Feeding sporty kids can be confusing, especiallyin the current climate where the major sponsorsof the Olympics were food companies most of us would categorise as "treat" food, not the type that would fuel our country’s best.
There is a culture in sports that suggests people who are active can "get away" with eating high-sugar junk food, especially kids (I’ve heard some suggest they NEED sugar) as they can "burn it off". Nothing is further from the truth. Despite what some sports nutrition resources tell you, or you see advertised on television, they don’t need additional sugar to make up for energy burnt during their practices or games.
Sports drinks, white bread jam sandwiches and jet planes aren’t necessary straight after exercise and are best left out of a young athlete's menu. The "window" of opportunity of replenishing carbohydrate stores has been a convenient theory for sports nutrition products to justify their use, but like all things, our knowledge base has grown and we have since discovered the body can adequately restore carbohydrate up to 48 hours after a match or training.
Unless, of course, there is a multi-day or multiple events on one day that requires a quick refuel, but even then there are options that allow for quick refuelling that are real food options and they don’t have to be sports drink or lollies. Active kids need more attention paid to their diet because of the heavier demands placed on their growing bodies. This expands their micronutrient and energy requirements.
However, because we use body size as the main marker (or for some, the only marker) of health, we look at kids who are active and thin as "healthy" without giving consideration to other equally (if not more) important indicators. I’ve worked with a number of adults who are pre-diabetic, yet have been fit and active their whole life, and a blood sugar screening reveals their metabolic state is probably worse than if they didn’t do any activity at all.
A contributing factor to this is the carbohydrate-dominant diet that has fuelled them through the preceding years, not just the additional treats they may have eaten because they could "eat what they like". To the body, a high carbohydrate load is a high sugar load, regardless of where those carbs come from, because it’s broken down to the same single glucose unit. This is an important consideration for parents as we know dietary habits in childhood lay part of the foundation for health outcomes in adulthood.
Parents are faced with the additional challenge of having to work meals around busy schedules. Children’s extra-curricular activities can have them up at 5am and home after 8pm, with the only time to eat being in the car between music and softball. It’s easy to see why there is a reliance on convenience-based options that are often marketed as perfect meal substitutes but aren’t always nutritionally optimal.
Feeding your active kids definitely takes forethought, but doesn’t have to be hard. A couple of hours in the weekend to prepare options that can be popped in the fridge or freezer will help out when time is short. Get your children's buy-in by involving them in this process — if they are choosing what to make they are more likely to eat it, right?
Even if they are not familiar with the workings of the kitchen, this is a perfect opportunity for them to upskill. Other necessary items would be a chilly bag or lunch box for keeping food cool throughout the day, and a thermos-type drink bottle for keeping soups or leftover casserole/mince based dishes warm if required. Two to three of my substantial snack ideas (see right) can make up a good meal on the go.
It’s important that kids get some fuel before morning training AND have something substantial before heading into class. The pre-training meal can be tricky as a lot of kids (and adults) don’t like having a lot of food in their stomach. Smoothies, fruit and peanut butter, a couple of hard boiled eggs and a glass of milk are all easy options that won’t sit heavily in the stomach. A lot of kids I talk to don’t eat enough after practice, as they are often running to class. This results in fatigue, dehydration, lack of concentration and feeling over-hungry come morning tea time and has implications for how they perform for the rest of the school day.
Ensuring they have a drink bottle to rehydrate is key — they could pop a pinch of salt in it (along with some fresh lemon, cucumber or mint if they don’t like the taste of plain water). There are many calorie-dense food options that are also nutrient-dense and quick to eat, such as nuts or some cheese and avocado. If kids have after-school training that extends over the normal dinner time, having half of their dinner before they go, and finishing it when they come back is a good option. Alternatively, save the other half for lunch the next day and refuel on a smoothie, fruit, nuts and full fat yoghurt, or a light omelette with some leftover potato.
Substantial snacks on the go for kids
Though this is targeted for active kids, anyone who is active and struggling with ideas may benefit from this list. All it takes is a bit of prepping . . . because a good diet doesn’t happen by accident.