All children need nutritionally balanced meals for healthy growth and development. But for those involved in rigorous athletics, the needs may be even greater. 

To ensure your young athlete receives proper nutrition and hydration to fuel his growing body and sustain him during activities, consider these seven expert suggestions.

  1. Count on Carbs

Carbohydrates are the macronutrient that fuels physical activity, so make sure your child has a consistent source of carbs every day, says youth sports nutritionist Sharon Collison, MS, RD, CDN, CSSD. “Whole grains are a better choice [than refined grains], because they are rich in fiber, vitamins and minerals and take longer to digest, which enhances satiety and prevents a drop in blood sugar. Carb loading isn’t necessary unless the activity lasts more than 90 minutes. Even then it should be done under the guidance of a sports nutritionist.”


  1. Savvy with Supplements

Amy Barausky, a registered dietician, says if your child eats the recommended number of servings found in the USDA’s Food Guidance System, she will get the right amount of vitamins and minerals. “Vitamin and mineral supplements are a good idea and can be used as an insurance policy. But parents should never single dose or mega dose any vitamin or mineral without consulting their pediatrician or sports nutritionist because it could do more harm than good,” she says.


  1. Bank on a Balance

“An appropriate diet for young athletes includes getting adequate complex carbohydrates, a lean protein source and plenty of fruits and vegetables,” says Roberta Anding, a registered dietitian and sports dietitian with Baylor College of Medicine. “During dinner, your child’s plate should have 50 percent fruits and vegetables, 25 percent whole grains and 25 percent protein. If he wants a second plate, let him pick out his favorite food and don’t worry about over consumption. Many very athletic children don’t get enough calories. If he’s hungry, let him eat.”


  1. Eat Often

“Young athletes need three meals and at least two snacks each day to keep energy levels consistent and meet their growth and development needs,” says Collison. “Plan a snack or meal every three to four hours. Snacks should have a protein and a grain or a fruit. The protein acts as an anchor to stabilize the blood sugar.”


Snacks are a staple in the Jaworski household. When her boys became involved in hockey at age 4, mother Linda quickly realized they needed to consume more food, more often. “On days they have hockey, the boys eat four or more snacks, in addition to three meals,” says Jaworski of Andrew, now 11, and Jacob, 7. “But healthy choices don’t always naturally happen. Sometimes I set out carrots and dip or a bowl of grapes just in case they see it and want something.”


  1. Food to Go

“Think ahead on how you can provide healthy food options in the car. And remember, nutrition doesn’t have to be a hot meal,” says Anding. “You can do just as well with peanut butter on whole grain bread and dried fruit, or frozen chocolate milk that’s been thawed out in the cooler. Sports foods marketed toward athletes can fill a niche when you need energy on the go; they should not, however, replace other foods.”


  1. Before and After Nutrition

Although children should have carbs and a moderate amount of protein before an event, they need to know what their stomachs can tolerate, says Barausky. “Some kids can eat right before an activity and be fine; others need at least an hour for their food to digest. What’s most important is that kids not exercise on an
empty stomach.”

Anding agrees. “After an activity, there is a 20- to 30-minute window when the body is most readily able to replenish glycogen, the stored form of carbs. If your child can’t eat right away, offer something liquid—chocolate milk, a smoothie or a sports drink.”


  1. Hype up Hydration 

“The amount of fluids a child athlete needs will depend largely on the climate, his age and size, body chemistry and the level of activity he’s engaged in,” says Anding. “I tell elementary-school athletes, ‘When you pass by the water fountain at school, take four big gulps.’ That’s about four ounces. For a middle school child, I say eight. Offer fluids with every snack and meal. And if your child isn’t taking a water break during practice, speak up.”

Jaworski’s sons do. “The coaches have big water bottles with a spout on it. They pour it through the boys’ masks and into their mouths,” says Jaworski. “It may be only a little swig here and there but it’s available at all times.”

Collison says Gatorade is good for activities lasting more than 90 minutes. If it’s less than that, water is fine. “Chocolate milk is an excellent recovery drink since it supplies fluid, carbohydrates and sodium and tastes great,” she says. “Thirst isn’t always a good indicator of dehydration, but urine color is. If it’s a clear straw color your child is probably hydrated; if it’s dark yellow, he needs to drink more.”


Denise Yearian is a former educator and editor of two parenting magazines, as well as the mother of three children and four grandchildren. 


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