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Nutrition for Itty Bitty Athletes

Author: Kelsey Hendrix, University of Alabama Dietetic Intern

Youth sports are in full swing! Whether your child is a part of a sports team or is active at home, knowing how to properly fuel your little athlete can be tricky. Here are 6 tips to help:

1. Eat a variety of foods

Growing children need several key nutrients, including calcium for bone health, Vitamin C to boost their immune system, iron for growth, and protein for muscle growth and repair. These nutrients are found in foods like fruits, veggies, grains, and protein foods.

Compared to less active children, young athletes put their bodies through more wear and tear, so it’s important that they eat a variety foods from each food group for proper growth and development.

2. Hydrate regularly

Have you ever wondered why your little football player comes off the field so sweaty on a cool October day? Here’s why - children get hotter faster than adults because they have greater body surface area for their body weight, meaning that they take in heat from the environment faster than adults. They should drink frequently during exercise, and water is the best choice.

Children need about 4 ounces of water for every 20 minutes of play. Did you know that fresh fruit is also high in water and helps with hydration? Orange slices would be a perfect breaktime snack!

3. Avoid sports drinks

Let’s face it – kids love sports drinks because they are sweet. However, most health experts don’t recommend sports drinks to kids unless your child will be doing intense activity lasting longer than an hour. Instead of a sports drink, try giving your little athlete a cold bottle of water and a salty snack, like pretzels or saltines to replace fluid and salt losses.

4. Carbohydrates are best for energy

Carbs are the fuel that keep the engine of our body running and are the primary source of fuel for the brain and red blood cells. A child athlete’s diet should be balanced and consist of healthy carbs, like whole grain crackers, breads, and cereals. Carbs should be consumed 2-3 hours before a game or practice to maintain energy. A sandwich and a piece of fruit would be a perfect pre-game meal or snack.

5. Lean protein repairs muscles

Sports cause breakdown to children’s developing muscles, and proteins aid in muscle repair. While protein supplements for children are discouraged, there are so many healthful protein choices kids can eat and enjoy, such as peanut butter, low-fat milk, yogurt, cheese sticks, chicken, turkey, and fish. A Greek yogurt after practice is the perfect amount of protein to repair worn out muscles!

6. Fats are essential

Certain fats, like omega-3 found in salmon, nuts, avocados and oil, are essential for brain health and development. However, other fats, like fried foods and fatty meats, although yummy, don’t add any nutritional value to your little athlete’s diet.

Young athletes can work up an appetite, so incorporate some healthy fats into their diet to satiate their hungry stomach and keep them feeling satisfied.

Below are a healthy meal and snack idea to help fuel your child! These recipes are so simple and a great way to get kids involved in the kitchen when off the field!

Have an early game? This easy 20-minute recipe makes a healthy, delicious breakfast full of protein and veggies and is perfect for busy families and athletes on the go!

Signed up to bring the team snack? This recipe is a great post-game snack packed with healthy carbs and protein to refuel and so delicious that the whole team will love it!

What nutritional gameday snack does your Itty Bitty Athlete love? Tell us in the comments below!


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