The recommended physical activity for kids ages 6 to 11 may only be 60 minutes of daily moderate- to vigorous-intensity aerobic activity (like brisk walking or running), but you likely have or know plenty of kids who spend more than seven hours a week running around. These days, kids participate in several organized sports and other competitive activities like basketball, baseball, crew, soccer, dance, swimming, gymnastics, cheerleading, wrestling, tennis, and squash—sometimes kids are part of more than one team at a time.
While all this activity is great for our kids' hearts and other muscles, staying fueled and energized with nutritious foods and beverages is essential to help them perform their best—not only on the field or on the court, but in the classroom too. As sports nutritionist Tara Gidus says, "You wouldn't think of letting your kids play football without a helmet, right? Just like they need the right equipment on the field, they need the right nutrition to support their activities on and off the field."
Whether your kids are going for gold, or simply engaging in various physical activities for the fun of it, here are 11 tips from Gidus and five other top RDs to help them nourish their active lifestyles.
Batter up with breakfast. While it may sound cliché, children who eat breakfast get better nutrition overall than those who skip this vital first meal. Eating a nutritious and filling breakfast may also help kids keep their cool even when other players, parents, coaches, or referees lose theirs. If you're short on ideas beyond that usual bowl of cereal, here are 20 breakfast ideas.
Eat like a champ. Kids can fuel their active muscles well beyond breakfast by having lunches and dinners that provide carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fats. Some ideas for lunch and dinner include a turkey breast sandwich on whole grain bread with avocado, sliced and spread (or a bit of mayonnaise) and a piece of fruit or half the sandwich with a bowl of low-sodium vegetable soup; peanut butter and jelly on whole-wheat bread, a banana and cup of nonfat milk; cold pasta salad with deli turkey slices; whole-wheat pasta with lean beef meatballs and marinara sauce; or salmon served with quinoa and spinach.
Power up with produce. Eating fruits and vegetables boosts kids' immune systems to help them stay healthy and active. Let them pick out a few of their favorites—like carrots, broccoli, asparagus, grapes, watermelon, strawberries or bananas—each week at the grocery store, and offer small amounts of these and others you buy at each meal and snack. Getting kids involved in grocery shopping and giving them a say empowers them, helps them take ownership of what they eat and also helps them meet their daily quota for produce.
Snack smart. Like meals, snacks should provide carbohydrates—the main energy kids' brains and body needs—and some healthy fat and protein. Examples include whole-grain graham crackers with peanut butter; an apple or other fruit of choice with low-fat string cheese; reduced or low fat cottage cheese topped with cinnamon and chopped pears; cucumbers with hummus, nuts (like cashews or almonds) and a clementine; Pistachio Chewy Bites (a combination of whole pistachios and dried cranberries); or a container of low fat or nonfat Greek yogurt, a natural beef jerky and a piece of fruit (like watermelon or an apple). Swap the apple juice for Mott's Sensibles (it's 100% juice, yet has 30% less sugar than other 100% apple juices). Fresh or unsweetened frozen fruit also work well in snack-time smoothies.
Change the rules after school. Calling an "afternoon snack" a "second lunch" instead can help kids think more about having a sandwich, burrito, bowl of cereal, hummus and carrots on pita or other "real food." It can also reduce their intake of so-called snack foods like candy, chips, and cookies. Having a hearty second lunch can also help kids be less hungry for dinner—but that's OK because they'll be better fueled when they need it most for afternoon play and sports.
Milk it after practice. Low fat flavored milk—like Organic chocolate milk—has a 3:1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein; that makes it a smart choice for athletes recovering from a long practice or event. Shelf-stable single serving portions are available and make a great recovery beverage within 30 minutes of practice or competition.
Move meals. Don't be afraid to move mealtimes. Young athletes spend the entire day in school and often come home hungry. Rather than waiting until 6 p.m. for a full meal, consider moving mealtime to earlier in the day. Depending on the age of the child, kids often benefit from two dinners—one after school and one three or four hours later.
Don't forget fluids. It's always key to make sure active kids stay hydrated throughout the day. Send your child to school or sports with a water bottle. If you know they'll be playing for more than an hour or hour and a half, it's OK to give them a sports drink to prevent dehydration and providing essential electrolytes. The fluid paired with the fuel from food will keep them hydrated and energized.
Make a mini-cooler a must. Young athletes are often on the go; that means the food is as well. Think of a mini cooler as part of your equipment and make sure the kids have one to take to practice and to sporting events to help them stay nourished and at the same time keep food safe for consumption.
Boost their energy at halftime. To nourish, hydrate and cool off sweaty kids, offer orange slices, grapes and/or strawberries at halftime. Or they can sip on a water bottle with fruits like orange slices, cut strawberries, and raspberries throughout the game.
Fuel often—but not excessively. It's important to keep kids fueled at regular intervals. Because many children, especially younger ones, get so engaged in what they are doing and don't always want to stop to eat, it's important to build in breaks to refuel. At the same time, parents should be mindful about how much kids are eating in relation to their activity level. It's easy to think that kids need a lot more calories if they're being active, but unless kids are participating in competitive athletics for several hours on most days, most kids take in enough calories during the day to offset their exercise.
Sources: Tara Gidus, MS, RD, CSSD, Board Certified Specialist in Sports Nutrition; Nancy Clark, MS, RD, CSSD, Board Certified Specialist in Sports Nutrition and author of Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook; Heather R. Mangieri, MS, RD, CSSD, Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and Board Certified Specialist in Sports Nutrition; Heidi Skolnik, MS, CDV, FACSM, coauthor of Nutrient Timing for Peak Performance; Mitzi Dulan, RD, CSSD, Board Certified Specialist in Sports Nutrition; and Jessica Fishman Levinson, MS, RDN, CDN.