Home » Blog » October Sports Nutrition Month » Cynthia Lair: Develop A Child's Connection Between Food and Athletic Performance

October is Sports Nutrition Month at MomsTEAM. We invited some old friends and some new ones to share their wisdom about nutrition and offer always on-the-go sports parents fresh ideas and choices for healthy, easy-to-make breakfasts, lunches, dinners and between-meal snacks for your active children.

Today we hear from nutritionist, educator, best-selling author and online cooking show host, Cynthia Lair:

Cynthia Lair

MomsTEAM: Tell us a little about yourself and why you wanted to get into sports nutrition?

Lair: My daughter, Grace, started playing competitive sports when she was seven-years old. I had never been involved in sports as a child or an adult, so I found the sports sideline fun but perplexing. Observing the post-game mêlée of packaged junk food flying into the mouths of hungry children disturbed me, especially since I teach family nutrition and cooking with whole foods at a university. As if holidays, birthdays and the kid's menu in restaurants didn't create enough excuses for feeding children poor food, here was yet another excuse for a sugar frenzy. At the very moment when the body needs an intense refueling of nutrient-rich foods, parents unknowingly were doling out snacks such as Ding-Dongs.

As my daughter became a more skilled player and selected to be on more competitive teams, she played in tournaments every weekend. So making sure that she had the fuel to maintain her performance became crucial. Not only was I motivated to help my daughter maintain the starting position she wanted, I had become invested in the whole team; I wanted all the players on the team to be empowered by their food choices.

So I sought the help of my colleague, Dr. Scott Murdoch. He has a doctorate in nutrition and human performance and is also a Registered Dietitian. But more importantly, he was also an athlete who competed in triathlons and professional tennis.  Dr. Murdoch is a science nonfiction kind of guy with all sorts of facts, and the research to back them up. I would translate the complex data he gave me into language that could be comprehended by a young athlete or put into recipes I could make in my kitchen. Then, I'd try the food and the timing of eating with my daughter's team.

They won a lot of games.

I was happy to see that with some simple nutrition education, the players on the teams (my daughter played soccer through middle school, high school and college) began to feel the connection between food and athletic performance. Pumped about sharing what I was learning with players and coaches, I generated handouts and folders, and finally with too many pages to wrangle, my book Feeding the Young Athlete book began to emerge.

Young people who are physically active benefit from better health, confidence and well-being. For activity to be truly healthy and enjoyable, however, children need to eat wholesome foods. Both Dr. Murdoch and I believe that being physically active without eating wholesome foods, or eating wholesome foods without any activity, is simply self-defeating.

MomsTEAM: What do recommend sports-active kids eat for breakfast?

Lair: The most common breakfast choice, of course, is cold cereal with milk, chosen by nearly a third of all adult breakfast eaters, according to an ABC News poll. It's high time we thought outside the cereal box. Sugary dried cereal topped with milk, or pastries laden with refined sugar before a game, does not sustain our bodies, whether preparing for an athletic event or not.

The saying, "Eat breakfast like a king" is wise. Breakfast sets the metabolic rhythm for the day. Like the farmer preparing for a day of physical labor, the athlete needs to make sure the morning meal has protein, fat, complex carbs and fiber. A breakfast with all four will provide your child with a steady energy supply to play their best.

If your child skips breakfast, they may hit a slump mid-morning where thinking goes blurry, muscles feel droop and need to play catch-up all day with frequent snacking and end up overeating.  If they say, "I'm not hungry in the morning," the solution is simple: Don't let them eat late at night; stop the gravy train after dinner so that when they hit the hay their body can rest and repair instead of churn to digest food.

Tired of the same old breakfasts? Try something a little different, such as Chinese Vegetable Fried Rice. All you need is leftover rice, some vegetables, an egg, and about 5-7 minutes. Here's a video showing you how:

For a printable recipe, click here.  

MomsTEAM: What are your top five foods for sports nutrition?

Lair: Mother Nature gives us a bounty of nutrient-rich whole foods that help humans grow, move and flourish. It's very challenging to choose only five! For starters, I would recommend using the following criteria in choosing which foods will earn the honor of being in your top five: 

  • Is it a whole food?
  • Is it more nutrient-rich than similar foods in its category?
  • Is it available in most grocery stores?
  • Does it lend itself well to a variety of recipes? 

Given these criteria, my top five choices would be:

  1. Brown Rice: A carbohydrate rich in nutrients and fiber.
  2. Sweet Potatoes: Vitamin rich, easy to find, and quite tasty (try a baked one for breakfast!)
  3. Spinach: Popeye was right. Don't like it raw? Add it to stir fries and scrambled eggs.
  4. Blueberries: Just right on your morning oatmeal with yogurt.
  5. Salmon: Healthy proteins are so important for growing bodies!

Check out this video recipe for Orange Glazed Salmon Kebobs:


For a printable recipe, click here.  

MomsTEAM: What is the best snack to pack in a sports-active kid's school backpack or gym bag?

Lair: Keep it simple. A piece of fruit and a sandwich should make their way into every sports bag every day. If you are looking for something a little flashier, try making a batch of Maple Butter Nut Granola and packing a container in your child's backpack to munch on during the day. I know many moms who regularly ship a tin of this granola to their college athletes!


For a printable recipe, click here

MomsTEAM: What is a quick and easy dinner to make for a family meal after an afternoon practice or game?

Lair: Here are three muscle-replenishing dinner recipes for young athletes:

Chicken Vegetable Teriyaki


For a printable recipe, click here.  

Three Sisters Stew (corn, beans and squash)


For a printable recipe, click here.

Smoked Salmon Reuben (I like this paired with soup, especially Tomato Soup)

For a printable recipe, click here

Feeding the Young Athlete book cover

Cynthia Lair is a Certified Health and Nutrition Counselor living in the Seattle area. She is an assistant professor for Bastyr University's School of Nutrition and Exercise Science, and the Culinary Curriculum Director for the school's new Bachelor of Science in Nutrition & Culinary Arts degree program. Her popular cookbook, Feeding the Whole Family (Sasquatch Books, 2008) is in its third edition, with over 50,000 copies sold. A newly revised edition of her second book, Feeding the Young Athlete: Sports Nutrition Made Easy for Players, Parents and Coaches is now available.

As part of the CDC's Communities Putting Prevention to Work (CPPW) program, Cynthia was hired in 2010 by the Auburn School District grant to develop the curriculum for an 8-hour workshop to train school food service workers in the how and why of whole foods cooking, and the workshops are now ongoing in the greater Seattle area.

Cynthia is also the co-creator and host of the online web cooking show, Cookus Interruptus, which features over 170 whole foods recipe/videos presented with a sitcom feel because she believes that education is most effective when accompanied with humor.

You can find her on the web at wwww.cynthialair.com and follow her on Twitter @cookusinterrupt.