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How to Feed Kids During Sports Season

Posted on: July 26th, 2022 by Bri DeRosa

Feeding kids during busy sports seasons is a challenge. Practice and game schedules often conflict with dinnertime (and breakfast time, and weekend lunchtime…!), and especially for families who are juggling multiple jobs and multiple kids, eating together can seem impossible. Even if parents can find time to sit everyone down for a meal, there’s the added challenge of what to serve. What’s going to provide young athletes with the fuel they need, while also fitting into the whole family’s needs for taste, budget, and preparation time?

We turned to Connie Liakos, MS, RDN, CSSD, LD and Wendy Sterling, MS, RD, CSSD, CEDRD-S for tips families can use. Both are Board Certified Sports Nutritionists and have a wealth of experience helping both families and athletes get the most out of their mealtimes. Here’s what they had to say about how to feed kids during sports season.

What kind of nutrition do kids need during sports season?

“In addition to taking a rest day, getting plenty of sleep, and proper hydration, eating enough of the right foods at the right times can make a big difference in energy level and athletic performance,” says Liakos. “What and when a young athlete eats can influence the outcome of practice, rehearsal, games and performances. The hard-working muscles should be well fueled for activity. This is accomplished with a meal that is eaten two to three hours prior to the start of an event. On practice days, a snack or light meal can be eaten up to one hour before.”

Sterling adds that parents can keep some general guidelines in mind to help them visualize the best makeup of their child’s plate. “Athletes should be eating a plate that contains 50% carbohydrates, 25% protein, 25% fruits/vegetables, plus fats and a dairy source. Adding in fruits/vegetables at about 25% of the plate helps to add fiber, antioxidants, and extra vitamins and minerals. This helps to keep the immune system healthy, the gut moving, and to reduce inflammation in the body that may have occurred from the workout.”

Liakos also cautions that it’s best not to plan on having your child exercise vigorously on a full stomach, since their bodies need to divert energy to their muscles for proper athletic performance — not expend that energy on digestion. She and Sterling also agree that high fat foods are not recommended right before training, since they cause delayed gastric emptying (that’s the feeling that something is “sitting in your stomach”) and can make kids feel nauseous while exercising. Spicy foods can also be tough to tolerate right before practice or games.

What (and when) should young athletes eat before practice?

“Foods high in complex carbohydrates, moderate in protein and low in fat and sugar are ideal for pre-movement meals.  Fluids should also be emphasized prior to physical activity,” says Liakos. She recommends that kids eat a small, nutritious meal 1 hour before a light practice or recreational activity. If there’s a competitive event or vigorous activity on the schedule, that small meal should be eaten 2 or 3 hours in advance to give enough time for proper digestion.

Here are some light pre-event meals Liakos suggests for young athletes, along with a glass of water or milk:

  • Small turkey sandwich on whole grain bread with lettuce, tomato slices, Swiss cheese, a dab of light mayonnaise or mustard and apple slices
  • 1-2 corn tortillas topped with black beans, salsa and a sprinkle of grated cheddar cheese and kiwi slices
  • Cottage cheese mixed with cherry tomatoes, sunflower seeds, and avocado chunks and a few whole grain crackers
  • Pouch of salmon with a dab of mayo on ½ whole grain bagel and pea pods
  • Small whole grain pita bread stuffed with tuna, baby greens, cucumber slices and a dab of mayo
  • Whole grain English muffin split and topped with marinara sauce, pepper rings, mushroom slices, olives and part-skim mozzarella (broil or microwave to melt cheese) and melon slices
  • Peanut butter & fruit sandwich on whole-wheat bread (try sliced banana, sliced fresh peach or raisins!)
  • Leftover vegetable soup sprinkled with parmesan and whole grain crackers

Some kids may need a smaller “mini meal” before practice, especially if time is limited. Liakos says these lighter snacks are easily digested and can help provide quick pre-practice fuel:

  • 1 slice whole grain bread, 1 tbsp. peanut butter, ½ cup grapes
  • 1 cup low sugar cereal, 4 medium strawberries, ½ cup 2% milk
  • 6 oz. cup vanilla Greek yogurt, 2 clementines
  • ¼ cup hummus, 6 whole grain crackers, 1 medium carrot, cut into sticks

You can tailor these ideas to your child’s food preferences and look for ways to fit these mini-meals into the schedule during sports season. For example, they might be great after-school snack choices, or something you can pack for your child to take on the go. And don’t overlook the possibility that a “mini-meal break” could stand in place of a full family dinner on busy nights. If your child won’t be able to have a full dinner with the family due to sports commitments, having a parent available to sit down and share a brief pre-practice snack with a little added fun and conversation may be a good substitute.

What kind of family dinners work well during sports season?

Liakos and Sterling both stress that good nutrition is crucial for young athletes, especially after practice or games. They encourage families to aim for meals that include 4-5 food groups and can help refuel kids’ bodies with carbohydrates and other nutrients for post-exercise recovery. But both experts agree that serving consistent, balanced family dinners during sports season is easier said than done.

“Busy families are often challenged to provide balanced meals on hectic weeknights, especially while balancing competing schedules,” Liakos says. “It’s okay to keep things simple, and eat in shifts.” Sterling adds that there are a number of factors influencing what parents serve. “Meal choices will vary based on preferences, culture, cooking skills, financial requirements, and more,” she points out.

But despite the challenges, family meals can be beneficial for any number of reasons, and perhaps even more so for young athletes, who can be vulnerable to mental and physical health issues like burnout, exhaustion, perfectionism, and disordered eating. They’re also a great way to provide a consistent opportunity for connection when schedules are overwhelming and everyone is scattered. To make family dinners doable at least a few times a week during sports season, Liakos and Sterling offer some tried-and-true approaches.

“As a working mother myself, I always like something that is quick, easy, and tasty,” says Sterling.  “Meals like chicken, veggie, rice bowls can be complete and balanced, as well as taco night (with tofu, beans or your favorite meat) and all the toppings (lettuce, tomato, sour cream, guacamole, cheese), burger night (turkey, beef, or veggie), or make your own pizza night paired with veggies or salad. Pasta night is always fun too, adding in some meatballs (turkey, beef, or meatless) for protein, and a vegetable on the side.” Sterling also advocates for time saving strategies like using the slow cooker or instant pot, or making sheet pan dinners with make-ahead components, like this Sheet Pan Scallion Chicken with Bok Choy from the NY Times.

Liakos is also a fan of make-your-own approaches to weeknight dinners. She offers a game plan families can use to plan and prep ahead of busy weeks:

  1. Choose a protein for the week. This could include chicken breasts, steak strips, pork roast, salmon, tofu, canned beans (black, red, white, refried), etc.
  2. Think of the complex grains or healthy starches that you would like to eat this week. This could be brown rice, quinoa, sorghum, whole wheat couscous, whole grain pasta (many different shapes), grain mixes, whole potatoes, small, prewashed potatoes in a bag, or sweet potatoes. For the grains, consider cooking a big batch that you can store and use all week.
  3. Purchase pre-cut vegetables (more expensive) or spend some time cutting up a variety of vegetables such as sweet peppers, mushrooms, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, onions, pea pods, asparagus, etc. Frozen vegetables are also nutritious, convenient and will keep for months.
  4. Purchase a large bag of pre-washed spinach. You can chop and use this in any of the dishes, serve as a salad, sauté and add to your eggs, mix in smoothies, etc.
  5. Have a variety of fresh, frozen and low-sugar canned whole fruits available for snacks and/or desserts.
  6. Serve meals with milk or a calcium-fortified alternative beverage.

Below is a Liakos’ sample run-down of how you could use these basic prepped ingredients during the week:

  • Monday: Serve your protein as the main course with a side of healthy carbs and a vegetable
  • Tuesday: Use whole corn or other whole grain tortillas to make a wrap. Add salsa, sriracha, or any type of sauce that you like. Use chopped protein, rice or grain, beans, shredded cheese, avocado and sauce to make your wraps.
  • Wednesday: Create a “bowl” for dinner using any of the ingredients you have available (protein, starch, vegetables) and a sauce such as teriyaki, curry, sesame ginger or any of your favorites. Liakos particularly likes this Quinoa and Black Bean Bowl.
  • Thursday: Make a stir fry with the cut-up vegetables and protein. Serve over the grain you’ve selected for the week. Add soy or your favorite sauce.
  • Friday: You can purchase a pre-made pizza crust, pizza sauce and use the protein and vegetables to make a pizza. Cover with mozzarella cheese and bake.
  • Saturday: If you still have ingredients, start with purchased broth (packages of chicken or vegetable in the soup aisle) and add vegetables, protein, beans and seasonings (e.g. Italian seasoning) and simmer to make a delicious soup.

Many of the ideas Liakos and Sterling recommend, like pasta sauces, meatballs, soups, and taco fillings, can also be made ahead of time and frozen. Having a stash of homemade chilis, stews, already-prepped stir fry ingredients, and casseroles in the freezer is another smart strategy that can help busy parents get through sports season.

The connection and conversation families share during mealtimes is the most valuable thing about eating together, but when it comes to feeding young athletes, there are also extra nutritional requirements to think about. With these ideas and nutritional guidelines from experts in mind, feeding kids during a busy sports season can be less stressful and more nourishing for everyone.