Between summer soccer for my seven-year old, eight months in hockey arenas with the 11-year old, and tons of unstructured outdoor play—hikes, bike riding, skateboarding, and endless hours at local parks—I admit I’m often stumped when it comes to timing meals and ensuring my boys are well-fed, but not overly full. Left to themselves, they’d eat non-stop all day long!
I decided to turn to an expert for some guidance: Robin Glance, a registered dietitian in Montreal who works with a variety of clients, including families, young athletes, and sports teams. Here’s what she had to say about nutrition for active children, plus some advice for families trying to fit good nutrition into busy schedules.
AfL: Canada’s Food Guide no longer includes serving sizes, but rather proportions. Are the recommendations of the guide the same for active children and those who engage in recreational and competitive sports?
RG: The newest version of the Canada Food Guide has moved away from the complicated number of servings per food group model, in exchange for the simplified “plate method.” While much simpler as a visual, parents of kids, especially active kids, may need a bit more clarification.
Instead of the proportions shown on the plate for adults (1/2 veg, 1/4 carb, 1/4 protein,) I recommend 1/3, 1/3, 1/3 since kids need more energy than us.
I generally abide by the “rule of threes”: have three meals per day, consisting of at least three different food types (protein, starch, and fruit/vegetable), plus two or three snacks per day. How much to eat varies from child to child, based on their tastes, appetite and activity level.
Related read: 5 tips to help kids build a healthy relationship with food
AfL: Timing is such an issue for us and many families. I find we end up consuming so many snacks or skipping meals altogether. When activities and games are scheduled at meal hours (say, 6 p.m.) at what time should they be eating?
RG: It is important that balanced meals are not entirely skipped over and replaced by snacks all the time or key nutrients may be missed.
Ideally, meals should be had at least one or two hours prior to activity to allow time to digest comfortably. I generally recommend having an early meal directly after school instead of a snack, although I realize this can be very hard to arrange.
Related read: Healthy after-school snacks for active kids
AfL: I struggle to find energizing meals that are easily digested, and that won’t make us feel overly full on days when we have activities. Are there any “go-to” lunch and dinner options that families can incorporate?
RG: Lower-fibre carbohydrate-based meals are ideal. Pasta dishes are tried and true, a baked potato topped with tuna salad, or even a wrap are all good options.
AfL: After strenuous exercise or activities, are there foods and/or drinks that can help young athletes and active kids replenish their energy?
RG: After activity, the body requires two key nutrients: carbohydrates and protein.
Carbohydrate is the body’s primary fuel, and is used up during sports and muscle reserves must be replenished.
Protein is used to help repair and grow muscle tissue. Usually, a well-balanced meal will provide these elements, but if you’re not going straight home, bringing along a carb & protein-based snack such as a sandwich or yogurt and granola is helpful. Proper hydration after a workout is also key to prevent fatigue and cramping.