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It's no secret how important it is for kids of all ages to be off the couch and involved in some activity—be it T-ball practice, dance class or a full-on Friday night high school football game. But what do they need to eat to stay energized throughout practice or the main event?
Kristi King, senior pediatric dietitian at Texas Children's Hospital in Houston and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says that "about one to two hours before children have a game or a practice where they're really physically active, they" should sit down to a healthy snack. She says the foods stay the same no matter what the activity, although the portion size will certainly be larger for high school sprinters and quarterbacks than for their younger siblings heading off to tap class or soccer practice.
The idea is to fill the child athletes up—giving them energy—without making them feel sluggish.
"If the practice or game is less than 60 minutes, usually carbohydrates are a good source for a good snack," says King, because they are a fast source of energy and stave off hunger for a short amount of time. Of course, this doesn't mean a whole pizza or marathon-prepping spaghetti bowls. King gives examples of crackers, a "little bit of pasta" or a granola bar that isn't covered in candy and frosting.
Portion size grows with the age and size of the child, but most of the time boys will need more carbohydrates than girls because they burn them off at a higher rate. Remember that a child's stomach is about as big as his fist, and base portions off that understanding.
"If their practice or game is over 60 minutes, we want to make sure we add a little bit of protein to those carbohydrates," said King. "That protein will help sustain their energy so that they're not going to run out of energy halfway through their game or practice. You could add milk. A half of a turkey sandwich. A little bit of peanut butter with their crackers."
Yolanda Bergman, a Los Angeles-based certified nutritionist and head of the weight loss division at Epione Medical Corporation, says to think of filling breakfasts like "oatmeal or maybe with eggs" or "whole grain toast with scrambled eggs and turkey sausage" and light lunches like "healthy chicken tacos on corn tortillas" and sandwiches made with whole-grain bread.
Children need two to three servings of lean proteins a day, so it's important to think of light items as snacks. Plus, Bergman says that fatty meals are harder to break down and make kids sluggish on the field.
Calcium is always important for growing bodies whether those bones and muscles belong to child athletes or not. The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development reports that "Starting around age nine, young people need almost twice as much calcium" as they did when they were younger and that this continues to be a necessity until their late teens.
Eating or drinking calcium-rich foods and drinks before a workout is like a jolt to bones and muscles and can help prevent soreness.
Bergman says to keep it simple, that "Greek yogurt is one of the best foods on the planet."
In order to avoid feeling lightheaded and woozy on the field or during practice, King says it's important to drink water beforehand. Not only will this help with energy and hydration, it will also keep blood sugar levels in check.
"The important thing is to avoid sugary foods and drinks before practice," said King. "Sugars burn off very quickly, so the kids' blood sugar levels are going to drop."
In some instances, King says it's OK to use a drink with electrolytes before a workout—especially when the temperature and humidity levels are high or if your child is prone to sweating a lot. They offer a preemptive way to keep vitamins and minerals in the bloodstream as well as helping fight dehydration.