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Mom's New Job: Nutrition Coach
The vegetarian has skate practice at 5 p.m. The carnivore has a lacrosse game at 7. And you can barely remember when you weren't buying protein bars by the carton. The care and feeding of a young athlete, you've discovered, is yet another full-time job—that is, if you can get your child to sit still long enough to eat.
Your job as "nutrition coach" actually requires a little thought. "Kids are not just little adults," says Natalie Digate Muth, M.D., M.P.H., RD, a spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise, and a pediatrics resident at Mattel Children's Hospital UCLA. "They should really try to let their own feelings of hunger be their guide, then choose nutrient-dense snacks and meals." That's where you come in: Although kids are getting savvier about nutrition, hunger doesn't always distinguish between a bag of cheese curls and a whole grain protein bar. You do. These tips will help you pack your table (and your car) with the fuel your action-loving kids need.
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Water Like a Summer Plant
"Kids have a more difficult time regulating body temperature, especially in extreme environments like a hot and humid day," Muth says. Remind your athlete to drink before, during, and after exercise, letting thirst be the guide.
"Aim for about 60 ounces of fluid a day," says Lara Field, M.S., RD, LDN, a pediatric dietitian at the University of Chicago Comer Children's Hospital. If your child exercises for more than an hour, replenish vital electrolytes like potassium and sodium with 16 ounces of low-calorie sports drinks every hour.
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Go for the Good Carbs
About half of a young athlete's diet should be carbohydrates, according to Muth. "Ideally, they'll get this from whole grains, such as whole grain cereals, brown rice, and whole grain pasta, and from fruits and vegetables," she says.
Field likes whole grain granola or energy bars like Clif bars, which are a mix of carbs, protein, and fiber. She says, "They help kids feel full and they don't have too much saturated fat"—the fat that clogs hearts. "Look for snacks with whole ingredients like nuts and dried fruit," Field says.
Stacey Udell, 43, of Dix Hills, New York, who has 14- and 12-year-old athletes, swears by Funky Monkey carb snacks, which pack three servings of freeze-dried fruit in each ounce. "They're great in yogurt and on cereal too. No more smushy bananas, brown pineapple, or dented apples," she says.
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Muscle In the Protein
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Never Play Hungry
No one's winning on empty. So, before practice or a game, get your athlete to eat some carbohydrate-rich foods such as a bagel, fruit, a granola bar, or graham crackers that give her body quick access to energy, says Sue Gunnink, M.S., RD, a dietician at Helen DeVos Children's Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan. After practice or a game, add protein for muscle repair: Serve chocolate milk, a turkey sandwich, some toast with peanut butter, or yogurt with fruit.
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Create a Traveling Table
Jeanne Muchnick, author of Dinner for Busy Moms and mother of two teenage girls, keeps in her car a cooler and insulated bags packed with bottled water, Gatorade, yogurt, peanut butter, apples, and trail mix with nuts and raisins. "I also try to do fun to-go items, like frozen bananas dipped in chocolate or frozen grapes," she says. "A smoothie of milk, yogurt, and fruit is a great snack on the road. Throw in wheat germ—they're not going to taste it."
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Encourage a Chef Athlete
"When kids make the food, it's more likely they're going to eat it," says Melissa Lanz, 40, founder of The Fresh 20, a meal-planning service for healthy families in Los Angeles and mother of 4- and 6-year-old athletes in the making. Her boys love to make pot stickers and drop them in the water.
Jeanne Muchnick agrees. "I keep a blender on my kitchen counter so my kids can quickly make a fruit smoothie with yogurt, milk, fruits—and sometimes ice cream or sherbet," she says.
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Don't Forget to Feed Their Bones
Kids—athletes or no—need bone-building, calcium-rich foods that offer about 1,300 milligrams daily—the equivalent of about two glasses of milk, a cup of yogurt, and a cup of fortified orange juice. "Calcium needs are at their peak during adolescence," Field says. "They need to drink at least 16 ounces of skim milk every day—and to get yogurt and cheese into their diet as well." Other calcium-rich foods include salmon, greens, broccoli, and soy milk.