Parents are usually well aware of the nutritional requirements of their growing child. They need a certain number of calories, vitamins, nutrients and minerals to help them grow into healthy and strong adults. But how do those requirements change as your little one picks up a sport?
According to Jill Castle, MS, RDN, a childhood nutrition and feeding expert and the author of Eat Like a Champion, nutritional needs absolutely grow as a child becomes more active and it’s important to be aware of that.
“The biggest difference for young athletes is that they may need more calories depending on the intensity, duration and frequency of the sport they are practicing,” says Castle. For children who indulge in recreational sports, with one practice per week and one game on the weekend, Castle notes that there will be little change needed for their nutritional needs to be met.
However, for elite young athletes who are practicing five times or more in a week for several hours, or who play on a team during the school year and on a club team during the off-season or summer, parents will need to pay “more attention to the balance of their diet and the timing of their eating.”
For a young recreational athlete or a non-athlete, Castle says they should have regular meals every three to four hours, with one or two healthy snacks in between. For more active child athletes, Castle says they may need four meals a day or three meals and hefty snacks in between.
Before a game or practice, Castle says it’s important to fuel your young athlete’s body with healthy food. “They should be eating something 30-60 minutes before games or practices. You want to make sure they have time to digest it. They should also be eating within about 45 minutes after an intense game or practice has ended,” she says. If the game or practice lasts more than an hour, “I always advise them to have a little carbohydrate pick-me-up in addition to staying hydrated.”
For our athletes, young and old alike, water is just fine after practice. “Sports drink products may be more appealing but water is more appropriate for hot, humid climates and long periods of exercise. If your little one is working hard for the full hour, it’s important to rehydrate and replenish the energy they just burnt off. If it is a short practice or less intense, water works.”
A meal before, a meal after and a snack during games or practices still only adds up to half of the meals and snacks a young athlete should be getting. If a child is not getting the nutrients they need, especially as an athlete, it can cause a variety of health concerns.
“If they aren’t getting the calories they need,” warns Castle, “they can lose weight, which can stunt their growth as children.” Of course, other nutrient deficiencies can have a negative impact as well. “If they develop a deficiency in iron, Vitamin D, calcium, or protein, we often see the effects early and later in life when they develop osteoporosis, anemia or other conditions.” Castle adds, “The first 20 years of life are critical to develop strong bones and healthy adults.”
So how can parents make this nutritionally balanced, properly-timed diet work for their kid’s active lifestyle? Castle suggests finding foods that are easy to store, portable and that your kid actually likes.
“Breakfast is so important. I hear a lot of kids who don’t want to eat as soon as they wake up, but you should at least send them out the door with something,” she says.
A glass of milk is an easy way to give kids a dose of carbohydrates and protein to start the day. Castle also suggests making a breakfast sandwich with egg, Canadian bacon and cheese, which she then wraps in foil and hands to her son on his way out the door. “Smoothies are great, too. Or make your own yogurt parfaits for them.” It doesn’t have to be complicated. “Some days, I just spread some peanut butter on toast. The point is to get them to eat.”
As for the snacks, Castle suggests finding foods that are nutrient dense. “You want to give them a dose of protein and carbohydrates, so find ways to combine those,” such as cheese and crackers, granola with yogurt or even a glass of milk. “Milk is great because it’s two-in-one, having both carbs and protein.”
When raising a young athlete, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the demanding schedules, but Castle reminds parents that what goes into a child’s body can impact how they play now and how they grow later. “A lot of parents go into sports with the attitude that they are cultivating a young athlete, and nutrition is a key component of that. You can’t overlook it.”
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