Nutritional Needs of Children

Growth and exercise increase your child’s nutritional requirements and energy needs. A balanced and nutritious diet and an active lifestyle will lay the foundations for a healthy adult life.

Energy needs of young athletes

Children who are growing and playing sport have a significant increase in nutrient requirements. If your young athlete is well-nourished, they will be able to play better, for longer and stay mentally alert. An active child who is not getting enough total energy may feel tired and struggle to maintain their enjoyment in sport.

As a parent, pay attention to these six guidelines, which will help your child make good choices when it comes to healthy eating and activity:

  • Use breakfast to jump start a healthy day. Breakfast is the body’s early morning refueling start. After 8-12 hours without food, your child’s body will need to replenish his/her energy levels. An ideal daily breakfast consists of fruit or fruit juice, a dairy product, cereals and bread.
  • Eat dairy daily. Calcium is the most important mineral for bone formation. If your child’s diet is lacking in calcium, the body will withdraw calcium from bone deposits to use for the normal functioning of nerve and muscle cells. Too many withdrawals will negatively influence bone density later in life. Childhood is the time to build peak bone mass. Encourage your child to eat at least 3 dairy serves each day to meet their calcium needs. One serve is equal to 1 cup of milk, 2 slices of cheese or 1 tub of yogurt
  • Snack morning and afternoon. Kids constantly on the go need to eat ‘little and often’ to keep ‘topping up’ their energy levels. Regular snacks are just as important as main meals in ensuring good energy and nutrient intake. Plain or flavoured milk, yogurt, fruit, breakfast cereals and muesli bars are all nutritious snack choices
  • Focus on lunch and dinner. These major meals should provide protein (essential for growth), and carbohydrate for energy. Protein-rich foods include lean meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, dairy products and legumes. Good sources of carbohydrate include breads, cereals, fruit, starchy vegetables and legumes

Drink a lot. Children are not able to regulate their body temperatures as well as adults. Water and sports drinks are the best choices just before, during and after sports. Sports drinks have the added benefit of:

  • Providing carbohydrate for muscle energy
  • A pleasant taste, which encourages children to drink more
  • Electrolytes (e.g. sodium), which help with fluid replacement after exercise

Encourage your child to choose a variety of foods from the core food groups:

  • Breads, cereals and other grain foods
  • Vegetables
  • Fruit
  • Milk, yogurt and cheese
  • Meat, fish, poultry, eggs and legumes to ensure an adequate intake of all the essential nutrients

If you would like more information on nutrition for sports performance, the AIS nutrition booklet "A Winning Diet" is highly recommended. To order your FREE copy of "A Winning Diet" or view the booklet online, simply click on the link.

Eating before sports

Carbohydrate rich food choices before exercise will provide a fuel boost to the working muscles. This will help your child perform at their best without tiring too soon. Whether training early in the morning, or playing sport after school, the type of meal your child eats before exercise should be high in carbohydrates and provide fluids. This type of meal (focusing on pasta, rice, breads and cereals) will be digested and absorbed faster than a meal high in protein and/or fat, and will therefore serve as a ready source of energy for the muscles. Ready-to-eat carbohydrate foods that can be easily carried in a sports bag and are convenient after-school snacks, include fresh and dried fruit, muesli bars and sandwiches.

Some children will enjoy a liquid meal supplement like a milkshake or fruit smoothie. This is a good choice if your child dislikes having anything heavy in their stomach, especially before an important competition when nerves set in!

Encourage and remind your child to drink plenty of fluids before, during and after exercise. Fluid needs will be increased during intense exercise and in hot weather. Children are more likely to overheat from strenuous activity than adults. As a result, they’re at a greater risk of dehydration. If your child says "I am thirsty" – they may already be slightly dehydrated. Being well hydrated is important before they play sport. Always have water or other refreshing drinks such as sports drinks available and invest in a sturdy drink bottle for training.

"Get the AIS into Your Classroom" is a curriculum-based program for upper primary schools, which teaches students about the key to good nutrition and a healthy, balanced lifestyle. For more information about this resource, go to www.healthyactivekids.com.au.