By: Sarah Kinsella, MD, CAQ, FAAP
Busy nights juggling sports, dance class, homework, and work or school events can create the perfect storm for making some regrettable food choices.
We know 1 in 3 American children and teens eat fast food daily, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics. As parents and role models, you are responsible for stopping the fast food cycle and getting creative with quick dinner options.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) offers the following tips to help busy families eat and drink better before, during, and after game time.
What Busy Families Should Eat and When
Preparing healthy food ahead of time makes you a proactive parent instead of a reactive one. Plus, it saves money in the long run—who could argue with that!
Go for small frequent meals and snacks. Try to spread calories throughout the day and avoid large meals in close proximity to exercise. If your entire evening is spent on a ball field or on the go, loading food up and taking it with you is a practical option. No matter how long you will be out for, always have a piece of fruit or a healthy protein or nut bar with you. Eating every 3 hours will help to keep your child's blood sugar steady and also decrease overeating at meal times.
Healthy snacks in the car are ok! While the single serving snacks from the store are handy, try creating your own pre-packaged snacks that feature the foods your kids like most such as a half sandwich on whole grain bread or a bag of sliced fruit. Don't forget about apples, oranges, bananas, grapes, and other fruit that also comes pre-packaged in a single serving size. While fruits can be high in sugar, they also offer other nutritional components that make them a win for busy child athletes. Other good snack ideas include dried fruit and nuts, hard boiled eggs, and unsweetened applesauce. See Choosing Healthy Snacks for Kids for more ideas.
Have a fueling and hydration strategy. Young children participating in light activities lasting 1 hour or less may not need to snack before and after exercise. Rather, help these children focus on good nutrition every day. Older, more active kids may benefit from some of the fueling and hydration strategies listed below.
Before exercise: Around 3-4 hours before exercise, an athlete should eat mostly carbohydrates with a moderate amount of protein. This small meal should be low in fiber and fat, as these can cause an upset stomach. A 70-pound child should drink around 8-10 ounces of water around 2-3 hours prior to exercise while a teenager or adult should have 12-20 ounces of water. Drinking an additional 6-8 ounces directly before exercise will be helpful.
During exercise: Hydrating is important during exercise. Encourage your child to have a small amount of fluid (3-4 ounces) every 15 minutes. For activities less than an hour, water is sufficient. For activities lasting longer than 1-2 hours, or in very hot environments, sports drinks can help replenish carbohydrates and electrolytes. Sports drinks are very different from energy drinks which have caffeine and excess sugar. Energy drinks are not recommended. See the AAP policy statement, Sports Drinks and Energy Drinks for Children and Adolescents: Are They Appropriate?, for more information.
After exercise: Within 30-60 minutes after exercise, it's important to replenish any fluids lost and to refuel with an appropriate source of energy. Focusing on a snack that is rich in carbohydrates and proteins will help rebuild and restore muscles. Chocolate milk is an excellent example of a recovery drink.
Find energy balance. Athletes need more energy during times when they are more active than normal (e.g., try-outs, tournaments, multiple or overlapping sports). Encourage and plan specifically for extra food and fueling during these periods. Snacks that combine a carb like a cracker and some protein like peanut butter are the most energy efficient. Make sure your child has access to these kinds of power-packed snack options.
How to Still Eat as a Family
The busy schedules of our families' means that many nights we are not all home at the same time to have a nice, sit-down dinner. Dump the guilt. Family meals may not happen every day—that's ok! Make the most of your family meals when they do occur—and it doesn't have to be dinner. Why not make your family meal breakfast? It is more likely that everyone will be home at the same time early in the morning which means it is easier to get everyone around the table for some healthy food and family bonding.
Eating Out the Smart Way
It's important for everyone in the family to make smart choices when you sit down at the restaurant or step up to the fast-food counter. Look for whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and words like steamed, baked, poached, roasted, broiled or grilled. Do your best to avoid foods with the words fried, au gratin, crispy, escalloped, pan-fried, sautéed or stuffed—good indications that the foods are high in fat and calories. Watch portions and serving sizes. See Choose This, Not That: Healthy & Unhealthy Choices at Fast Food for more tips and ideas.
The AAP policy statement, Snacks, Sweetened Beverages, Added Sugars, and Schools, also recommends keeping beverages simple. Stick with milk (including non-dairy milk) and water as your child's main beverages.
Bottom-line: Make sure whatever you would choose at that restaurant is something that you would prepare at home for your family—if, of course, you could find the time!
There is no magical food or supplement that can transform an average athlete into a superstar. No matter what the age of your child, the most effective way to improve sports performance is to pay close attention to the basics: fluids, calories, training, conditioning, and rest.
A well-balanced diet provides a mix of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats with essential micronutrients—calcium, vitamin D, B vitamins, iron, zinc, magnesium, and antioxidants like vitamin C. These are all important for bone health and immune function. Eating either too many or not enough calories can contribute to fatigue, injuries, illness, poor performance, and prolonged recovery from sports injuries.
Additional Information & Resources:
About Dr. Kinsella:
Sarah Kinsella MD, CAQ, FAAP is a sports medicine physician at Fairview Sports and Orthopedic Care in Blaine, Minnesota. Within the American Academy of Pediatrics, she is a member of the Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness.