What To Feed Kids Who Play Sports

Active children need extra nutrition to get them through their days.

August 18, 2017
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kids who play sports

The older kids get, the more involved they become with the activities they love. As parents, it’s amazing to watch these passions develop, but the logistics they bring along with them can be crushing. School ends at 3:20pm, hockey practice starts at 4pm, and the puck drops on a game at 6:30pm. And dinner is when, exactly?

Whether your kid is on the field five times a week or in the dance studio every chance she gets, super-active children need extra nutrition to get them through their long days.

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feeding sports kids
Jamie Grill/getty
Calories count

Between the ages of six and twelve, kids need between 1,600 and 2,500 calories each day. An athletic child’s appetite is the best guide to how much she needs to consume. You just want to be sure that what she eats is truly fueling her and not just filling her up. For instance, your child will be more energized by an apple with peanut butter than by a bag of potato chips. Like all kids, active children need a range of foods that contain protein, carbohydrates, healthy fats, vitamins and minerals to meet their daily nutritional requirements. (For inspiration, see these healthy school lunch ideas that chefs make for their own kids.)

hydrating kids
Hydrating is essential

Every child needs between 4 and 6 cups (1 and 1.5 L) of water a day, and active kids need even more. Children who haven’t gone through puberty sweat less than adolescents or adults, so they rely on hydration to cool their bodies during activity. Dehydrated kids are more likely to tire easily, get headaches, have trouble focusing and feel irritable. Kids are also not likely to think of tanking up on water without firm reminders. Make it part of their practice and create the habit: Put on your gear, have a drink of water. Halftime practice, have a drink of water. Changing back into your clothes after practice, have another big drink of water. Work toward a schedule of having them drink 5 to 9 oz (150 to 270 ml) of water every 20 minutes. (Here are the best reusable stainless steel water bottles for kids.)

Sports drinks, soda pop, fruit juices and punches may hold more appeal to kids than water, but they’re also packed with sugar, so consider ways to make water more interesting to your kids, like adding orange or lemon slices for some flavor. (Psst: You can also set a good example by drinking water rather than soda yourself!)

Related: 12 Fruit-Infused Water Combos To Keep You Hydrated All Summer

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feeding kids
Carbohydrates provide energy

Low-carb diets may be popular with adults, but kids who don’t get adequate carbohydrates will tire easily and miss out on the chance to restore the body’s main source of fuel. Choose wisely—kids should get their carbs from whole grains such as brown rice, barley or quinoa; fruits such as berries and oranges; and vegetables like sweet potatoes, carrots and squash. Avoid (or limit) refined or sugary carbs like chips, chocolate, candy and baked goods. (Here are the 11 healthiest whole grains you should be eating.)

feeding athletic kids
Lean on lean proteins

Lean proteins help build and repair muscle and also help fight infection. That said, a diet over-weighted in protein is not recommended for athletic kids, because it can encourage dehydration and calcium loss. Kids need 0.5 grams of protein daily for every pound they weigh, so a 70-pound child requires 35 grams of protein each day. Select foods such as chicken, fish, tofu, nuts, eggs, beans, yogurt and lentils. If our kids are going to be chowing down on the go, we like packing up a piece of our Quinoa, Broccoli and Cheddar Frittata Slice (included in our new book, The School Year Survival Cookbook)with some trail mix and edamame. A balanced diet will deliver the protein needs for most kids, so try not to sweat it.

Related: 6 Easy Vegetarian Sources Of Protein

Patricia Spencer / EyeEm/getty
Calcium and iron are essential

Calcium helps build strong bones, and iron keeps energy levels up and balances mood and appetite levels. Be sure your child’s diet includes foods with calcium—think yogurt, cheese, chia seeds, oranges, dried fruits and nuts, broccoli and other dark leafy greens. For iron, you can rely on red meat, tuna, eggs, dried fruits, legumes (chickpeas, beans, lentils), spinach and pumpkin seeds. (Here are 14 vegetarian foods that have more iron than meat.)

wall clock
Jorge Felicidade / EyeEm/getty
Leave time for pre- and post-activity meals

Juggling meals with practices and games can feel like trying to run an obstacle course in your bunny slippers, but pre- and post-exercise foods are important. A pre-exercise meal helps to prevent hunger and supplies energy to working muscles, while a post-activity meal assists with muscle recovery.

It’s a good rule of thumb to have kids eat 2 hours before exercise. You’ll want to focus those meals around carbs, moderate protein, low-fat foods and fluids. Try a vegetarian chili, or fruit, cereal with milk, and yogurt.

Then, 30 minutes after the practice, class or game, children should consume a high-protein snack, like our Nut-Free Energy Bites (included in our new book, The School Year Survival Cookbook) or these healthy no-bake snack balls. After 1 or 2 hours, follow up your snack with a high-carbohydrate, moderate- protein meal to help continue muscle recovery. Reach for foods like chicken, fish, meat, cheese, yogurt or legumes. (Here are the healthiest beans you can eat.)

Although this is an ideal schedule, realities (like bedtimes) may require some commonsense adjustments.

trail mix
Claudia Totir/getty
Always have healthy snacks available

When it comes to snacks, ease always wins out. In other words, if it’s a choice between digging out pocket change from their bag, crossing the ice rink, waiting in line at the vending machine and selecting a bag of chips versus just pulling a container of homemade trail mix from their bag, our bet is on the trail mix. A wide range of items will do the trick: chopped vegetables with cheese, fruits, nut butter on crackers, air-popped popcorn and, of course, fluids.

feeding kids
Planning equals successful eating habits

We’re a bit of a broken record with this one, but the only way to manage active schedules and meals is through planning. We’ve spoken to dozens of parents who manage intense dance/soccer/hockey/you-name-it schedules, and the number one rule to survival is always the same. Like your weekly meal plan, schedule prep times for snacks and meals in advance of the other important services you provide, like game shuttle and die-hard fan.

Related: 7 Best Nutrient-Packed Foods For Picky Eaters—And How To Sneak Them In

feeding kdis
Ashley Corbin-Teich/getty
Get the buy in

Talk honestly about nutrition with your kids. Explain that given the commitment they are making to their sport or art, it only makes sense to support it with a healthy, balanced approach to food. Lots of athletic and active kids will want to do whatever it takes to be faster, stronger and sharper, so why not include them in the important conversation? (Here's how one mom talked to her kids about switching over to a vegetarian diet.)

Excerpted from The School Year Survival Cookbook: Healthy Recipes and Sanity-Saving Strategies for Every Family and Every Meal (Even Snacks) by Laura Keogh and Ceri Marsh. Copyright © 2017 Sweet Potato Chronicles. Photography copyright © 2017 Maya Visnyei Photography. Published by Appetite by Random House®, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.