Focusing on Healthy Snacks

It’s that time again. Not just “Back to School” time, with backpacks, books and new clothes, but also “Back to Sports” time. Fall sports — football, soccer, water polo, cross country, and volleyball — are all about to be in full swing in just a few short weeks, and that means rushing kids from school to practice or games and then back home. Meals — or some semblance thereof — in the car and snacks at the field.

Whether you’re new to the sports scene or you’re coming back to it after a summer off, here are some thoughts on how you can make sure your kids are snacking on more than sugar-laden energy bars and juice boxes.

Unfortunately, that’s what most parents resort to, especially when they are under the pressure of providing snacks on a weekly basis for anywhere between 9 and 15 — or even more — kids. Grabbing a box of energy bars and couple of packs of energy drinks is easy and fairly inexpensive.

But saving those few pennies — or dollars — really does our young athletes a disservice. As I’ve written in my last few blogs, the sugar content of these popular snacks can contribute to the reprogramming of our children’s brains to create cravings for these foods, which really don’t give them the kind of nutrition they need to grow and be healthy.

And, according to Dr. Dana Weintraub, clinical instructor of general pediatrics at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital and project director of the Sports to Prevent Obesity Randomized Trial (SPORT) at Stanford University, “Kids who drink Gatorade and eat a typical snack after the game can easily take in more calories than they expend,” leading to diabetes, obesity, and a host of other life-threatening conditions.

So what should parents be giving their young athletes before and after a practice or game to encourage peak performance and keep them healthy?

Before a match, a player should not eat or drink anything that’s going to cause stomach upset. This means staying away from foods with refined sugars and packaged fruit juices and soft drinks that contain high-fructose corn syrup, which are known to cause stomachaches. According to Dr. Dev Mishra, a team physician with the U.S. Soccer Federation, “Fresh fruit, peanut butter sandwiches, bagels, and anything relatively natural up to two hours before the match are all great pre-game nutritional choices.”

Summer Lamons, registered dietician, concurs, and adds, “Simple, whole foods are best bets at any time. Fresh fruits and vegetables are good fuel, as are nuts, trail mix, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, and whole grain cereals. All natural fruit leathers without any additives and dried fruits from the bulk-food bins are also good choices.”
At halftime, Dr. Mishra says, “The old standby of freshly sliced oranges and water works perfectly well for the vast majority of kids. Most young kids just don’t perspire that much and their needs to replace fluids at halftime are not as high as an elite-level athlete. And any food is going to cause problems with stomach cramping. If you’re eating at halftime, your blood is going to go to your stomach not to fueling your body in the physical activity.”

What about post-game refueling? “Within the first 30-40 minutes after exercise, the best fuel comes in liquid form, and chocolate milk is one of the best post-game drinks to help kids refuel quickly,” says Ms. Lamons. “It has a great balance of carbohydrates and proteins that help feed recovery quickly.”

Do you have your own suggestions for healthy snacks for young athletes? Maybe you have a signature snack that you’re known for in your league or you’ve seen another parent provide a healthy snack that the kids devoured. Let us know, so we can share it with other parents–and keep our kids happy and healthy through the fall sports season.


Emily Cohen is a freelance writer living in Berkeley, California. She is the mother of a son and a daughter who both play multiple sports. She has been a team manager for her children’s soccer, baseball and softball teams.

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