangieri says. This could be a cooler or gym bag. It can be stocked with items such as water bottles, shelf-stable regular or flavored milk, sport drinks, tuna pouches, fresh fruits and vegetables, beef jerky, dried fruit, nuts, applesauce cups, string cheese, Greek yogurt, microwavable rice pouches or packs of oatmeal.
“Eating well, even on the go, can have big payoff for kids,” Mangieri says. “Athletes who learn how to fuel right from a young age have a competitive advantage.”