Farrah Minnich is a certified Nutritional Therapy Practitioner and Wellness Coach, who owns Food First Nutritional Therapy, as well as a Wilton parent. We asked her to share some nutritional information and tips for families like hers who spend a lot of time playing and practicing for competitive sports.

As a mom to two young athletes, I understand how confusing it can be to figure out what to feed kids in general, especially during a competitive sports season. Growing bodies need nutrients, and playing sports only increases that need. After many hours on the sidelines (so very many), I have noticed a few things:  too many kids tend to visibly lose steam in the second half of play, participation tends to be rewarded with nutrient-devoid “treats,” and concession stand offerings are completely inappropriate for athletic performance.

So…as September rolls on and sports pick up, here are a few answers to some frequently asked questions about how to fuel youth athletes…

1. What should I feed my child before a game?

Complex carbohydrates with fruits and veggies, and a little protein. Think about each nutrient as a player on a team–without the team playing together, nobody wins! Here’s why…

a. Complex carbs provide both glucose and glycogen used by muscles for energy.
b. Fruits and veggies provide the vitamins and minerals needed to convert the energy in carbs to a usable form for muscles.
c. Protein provides amino acids also needed to transform carbs into muscle glycogen.

A little bit of fat is ok, like a pat of butter, but large amounts of fats, like a cheeseburger, take too long to digest before sports and cannot be converted into energy efficiently enough.

Ideally a pre-game meal should be about 45-percent complex, starchy carbs; 35-percent fruits and veggies; 15-percent protein; and 5-percent healthy fats.

2. When should I feed my child before a game or practice?

Ideally a meal should be eaten 2-3 hours before activity. When kids eat too close to playing time, their bodies are prioritizing digestion over athletic performance, and they won’t have had the opportunity to turn that meal into energy. A pre-game snack is ok about an hour before, but something small and light, like fresh fruit, granola, a smoothie, dried fruit, raw veggies, rice cakes, yogurt, or a half a bagel.

3. What if we have an early morning game?

Follow pre-game meal guidelines the night before with a nutrient dense dinner.

4. Low fat dairy products are best, right?

No! Fat soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K need fat in order to be absorbed by the body. Fats also support healthy cells and provide long-burning sources of energy when combined with protein. I strongly recommend purchasing organic dairy products for children when possible.

5. Is it ok to reward my child with a sugary treat after a game once play is over?

No! Here’s why:  sugary treats are made from processed sugar and carbs that have been stripped of the other nutrients needed to digest them–in other words, they are not “team players”. Therefore, treats are not only devoid of nutrients, but actually deplete the body’s own supply of vitamins and minerals in order for them to be digested.

After sports, a young athlete’s body is already depleted from the activity, so processed foods only further deplete children. Where’s the treat in that!? This is why “whole foods” are so important for children–they come “pre-packaged” from Mother Nature with all of the necessary nutrients needed for digestion and absorption:  vitamins, minerals, amino acids, fat, and enzymes.

6. So what should I feed my child after a game?

After sports, kids should eat a small meal or big snack with similar macronutrient ratios to the pre-game meal, but in smaller portions. Definitely be sure to include the protein portion post game for optimal recovery.

7. If my child isn’t thirsty, then that means they are hydrated, right?

Wrong! One of the main reasons that hydration is so important is regulation of body temperature. Kids have a harder time regulating body temperature than adults do, and water plays a key role in keeping it from elevating too much. If a child is dehydrated, the body will prioritize body temperature regulation over energy production, leaving kids sluggish on the field.
Also, exercise produces waste products that need to be eliminated, and water helps the liver flush these out more efficiently. When a child is not properly hydrated, recovery is slower and energy lacks.

I hope that helps arm you with some information about how to fuel your kids during fall sports, and throughout the year! If you need more guidance, specific meal ideas or recipes, or help troubleshooting concerns you have regarding kids and sports nutrition, we can schedule a one hour appointment to help with any of those questions! See you on the sidelines!

for more information or to contact Farrah, visit her Food First Nutritional Therapy website.