What to Feed Young Athletes

Overview

Once children enter elementary school, they begin to develop eating patterns that are more independent of a parent's influence and scrutiny. New activities and peers begin to influence food choices as your child is exposed to a variety of new foods and different social situations. Your child's food choices will tend to be repetitious, so that the foods they include in their diets remain relatively constant over time.

In evaluating whether your child is eating the kind of high carbohydrate diet that is best for peak athletic performance, you should be looking in particular for skipped meals, excess consumption of high-calorie/low-nutrient density foods, and food groups from the food group pyramid that your child consistently omits.

Breakfast

Does your child eat breakfast? Many school-age children don't. The usual excuse: a lack of time. But before you let your child continue to skip breakfast, you should know that studies have shown that:

Compared to a child who skips breakfast, a child who eats breakfast has:

  • A better attitude

  • Gets better grades

  • A greater ability to solve problems

Eating breakfast is particularly important for the youth athlete because it helps to restore carbohydrates stored as glycogen in the liver depleted during the overnight fast (remember that the word "breakfast" means breaking the fast). Thus, a high-carbohydrate breakfast helps ensure that your child has adequate energy for practices or games in the afternoon.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Encourage your child to eat foods they like for breakfast. Food composition, not social custom, is the best strategy

  • Let her know that eating non-traditional breakfast foods is okay, so long as they are high in carbohydrates and low in fat

  • Aim for a breakfast that provides between one quarter and one third of your child's daily calorie needs

  • Athletes like figure skaters and runners, who practice early in the morning before going to school, should have a small snack before sports (fruit juice and toast, oatmeal and fruit, or bagel with peanut butter and jelly) followed by additional carbohydrate rich foods and fluids after practice.

Lunch

Think that a lunch brought from home is more nutritious than one provided by your child's school? Think again.

  • The federal government requires school lunches to provide approximately one-third of the recommended dietary allowances for children

  • Due to recent changes in the school lunch program, popular foods like pizza, tacos, macaroni and cheese, and hamburgers have been added, fresh fruit is now available as an alternative to sugary desserts like cake and cookies, and skim milk is offered in addition to whole milk

  • Studies have shown that school lunches are generally more nutritious than lunches brought from home because box lunches:

    • Are usually less varied

    • Only include favorite foods

    • Are limited to foods that travel well and don't require refrigeration or heating

    • May not be eaten, or end up being traded or, worst of all, thrown away

Because peers often influence your child's food choices, you should ask him if he eats lunch with his friends, what foods he eats, and why he prefers certain foods. That way, you can recommend changes in his lunch choices, if necessary.

Snacks

Snacks may be a significant component of your child's diet, so their nutritional content may go a long way in determining whether her overall dietary needs are being met.

To find out about your child's snacking patterns, ask what, when and where:

  • What are your child's favorite snacks?

  • When and how often does your child snack?

  • Where does your child get snacks? From home, vending machine or convenience store?

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