Your little athlete depends on you to feed them full of healthy, powerful foods to fuel them on and off the field. When it comes to meals, it's pretty straight forward. They're simple because we all know the basic building blocks of what makes them nutritionally complete. However, snacks and pre-game fuel are somewhat trickier because most of us don't know what an athlete's body requires above and beyond breakfast, lunch, and dinner. As it turns out, the best energy snacks for kid athletes aren't that complicated, but they do require some planning.
As a Crossfitter and marathon runner, I've become pretty attuned to what my body needs to excel at its highest levels. I've often wondered if when I feed my kids the same foods I eat to fuel a race or a workout, if I'm doing them a disservice because perhaps our needs are very different. Thankfully, according to Nationwide Children's Hospital, the best energy snacks for kid athletes aren't that different from what you'd use to fuel yourself — mostly whole foods and hydration. It's really only the highest level performers — think kids in playoffs, multiple sports, or olympic trainees — who require very pinpointed, precision nutrition guided by a team of dietitians. For your kid who goes from kung fu to swim lessons? Basic is probably best.
1. Fruit Is Your Friend
I spoke with Jenn Winslow, a gymnastics trainer and sports nutritionist from Chicago, and she says that a quick spike of sugar about 30 minutes before practice or a game will help give your child the energy they need to get through. "Fruit is best because it has both sugar and fiber, which gives the energy a steady burn quality," she says. Energy gels and gummies many marathoners use aren't really intended for children, according to Winslow, but fruit does the same thing, tastes better, and is much cheaper.
2. Easy Carbohydrates
According to Noel Williams, registered dietitian and board certified specialist in sports dietetics at the Children’s Health Andrews Institute Sports Performance powered by EXOS, most young athletes get all they need from a well-balanced diet, but as they train, their energy need increases. She suggested on the website that whole grain and other complex carbohydrates work well as snacks, so pasta, bread, quinoa, and the like are all good choices. Both of my siblings were athletes growing up, and my mother, herself a registered nurse, would frequently pack peanut butter on whole grain bread with honey as a snack to eat during long practice days and tournament weekends.
3. String Cheese
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, prepackaged snacks don't all have to get a bad rap. Snacks like low-fat string cheese and some pretzels are pretty great options. They're quick to pack, easy to eat, and really require very little effort.
4. Salt & Water
Winslow tells Romper that it's key that muscles are fueled with water and some salt to help them recover. After all, water, sugar, and salt is all that's really in sports drinks like Gatorade. She says that snacks like ants on a log — the classic peanut butter and raisins on celery sticks snack — or a bagel with cheese and tomatoes can help hydrate your kids without feeling like you're just telling them to "drink more water" all the time.
5. Chocolate Milk
Chocolate milk is a favorite of distance runners the world over, and according to Jill Castle, MS, RDN of Super Healthy Kids, it's also great for kids to use for refueling after a vigorous workout on the field. It's a blend of simple carbohydrates and protein that's full of vitamins and minerals essential for young athletes.
6. Calcium-Rich Yogurt
KidsHealth from Nemours wrote that young athletes who are really putting in some time on their sports — upwards of 90 minutes of play at a time — have increased needs for calcium and iron, which supply the bones and blood with the tools of regeneration they require. However, there's a trick to it. Calcium inhibits iron absorption, so you want to space them out over the day. Yogurt is a good source of calcium and protein, and it's easy to throw in a cooler bag to eat quickly.
7. Pumpkin Seeds & Dried Apricots
As someone who suffers from chronic anemia, I've learned all the foods that have tons of iron and don't require me to cook up a steak. Pumpkin seeds and dried apricots are some of the best and tastiest. Pumpkin seeds have 14 percent of your recommended daily allowance of iron per every ounce, per My Food Data, and dried apricots have 42 percent per cup. Together, they have simple sugar, fiber, salt, and tons of vitamin C and iron, which helps iron become more bioavailable.
8. Whole Grain Granola Bars
Not all granola bars are created equal. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics notes that whole grain, lower sugar granola bars are an acceptable snack to recover or grab some quick energy after a game. Go for the bars that aren't a sugar bomb, have whole grains, and plenty of fiber to keep your little sports lover happy and healthy. Personally, I love the Health Warrior Chia Bars, which have whole fruits and seeds and only about five grams of sugar.
9. Low-Sodium Lunch Meat & Cheese Roll-Ups
Winslow says that easy is your friend when it comes to snacks. Low-fat, reduced sodium turkey slices around string cheese or a slice of pepper jack is great post-training protein that doesn't need a lot of thought to prepare.
10. Hummus & Crackers
According to Jill Castle, RD of Super Healthy Kids, whole grains and legumes are powerhouses of nutrition when it comes to snacking. A snack like hummus and Triscuits or other whole grain crackers fit the bill perfectly. They're also delicious and come in single-serve packs.
For most families, the worry over the best energy snacks to feed your kid athlete becomes most pressing when you're prepping them. All of these are easy to make, and most come pre-prepared at Target or Costco, making them a double win. Kids are pretty great barometers of their own bodies, knowing when they need fuel, and what they need. This just lets you give them the best, easiest options.