If you have a child or teen involved in sports, there are plenty of ways to give them the proper fuel for maximum performance and health. Eating the right foods before exercise can make for a great game, or for a high-energy day of feeling great, no matter what activities kids choose to do.
Parents often wonder which types of food kids should eat before competitions, how much is enough (or too much), and when calories should be consumed for the best timing to assist with energy during athletic events.
Below, read about how to perfectly feed your young athlete to keep them ready to compete and feeling great.
Which foods are best for energy?
1. Quick Energy—
Easily-digested carbohydrates are the best choice for immediate energy—a.k.a. glucose—and complex carbs make a great option for quick fuel as well.
Fruit is a healthy and quickly-assimilated source of energy, with high glucose levels, and vitamins and minerals children need to stay healthy.
Carbohydrates are what the body burns first, bumping up blood sugar levels for fast action; but be careful not to overindulge, as this can have the undesirable effect of making athletes feel overly full and lethargic, rather than ready to roll.
2. Extended Energy—
Protein works well for those participating in longer events where refueling will not be an option for over an hour. Long-distance runners, swimmers participating in swim meets, extended cycling trips and other such lengthy activities are examples of when protein can be the perfect fuel.
Because protein burns more slowly than carbohydrates, especially when combined with complex carbohydrates such as whole grain breads and pasta, it’s excellent for long-term energy.
Adding light, lean protein such as Greek yogurt, turkey or chicken, almonds/nuts, cheese/peanut butter with crackers, or even a shake with protein powder can help keep kids moving longer without feeling tired.
How much should young people eat before, during and after athletic activities?
1. Eating Before Exercise—
If you have 5 or more hours before exercise, kids should eat a larger meal to keep them going.
Limiting foods that are high in fat is a good idea, as they can be hard to digest, stealing valuable energy away from a little athlete when she/he most needs it.
If your child will be active within 2 hours or less, mini-meals are best to avoid stomach cramping from jostling the contents of the tummy too soon after eating. Complex carbs are the optimum choice for these types of meals, as they will give kids immediate energy, as well as fuel for later.
2. Eating During Exercise—
If you can adequately feed kids before they’re active, this is the best case scenario, as eating too much while they’re moving and shaking can upset stomachs, but sometimes schedules are hectic and this situation can occur.
If your child wasn’t able to eat a pre-game meal, or will be exercising for an extended period of time, light snacks during breaks between activities can work fine in moderation.
Small foods that can be nibbled quickly, such as fresh fruit, pretzels, mini-yogurts and cheese sticks are good examples of mid-movement options to consider.
3. Eating After Exercise—
Refueling after exercise is important for grown-ups to repair and replenish the body after a good workout, but in growing children, this is absolutely mandatory.
A big meal containing both protein and carbohydrates will best replace the glucose normally stored in a child’s muscles that’s been used up by vigorous activity, but if unable to get to food quickly, milk is well-known for being a great on-the-go muscle recovery drink because it contains both carbs and protein.
When we exercise intensely, muscles are broken down and need nutrients to recover and rebuild for the next session. Because kids are growing as well, this much-needed replenishing of bodily resources is essential to their good health and physical progress.
How can we hydrate for maximum benefits?
1. Be Persistent About Hydration—
Kids often don’t remember to drink liquids throughout the day, prompting parents everywhere to feel like “hydration hounds,” as we repeatedly remind them to drink more water.
But because they are more easily dehydrated, it’s important to make sure kids are consuming adequate liquids – especially before, during and after exercise.
Constantly encourage children to keep drinking despite the protests of “I’m not thirsty!” and exasperated eye-rolls, because dehydration can not only decrease performance, it can be dangerous.
2. Make Smart Hydration Choices—
Water, water and more water. If kids have eaten the correct foods at the optimum times, there is no need to add high fructose corn syrup, unpronounceable chemicals or dyes to their liquids.
If your child is participating in an extended competition with limited breaks, this might be an exception to the “water only” rule, because liquid glucose is still energy-giving, and will do the trick in a pinch. But consider all-natural flavored beverage options without additives, if at all possible.
If your child is finicky and dislikes plain water, or perhaps you’d like to encourage more liquid intake for adequate hydration, adding natural fruit juices is a great way to increase flavor in a healthy way.
Proper nutrition, timing of meals and hydration are not only good for children; these factors can play a large part in the prevention of sports injuries when done well, making this knowledge invaluable for parents with active kids and teens. Use the helpful nutrition tips above to keep your young athlete healthy, performing well and feeling strong.