Providing healthy, balanced meals is a priority of most families. However, having an active child creates an even higher importance on nutrition.
Due to the large range of children’s growth rates and caloric needs, it’s difficult to pin down specific recommendations, so don’t get caught up in the details. Instead, focus on the broad properties of providing a healthy diet. Eating foods full of nutrients allows children to get a variety of vitamins and minerals along with the calories they need to develop physically and mentally, recovery from activity and stay healthy. In any eating situation, it is vital to encourage—yet not force—specific eating habits or food consumption.
The following are some main areas for concern you should be aware of.
Active kids need a high amount of calories to meet general demands of normal growth and development. Add an hour or more of practices a day and those needs really go up. Focus on providing extra snacks throughout the day. Kids have smaller tummies so they can’t pack it in at mealtime. Pack liquid calories like juice boxes and chocolate milk in their bags along with portable snacks like granola bars, string cheese, cut up fruit and veggies, dry cereal or oatmeal cookies.
While many adults aim to steer clear of carbs, be mindful to not impart these restrictions on your children. Their active, growing bodies need the fast-burning energy provided by carbohydrates. Instead of depriving or limiting carbohydrate-rich foods, aim to provide a variety of them, such as whole grain crackers, fig bars, fruit, whole grain cereals, root vegetables, dairy and grains.
Youth protein needs are minimal compared to what most adults get in a day. Children generally need 0.5 grams per pound of body weight, which might be anywhere from 20 to 50 grams per day. To put that in perspective, most adults get that range per meal. There isn’t enough data to show that children in sports need extra protein, even if they’re more active. Keep in mind that many sport foods and supplements are not developed for children’s needs, so aim to rely on real, whole food options such as dairy, legumes, meat, fish, poultry and nuts.
Calcium and iron are two minerals children should be getting enough of. Unfortunately, the two typically work against each other. Kids typically get calcium from milk and iron from fortified cereals. However, having dairy at the same time as iron can block the absorption of this key mineral. Aim to spread sources of calcium and iron throughout the day and from a variety of sources. Leafy greens, legumes, fish and dried fruit are all unexpected sources. You may also consider kids' vitamins.
Children are not as good at regulating their efforts and are more at risk of going all out in activities. This can be especially troublesome when in hot, humid conditions where the risk of heat related illness is high. Provide fluids every 15 minutes, and when activity lasts a long time, add a source of electrolytes. A diluted sports drink is typically sufficient. To keep a healthy focus, aim to limit sugary beverages outside of 100-percent fruit or vegetable juice.
Keep a healthy focus on food at home and talk to your child’s coach about what food and drink is available at practices. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the demands of feeding your active child or if your kids are overly picky or suffering from food allergies or other medical complications, consult a sports dietitian and pediatrician for a more specialized, in-depth approach.
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