Planning an athlete's menu

Laura Williams, M.S.Ed.

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Whether you're the proud parent of the next LeBron James or the proud parent of a second-string soccer player, the importance of an athlete's nutrition can't be ignored. Don't aimlessly prepare meals with the hopes of covering your bases -- learn how to plan an athlete's menu in a way that ensures success.

child athlete

Understanding the nutritional needs of an athlete

Athletes' bodies are always at work. Between practices and games, they're constantly moving, burning calories and using fuel. But the work doesn't end as the last whistle blows. During exercise, muscles undergo stress, resulting in micro-tears that must be repaired. This repair takes place at rest and during sleep, so, literally, an athlete's body never gets a break! While most young sports stars have no problem consuming enough calories to support their active lifestyles, it's not just the calories that count. Eating the right types of foods at the right times can make all the difference when it comes to maximizing energy for athletic endeavors.

High protein and carbohydrate breakfast

Believe it or not, your brain eats up a lot of energy at night. Sleep is the time for whole-body rest, repair and development, and that requires a lot of fuel! It's not unusual for a body to be close to carbohydrate depletion upon awakening, and that's the last thing you want for your little athlete. High-intensity exercise relies on carbohydrates as a fast, readily available source of fuel. If carbs aren't readily available, the body will turn to fats as its primary fuel source. For the average American, this may not sound like such a bad thing, but for an athlete, it can be crippling. Fats provide energy at a much slower rate than carbs, which essentially means that a body low on carbohydrate stores will end up feeling sluggish and slow. The best solution? Start your athlete off with a breakfast rich in healthy carbs and high-quality proteins. The carbs will replenish carbohydrate stores, while the proteins will provide your child's body with the building blocks necessary to help repair muscle damage. Excellent options include scrambled eggs and whole wheat toast, whole grain waffles topped with peanut butter and banana slices, or a Greek yogurt parfait topped with fresh berries and uncooked oats.

Plan for multiple meals

Whether your child has practices and games before or after school, chances are his days are especially long. It's unreasonable to expect an athlete to stay energized on only three squares a day, so it's important to prepare for multiple meals. After eating breakfast at home, figure out how long he'll have to wait for lunch, and how long it will be before you see him again for dinner. Plan on packing enough small meals or snacks so that he can eat something every three to four hours. Stick to whole foods with a focus on fruits, veggies, whole grains and lean proteins. An apple and a piece of string cheese, a baggie of homemade trail mix, or half a turkey sandwich topped with spinach and avocado are all good choices for supplemental meals.

Talk about timing

Meal timing is a huge component of nutritional success when it comes to feeding an athlete. You don't want your daughter to eat too close to practice or competition and end up experiencing digestive problems during a game. Help her plan her meals so that she eats a small, carbohydrate-rich snack about an hour before game time. This will give her enough time to digest the food and benefit from the rich source of energy that carbohydrates provide. Half of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or a banana and a serving of pretzels will do the trick.

Plan for post-exercise fuel

Eating after exercise is every bit as important as eating before exercise. The two hours post-exercise are referred to as the "anabolic window." This is the only time the body has the opportunity to enter a state of positive nitrogen balance in which muscle hypertrophy is possible. While young athletes aren't able to experience true muscle growth, they can still experience strength gains, which will ultimately make them better athletes. Protein consumption is especially important during this timeframe, but carbohydrate consumption will also help aid in recovery, preparing your child for future bouts of activity. While almost any healthy, well-balanced meal will work, multiple studies from universities like Indiana University, Bloomington and The University of Texas Medical Branch indicate that the perfect post-exercise meal is actually chocolate milk! Talk about a kid-pleaser. Try packing a single-serve carton of milk, like a Horizon Organic's Lowfat Chocolate Milk Box, in your child's lunch bag so that she can down it right after her practice or game.

Don't forget hydration

Food is important, but water is, too! Make sure your child is regularly drinking water before, during and after exercise. There's no need to overdo it (there is such a thing as too much water consumption) — just pack a reusable water bottle in your child's bag and remind him to sip it throughout the day, refilling as necessary. Unless your child is exercising at high intensities for more than an hour at a time, there's no need to worry about sports drinks or electrolyte-laden liquids — plain water works just fine! But, if your child balks, try flavoring it with slices of fruit or a dash of his favorite fruit juice.

More healthy eating tips

Tips for keeping lunches cool
Healthy dinner ideas to end the day right
Teaching kids to make healthy lunch line decisions

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Laura Williams, M.S.Ed.
Laura Williams, M.S.Ed. is a freelance writer and entrepreneur who works with a wide variety of fitness, fashion and beauty clients. After working hard to receive her Master’s Degree in Exercise and Sport Science, she now spends her days writing, working out and developing her own website for the "sporty woman" - GirlsGoneSporty.