Game Plan: Healthy Snacks for Young Athletes
You know that food is the ideal fuel for your young, growing athlete. Yet, time and again, you see young athletes eating cookies and chips at halftime, candy after competition, and drinking sugary beverages during breaks. This makes it hard to feed your own athlete the nutritious fuel he needs.
So, what does it take to make sure your young athlete is getting the healthy snacks he needs? A game plan. Here are a few strategic moves to make it happen:
The Right Mindset
When you shift your mindset to a strategy rather than a quick fix solution, your young athlete will benefit. Snacks should nourish and support the growth of your athlete, while providing the key fuel components that enhance his performance and competition.
To make this mindset shift, remember this: snacks should not be used as a reward for playing, a treat for showing up, or a stand-in for a real meal. Snacks should be wholesome, real and nutritious so they contribute to your young athlete’s health, growth, and sports performance.
Know the Nutrient Players
The most important nutrients for young athletes come from foods that include carbohydrate and protein. Carbohydrates are the preferred energy source for exercising muscles. Carbohydrate-containing foods offer either a fast or slow release of energy into the bloodstream, depending on the type consumed. For example, fast-release carbohydrate foods such as dried fruit and sports drinks increase the blood sugar quickly and are a perfect option shortly before a race or during a prolonged exercise session. They keep the blood sugar in a normal range, so your athlete feels energized.
Related: Sports Nutrition
Dry cereal and whole grain pasta, on the other hand, take longer to digest and allow a slower release of energy into the bloodstream, which is ideal for endurance-based activities. When choosing snack foods, include foods with carbohydrates, such as milk, yogurt, crackers, bread, potatoes, fruits and vegetables for the young athlete.
Protein is another important nutrient for growth in childhood. For the young athlete, protein foods also provide an added benefit. They contain amino acids that help to repair muscles after exercise and promote future muscle growth. Dairy products, meat, fish, poultry, nuts and nut butters, eggs and beans are all good sources of protein.
When planning snacks for your young athlete, make sure to include a source of carbohydrate and protein. For example, cheese and crackers, nut butter on toast, or cereal and milk are all snacks that provide both carbohydrate and protein. Certain foods offer a blend of both, conveniently packaged together, such as regular or chocolate milk, Greek yogurt, and high protein granola bars.
Know Which Foods Can Steal Your Athlete’s Health
You probably know there is some leeway for sweets and treats in your athlete’s training diet. However, you may not realize how hard it can be to tame those unhealthy foods.
Steer clear of too many sugary foods and fat-laden items. In fact, try to set a daily maximum, such as one or two normal serving sizes per day, as a guideline.
Avoid using supplements such as energy drinks, amino acid supplements, or other blends of nutrients, caffeine and herbals. None of these are proven to be beneficial or even effective in growing athletes, and may cause harm. Real food is more satisfying, more nutritious, adds to your athlete’s overall health, and avoids any unpleasant or dangerous side effects.
Map Out Snacks Ahead of Time
Most families I work with have success when they have a nutrition plan. This rings true for snacks, as well. Here are some quick tips for successful snacks:
- Take a moment to plan out the week’s pre-workout and pre-game snacks and write them down. Stock the kitchen with the necessary foods.
- Rotate different snacks each day so your athlete gets a wide range of foods (and thus, a wide variety of nutrients).
- Encourage eating snacks an hour or so ahead of practice or games so that digestion is well under way before your athlete hits the playing fields.
- Bring healthy snacks to games, tournaments or weekend events so the concession stand is not a major supplier of food for your athlete.
Healthy snacks for your young, growing athlete are part of performance success. What is your game plan?
Jill Castle, MS, RDN is a registered dietitian, childhood nutritionist, and youth sports nutrition expert. She is the author of Eat Like a Champion: Performance Nutrition for Your Young Athlete and Fuel Up: Dinner Recipes for Young Athletes. Learn more about Jill at www.JillCastle.com and check out her free list of 70 Awesome Pre-Workout Snacks for Kids here.