What Do I Feed My Child Athlete?

It’s back-to-school time in NY and that means that many children and their parents are gearing up for school sports. My cousin, being one of these parents, recently texted me to ask about hydration for her 8 year old son who plays baseball in the Florida heat. She said that many of the other parents were sending sports drinks to practice with their kids, and she wasn’t sure that this was appropriate. The tricky part about child sports nutrition (and really nutrition in general) is that parents aren’t sure how it should differ from adult sports nutrition. Being the awesome cousin that she is, she reached out to a knowledgeable Registered Dietitian (that’s me!) for guidance. I told her that not only would I help out, but I would also put the most important points on my blog for any other confused parents. So, here’s the 101 on child sports nutrition:

  • Eating a healthful diet is the priority for your growing athlete. Although your child is playing sports and burning a ton of calories, that doesn’t give them a license to eat whatever they want. Growing children need DSC_0046several key nutrients, like calcium for bone health, Vitamin C for immune system development, iron for growth, and protein for muscle growth and repair. These nutrients are only found in healthy foods, like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and proteins. Child athletes put their bodies through more wear and tear than less active children, so they need to be even more diligent about eating healthy foods for growth and development.
  • Fluids should be the main concern. Hydration is so incredibly important for your child athlete. Children get hotter faster than adults because they have a greater body surface area for their body weight, so they gain heat faster from the environment than adults. They need to drink very frequently during exercise and cold water is the perfect refresher. A good rule of thumb is that children need about 4 ounces (or ½ cup) of water for every 20 minutes of play.  Make sure you teach your children about the importance of hydration, or they might just forget to drink all together! Fresh fruit is also high in water, and orange slice breaks during practice should be encouraged!
  • Sport drinks are not necessary. Let’s face it–kids love sport drinks because they are sweet.  If you provide them, they will drink them. I’ve read a lot about this and the verdict on whether or not they are needed is mixed.One thing I can tell you is that sport drinks are ONLY needed for intense activity lasting longer than an hour.  You can read all about sport drinks here, but my overall opinion is that kids don’t need them. For exercise lasting longer than an hour, you can replace salt losses with a salty snack like pretzels or saltines.
  • Carbohydrates are the best energy source.  Basically, carbs are what make athletes “go”. They are the fuel for the car. A child athlete’s diet should be IMG_3131balanced and consist of healthy carbs, like fruit and veggie sticks and whole grain crackers, breads, and cereals. Healthy carbs should be consumed 2-3 hours before practice to maintain energy.
  • Lean protein repairs muscles.  Because children are growing, their muscles are still developing. Sports cause muscle breakdown, and proteins aid in muscle repair. While it’s an emerging trend among kids to take protein supplements, this should definitely be discouraged. There are so many healthful protein food choices that kids can eat and enjoy, such as peanut butter, low-fat milk, yogurt, cheese sticks, chicken, turkey, and fish.  A turkey sandwich after practice is the perfect amount of protein to repair worn out muscles!
  • Fats are essential…in moderation. Did you know that certain fats, like omega-3 found in salmon, are actually essential for brain health and development?  But other fats, like fried foods and fatty meats like bacon, don’t add any nutritional value to the diet of your child athlete. Incorporate some healthy fats into your child athlete’s diet, like nuts, avocados, fish, and oils.

I hope this helps clear up some confusion for struggling parents of child athletes.  Since this is my first post about child nutrition, I would love a little feedback from the parents out there! Have I provided helpful information? Is there more you would like to know? I would be happy to write follow-up posts with more detailed information, if needed! Let me know your thoughts!


  • Reply
    Donna Fletcher
    September 15, 2015 at 9:23 am

    THANK YOU so much for this information. I love it. Can’t wait to share this with William’s baseball team moms! I would have never thought about fresh fruit during practices – brillant.

  • Reply
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