Fuel Up for Sports in the School Cafeteria

By Karen Ansel, MS, RDN, CDN
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When it comes to excelling on the playing field, what young athletes eat can make a huge difference. A well balanced diet provides children and teens with the energy and nutrients they need to power their workouts and support their rapid growth. While kids who play team sports have slightly better eating habits and higher intakes of key nutrients than kids who don't suit up, there's still plenty of room for improvement according to a 2006 Journal of the American Dietetic Association study.

Now, school cafeterias are getting in the game, helping student athletes fuel up for maximum success. Here's how:

It All Begins with Breakfast

When kids don't eat breakfast they miss out on a big chunk of their day's nutrition. That can rob them of important nutrients and also take its toll on their energy levels at practice later in the day. Luckily, schools are stepping in to help out. "Today, breakfast is often available at school, so if students are late risers or aren't ready to eat when they get up in the morning they can still grab breakfast before class," says Penny McConnell, MS, RD, SNS, director of food and nutrition services of the Fairfax County Public School system in Springfield, Va.

Powering Up with Protein

Active bodies need protein to support growth and build and repair hardworking muscles. Today, protein is leaner than ever thanks to new USDA guidelines encouraging schools to limit saturated fat to less than 10 percent of overall calories. That means leaner meats, skinless chicken and low-fat dairy in yogurt parfaits, bean and cheese burritos, and egg and cheese wraps for breakfast and turkey burgers, southwestern chef salads, and rice and bean bowls at lunch.

Going for the Grain

"Carbohydrates are the optimal fuel for sports and exercise because they're used for energy," says McConnell. And the best place to get them is from slowly digested, nutrient rich whole grains. At breakfast kids will now start their day with whole grain versions of cereal, mini pancakes, and zucchini or banana bread. For lunch they'll dig into whole-wheat spaghetti with meat sauce, chicken sandwiches on whole grain buns, and baked chicken tenders with brown rice.

Hydration Matters

Good hydration should begin early in the day before kids even set foot on the playing field. While sports drinks might seem like a smart move, they're not always the best choice for young athletes. "Plain cool water continues to be the top rehydration fluid," says McConnell. "And kids can usually find bottled water sold right on the lunch line." Later at practice, water should still be kids' go-to drink for exercise that's under an hour. Training sessions over an hour may require a sports drink to replace electrolytes lost through heavy sweating.

Topping It Off with Milk

In addition to water, fat-free and low-fat milk are also smart ways to help young athletes meet their fluid needs. But that's not all. Just one cup of milk packs 15 to 24 percent of the protein most school aged kids need in a day. It also delivers important nutrients that most young athletes don't get enough of like calcium which is critical for building strong bones, transmitting nerve impulses, and helping muscles contract as well as potassium for fluid balance.

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