Food is fuel to any athlete, and never is that more apparent than when young athletes have an evening sports practice. Most parents will tell you they are not so much making dinner those evenings as they are fueling their child in a tornado of effort to get everyone out the door on time.
An after-school sport can allow more time for dinner, but raises the issue of snacking. When is snacking too much, or not enough? How can parents maximize “fuel efficiency” before soccer, karate, lacrosse, ballet or any other activity that requires physical exertion? Is it enough to toss a granola bar in the sports bag
I asked the experts, three local nutritionists who work with children and families, about what I call the Granola Bar Shuffle—the scramble out the door involving at least one trip back inside the house to snatch a forgotten water bottle or grab a granola bar from the pantry. “Is that the chewy kind?” your child will ask, and you can’t answer because you have no idea if what you grabbed was even an actual granola bar. Maybe it was a can of soup. But whatever it is, it’s fuel, it’s time to go, and … “I forgot my mitt.”
Maybe the snack isn’t necessary.
We definitely overfeed our kids, says Diana Sugiuchi of Nourish Family Nutrition. Sugiuchi, a team nutritionist for Loyola Athletics, consults one-on-one with athletes and families, providing snack and dinner ideas and even cooking demos.
Elementary school students aren’t doing sprints like college athletes, says Sugiuchi. “Young kids will get more energy from a snack than they’ll burn off playing soccer.” The best way to tell if you are over-fueling for a sport is to notice if your child is hungry at the next mealtime. “A little hunger isn’t a bad thing,” Sugiuchi says. It will “ensure they’ll eat dinner, which is more likely to provide balanced nutrition than a snack.”
But if it is: don’t neglect carbs.
As kids get older, it’s increasingly likely they’ll need a snack before a sport, says Sugiuchi. In middle school, she suggests feeding athletes something quick, like trail mix, nuts and fruit if they need to eat within an hour or two of practice. By high school, the pre-game snack is necessary. Sugiuchi advises avoiding proteins immediately before a game. “Carbs fuel the muscles” and provide that energy boost, she advises. “Add protein after the game.”
Let children get to know their own hunger cues.
Nutritionist Jessica Sides says that although it’s well-meaning to toss a granola bar into the back seat, it prevents kids from listening to “their own feedback loop.”
“All babies eat the right amount,” Sides explains. “If you’re nursing a child, you have no idea how much they’re eating, but they grow.” But as children get older, parents control their food choices. In turn, kids may stop listening to their own hunger cues. She recommends allowing kids to make choices of what healthy snack they want, and how much. “Allow them to get hungry, eat, be full and eat again when hungry,” Sides urges.
Also, “Don’t bring your own diet baggage to the table,” Sides says. “When I was [giving a presentation to sixth-grade girls], I was asked: ‘What’s the perfect weight for a sixth grader?’ And: ‘When should I start dieting?’ But when I asked the girls: ‘What is a calorie?’ Nobody knew. I told them: ‘it’s a unit of measurement that heats water one degree.’ And then [the kids asked:] ‘Why does my mom avoid them then?’”
Don’t eat in the car.
Local dietician Angela Dobrzykowski was probably not thinking of the sorry state of my car’s upholstery when she recommended that meals and snacks be eaten at a table, not the car. Whenever possible, she suggests, it’s best to eat away from distractions. She says parents should learn their children’s individual timing and pay attention to when their “tank is empty.” Then, she advises, stop to acknowledge it’s time to eat. “You can just say, ‘Hey, time to take a break and eat,’” she says “This helps kids “connect with their internal signals.” Dobrzykowski also advises parents to eat with children, partly to model good eating. “Eating together is incredibly important,” she says.
Ditch the granola bar shuffle.
A granola bar is food, but it’s not a true snack, Dobrzykowski told me. “There should be two to three food groups [represented] in a snack, and three to four food groups in every meal,” she says. And they should all have an appropriate mix of protein, fat and carbohydrates.
“No food is inherently bad,” says Dobrzykowski. “It’s just a matter of balance and moderation.” BC