How to pick the right ‘fuel’
The fact that food is primarily a source of energy is true for everyone, but it’s a particularly important thing to remember when you’re feeding a young athlete or helping them learn more about what does – and doesn’t – make the best food choices for them.
And the thing is that the ‘best’ food will differ depending on whether it’s a training day or a competition day, or whether they’re in preparation or recovery mode, so it can get a little complicated knowing what to eat, when.
To help you out, I asked Melanie Olsen, a sports dietitian who works with a number of high-profile professional sporting teams and individual athletes, to share her know-how and expertise. Here are her top seven tips and things to bear in mind, for fuelling your young athlete with food.
1: On training days think ‘food to go’. Young athletes are often running between school and training sessions, or between double training sessions, so as well as containing carbohydrates for energy, pre-training food should be as portable as possible, too. Simple ideas include fruit, muesli bars, trail mix, half a wrap or sandwich or a fruit scone. And always kit your kids out with a water bottle and encourage them to drink often to stay hydrated.
2: Carbohydrates are key the day before competition. To prepare for a full day of events, it’s important to make sure your child’s energy is topped up and ready to go – and carbohydrate is the body’s preferred energy source. Stored as glycogen in the muscles, during activity, glycogen gets broken down into glucose and used as energy. Pre-competition-day meals that contain carbohydrates and which kids will love include spaghetti Bolognese, lasagne, baked potatoes or stir-fries with rice or noodles.
3: The ‘snack small and often’ approach works well on competition days. Avoid large meals, which take longer to digest and can cause some discomfort, if your young athlete is competing in back-to-back events, in favour of smaller, frequent snack-sized serves of food. To make this work, preparation is key. Take an esky with plenty of healthy and familiar foods, such as fruit, yoghurt, rice cakes and sandwiches.
4: Encourage your kids to eat as soon as possible after a game, event or an intense training session. This will help with recovery. Young athletes need a combination of carbohydrates, to refuel the energy tank, and protein to assist with muscle recovery and repair. Easy recovery snacks include cheese and crackers, meat and cheese sandwiches, wraps or rolls, or fruit smoothies or milk drinks. When you return home, homemade versions of meals such as pizzas, burritos or burgers, where you can add plenty of vegetables, are often a nutritious hit.
5: It’s often difficult to meet energy requirements without between-meals snacks. Young athletes typically have higher-than-average energy requirements, and sometimes meals alone won’t cut it. Top up energy throughout the day with wholesome snacks like wholegrain crackers, nuts and seeds, and fruit. Homemade energy balls, made with oats, dried fruit and nuts, or fruit muffins are also nutritious ideas.
6: Breakfast really is a really important meal. So never let your children skip it because when they do, they’re missing an opportunity to provide their body with the nutrients that are necessary to perform and grow. Great breakfasts for kids include wholegrain cereals with milk and fruit, wholegrain toast or English muffins with peanut butter, avocado or eggs, or milk and fruit smoothies.
7: Do what you can to be a role model. To help your young athletes feel confident to make healthy, appropriate food choices when you’re not there to guide them, one of most powerful things you can do is modelling and encouraging healthy meals and snacks at home. These foods then become familiar favourites. Associating the foods you’re trying to promote with ‘being strong’ or ‘running fast’ also helps!