Nutrition and the Child Athlete

The number of young athletes in the US is increasing and estimates are approximately 35-50 million youth’s ages 6-18 that participate in some form of athletics. These kids turn to their parents, coaches, health professionals and teammates for nutrition guidance. Getting this right is more crucial than most people know. There is so much information out there regarding child nutrition during and outside of physical activity. I am focusing on the 24-48 hours prior to competing and I am mostly referring to the healthy soccer player that practices at least 2 times a week. Their bodies are working like machines and they need the right fuel at the right time. Just remember…Long-term body development health and growth are different from pre-game preparations.

Children tend to fill up faster. Since their volume of eating is generally lower than adults, it is very important they get the proper carbohydrate intake. Try to eliminate all snacks near or just before meals. They need to be hungry when it’s time to eat their meal. That is different than after they eat, they are encouraged then to snack when needed. We need our child well hydrated before their games and training sessions but they shouldn’t consume a large amount of fluids BEFORE they eat because it may take away from hunger and fill their stomach with low value volume. So focus on the fluids given at meals and afterwards. The body uses fuel that is easiest to digest first. The body burns mostly carbohydrates as fuel. Excess fuel is stored mostly in red blood cells, muscles, and in the liver, as energy knows as “Glycogen”. Once that fuel is fully stored, it then stores the excess as body fat. Kids that use their energy during long periods of time (like long distance runners and athletes that perform sports for longer periods of time) will actually end up using that excess fuel stored as fat for energy. However, we don’t see this very often, as our games are limited to an hour. Therefore, building their reserves and refueling is critical.
Complex carbohydrates (like whole grain breads and pasta) are actually harder to digest than simple carbs. So that means our body has to work harder and use more energy up to digest them. That also means that it will not be available to them as fuel in time until after their game. Timing is critical.
Pasta, pancakes, toast, breads, waffles, pizza, potatoes, are good examples of preloading fuel when the body needs the energy fast to refuel for the next game. It is important to stay away from large portions of fats and meats, pop, 100% high grains, and low calorie foods such as sugar free jello.
  • Cereals made mostly with corn or rice based/processed cereal
  • Pasta with tomato sauce
  • Sandwich with lean meat
  • Bagel with peanut butter and honey
  • English muffin with honey and low fat yogurt
  • Depending on the time of the game, a perfect breakfast would be, Cream of Wheat, cooked with milk, with added honey and a banana. Frozen waffles with a small amount of syrup or jelly.
We need energy at this point that will be READY very soon. We need to focus on using foods that are easily digested because we don’t want their little bodies to be heavy with food during the game. Fluid is very important at this point as to not put them at risk for dehydration while they are playing.
The last 90 minutes before their game it is almost too late to try and fuel the body. Occasionally a child that is fed simple sugars (known as simple carbohydrates like white bread) may be triggered by low blood sugar level as it causes more insulin to be released by the body. This would cause the child to have a hypoglycemic reaction.
Good choices would be:
  • Sports drinks (formulated in the 2%-6% of carbs)
  • Crackers and an apple
  • Honey-Energy Bars (click here for recipe)
  • Bananas, oranges, grapes
  • Strawberry and chocolate milk
  • V8 Fusion Fruit drink
It is important at this time to fuel the body from some of the energy it has lost during the game/training. We need to remember that the focus with our child is on health, development, and long-term growth. Examples include:
  • Pasta with tomato sauce, whole grain bread, and skim milk
  • Sandwich with 3oz of lean meat, piece of fruit, pretzels, juice or milk
  • Bagel with peanut butter and honey, piece of fruit, skim milk
  • 3 oz lean meat, cooked veggies, potatoes, skim milk
  • Cereal with milk, piece of fruit, toast or English muffin with honey
Every kid is made differently and reacts to food differently. We need to watch our child to make note of foods that do not seem to benefit during their training. We need to remember that there are so many obstacles and elevated nutritional needs that young athletes face. Focus on the mind of a child and know that they typically won’t fuel themselves sufficiently without the guidance of an adult. Giving your child a list of do’s and don’t related to nutrition and giving them a lesson on the importance of when to fuel may help them to understand.

References: Today’s Dietitian,,