Hockey, lacrosse, and soccer are but a few of the endless sport options for children and adolescents. Participation in sport at a young age develops skills, confidence, fitness, and good health. While sport is beneficial in many ways, young athletes are also undergoing critical periods of growth and development. Consumption of adequate fuel from meals and snacks is essential for growth and development while also supporting the energy demands of physical activity.
The timing of meals and snacks can be a challenge when active youngsters are managing school, homework, and family life in addition to the commitments of training, practice, and competition. Alongside three nutritionally balanced meals, snacks provide the extra energy young athletes need for sport performance, energy, and growth requirements. Packing portable nutritious snacks and fluids should be a habitual routine for every young athlete to maximize training and competition sessions.
Young athletes should be arriving at the practice or game with enough stored energy to serve them through its duration. While most of this energy comes from balanced meals eaten prior to exercise, planning for pre-event snacks is essential as snacks provide the energy needed to optimize physical performance and improve mental focus for technique and skill execution on the field, ice, or court.
Pre-event snacks should be items that are easily digested so that the athlete isn’t feeling overly “full” but at the same time feels energized and is not distracted by hunger. If the athlete eats too much and/or too close to the session, they may experience consequences such as cramps or sluggish muscles. This occurs when energy and blood are drawn to the digestive system to process the calories consumed rather than to exercising muscles. Most athletes will eat anywhere between 2 to 4 hours before their session to allow enough time to partially digest their meal. Many young athletes will benefit from a pre-event “top-up” snack within the hour before their game, practice, or competition.
Sports such as lacrosse, hockey, soccer, and baseball involve steady state effort in addition to short bursts of high intensity effort. The primary fuel source for these efforts is carbohydrate. Planning “real food” snacks that are focused in carbohydrates with small amounts of fats and protein will not only provide a balanced nutrition profile for sustained energy in sport but the nutrients needed for optimal health, development, and growth. Consider the following:
- Carbohydrate foods digest the fastest and come from vegetables and fruit, grain products, crackers, dried fruit, and some energy bars. Pre-event snacks should be focused in carbohydrate.
- Protein-rich foods are digested more slowly than carbohydrates and sustain energy during a long event. Greek yogurt, protein powder, cottage cheese, lean meat, and eggs are examples of higher protein choices. If your only protein choice is a higher fat food (eg. peanut butter, nuts, seeds, and cheese), use only a small amount prior to exercise. The closer the snack is to the exercise bout, the less protein it should contain due to protein’s slower digestion rate.
- Fat is digested very slowly. Before most training and competition situations, lower fat choices are best as too much dietary fat immediately prior to exercise can cause discomfort. French fries, chips, breaded chicken or fish, hot dogs, cheese, oils and butter, peanut butter, nuts, seeds, and chocolate are higher fat choices that may cause discomfort during exercise.
Involving children in the process of grocery shopping, snack selection, and packing lunches and snacks may increase the likelihood that they actually consume the fuel they need.
Consider the following snack options based on the timeframe before the practice, game, or training session:
Snacks for 90 minutes before exercise
A snack balanced with higher fibre carbohydrate choices, protein, and fat is appropriate for up to 90 minutes out as the digestive tract has more time to process a heavier snack. Consider these snacks that are rich in carbohydrate and moderate in protein and fat.
- Small protein wrap (try Flat Out brand from Walmart!) with almond butter and a banana
- 1 can flavoured tuna with rice crackers and individually portioned hummus
- ¾ cup plain or vanilla Greek yogurt topped with fresh or frozen berries and/or Kashi Go Lean cereal. Consider a sprinkle of hemp hearts or slivered almonds for extra energy and healthy fats!
- Smoothie with ½ scoop whey protein powder or Greek yogurt, milk or almond milk, a frozen banana, and peanut butter
Snacks for 60 minutes before exercise
If a snack is required within 60 minutes of the event, consider opting for a carbohydrate-based option with a small amount of healthy fat or protein. A lighter meal will provide energy without sitting heavy in the stomach.
- Apple with Babybel cheese
- Pear with Piller’s turkey pepperoni sticks
- Rice crackers with 1-2 hard boiled eggs
- Kodiak Cake muffin
- Clif Builder bar (in a pinch - available at gas stations!)
Snacks for 30 minutes or less before exercise
If an athlete has 30 minutes or less before the event, consider a carb-based or calorie dense snack. A large snack will take up too much room in the stomach and/or digest slowly causing cramping or an upset stomach. Some travel-friendly, carb based options include:
- Fresh fruit
- Fruit squeeze
- Lara bars
- Vitality Nutrition Homemade Lara Bites (click here for the recipe!)
- Fig Newton Cookies (find these at Costco)
Fuelling up with nourishing snacks before physical activity ensures young athletes have proper nutrition to sustain energy, focus on technique and skill execution, recover and replenish muscles, and provide the nutrients needed for growth and development. Consider collaborating with your child to appropriately plan for snacks to fuel their active lifestyle!
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