Whether your child plays soccer, attends gymnastics or loves to shoot hoops, the face of competitive school sports has changed worldwide. Gone are shared bags of trail mix and giant communal juice dispensers. So what are the best snacks for kid athletes? What can you provide for their developing bodies that are nutritious, wholesome and, above all, safe?
Student Sports & COVID
There’s no question that the pandemic has brought with it a series of challenges around social interaction, but the basics of health and nutrition have not changed.
“What do you need? You need electrolytes, you need to have carbohydrates, you need to have fluid. None of that has gone away,” says sports nutrition expert Leslie Bonci, who was the sports dietitian for the WNBA and numerous professional teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers, and is currently the nutrition consultant for the Kansas City Chiefs. She tells Parentology, “We’re really trying to drill down on what the essentials are, and do it in a way where everybody can have access to it at a lower price point.”
Among Bonci’s top snack recommendations? Popcorn, which is inexpensive, mixed with some nuts for protein, or a mix of dry cereal. She’s also a huge fan of DIY bars or homemade energy bites, which she makes for her players.
“Use powdered milk and nut butter if possible. It could be nuts, it could be seeds, it could be chickpeas if there are allergy issues,” says Bonci.
Sizes & (Not) Sharing
What your child eats will also depend on their activity level, because not all sports are created equal. Bonci recommends that snacks should be given in proportion to the child’s physical lifestyle.
“The needs of active kids are not the same as kids that are sedentary. So we need to adjust accordingly. Eating, in general, doesn’t always necessarily stay the same; it needs to adjust and fit whatever those physical demands are,” Bonci says. “When they’re on the field, that is important. For practices that tend to go longer than just an hour, there may be a greater need for fuel.”
Parents should focus on portable, individually contained options that offer maximum nutritional benefits while preventing the urge to share food.
“We’re really talking small because it’s a snack, it’s not a meal during exercise,” Bonci emphasizes. “It’s an appetizer-sized amount of food — a baseball size, not a basketball.” Investing in dedicated containers that can be labeled and sanitized at home is not only environmentally-friendly but signals to your child that his snacks are not for sharing. “This is my gear, this is part of my equipment, this is my fueling equipment, so then he takes ownership of it,” says Bonci.
Equally important to proper sports nutrition is optimal hydration. No child will perform their best without it. But some kids don’t like plain water, so should parents turn to flavored drinks?
“[Gatorade Juiced] is an option because we’re looking at something without added sugar,” says Bonci, who spoke with Parentology on behalf of the company. “We’re looking at something that meets the needs of an active child for electrolytes during that time of exercise.”
Make no mistake, Gatorade Juiced is a special occasion beverage for an active child. Bonci cautions that only by being selective about when to use it will children get the maximum benefit. She recommends other beverage choices as well.
“Certainly milk is an option,” she advises. “It’s actually food and fluid together. As the weather gets colder, you could even heat it up, like hot cocoa. That’s definitely a filling option.”
In the meantime, what can parents do to keep fostering these good habits? Bonci recommends changing the way we talk to kids, and picky eaters in particular, about food. Calling food “healthy” is the death knell of small appetites.
“It’s about ‘performance eating’ not ‘healthy’ eating,” she says. “We really want to frame food around performance; let’s talk about strength, let’s talk about speed, let’s talk about stamina, and how food can help to get you there. That is a very encouraging conversation to have.”
Ultimately, sports nutrition is about fueling children’s bodies and their love of sports. “We’re really trying to foster growth and development. You don’t get to do that later on,” says Bonci.
Leslie Bonci’s No-Bake Energy Bites Recipe
- ½ cup honey roasted peanuts, finely chopped
- 1 cup craisins
- 1 cup dried tart cherries
- 1.5 cups dry oats
- 2 cups Rice Krispies
- 1-1/4 cups peanut butter ( creamy or crunchy
- ¼ cup nonfat dry milk powder
- ¾ cup honey
Mix together honey and peanut butter*. Add other ingredients and mix well. I use my hands. Roll into balls the size of quarters and put on a cookie sheet. Or to save time, press into ice cube trays, freeze until firm.
To change it up:
- Substitute crushed Cheerios, corn flakes, or Cocoa Krispies for the Rice Krispies
- Substitute banana chips, golden raisins, raisins, or dried blueberries
- Add some flaked, unsweetened coconut
- Use pecans, almonds, cashew pieces (or a mix of these) or sunflower seeds for peanuts
* Almond butter instead of peanut butter or flavored peanut butter such as dark chocolate peanut butter or sunflower seed butter or chickpea butter.