by Alex Dreyer, Packed with Goodness Project Officer and Catalyst Dietitian

The last few months have seen the usual busy schedule of weekend and after-school sports thrown out the window. Despite the best of intentions, many parents have struggled to keep their kids “off the bench” and active over this time. As some of Australia starts to open back up again, children and parents alike are eagerly awaiting the return of junior sport.

Organised sport is a great way to get all the physical and mental health benefits of physical activity in a fun and social environment, however it can also be a setting that encourages the consumption of junk food. Whether it’s the brightly coloured row of lollies and chips at the canteen or the fast food voucher awarded to the best on ground, the foods and drinks available to kids when they participate in sports can undermine the health benefits of being active.

The shakeup of our regular routines during the pandemic, while difficult, has given us the opportunity to stop and reflect on how we currently do things, and how we could do them better. Let’s help our kids to understand that the road to sporting success is paved with healthy food, not hamburgers.

Here are four ways to help your kids shoot for health when playing junior sport:

School kids with sports equipment

1. Breakfast of champions

All children, especially those participating in sport, should start their day with a nutritious breakfast. Breakfast provides young athletes with a source of carbohydrate, protein and other nutrients. Protein is used for the growth and repair of muscle tissues. Carbohydrates are the fuel of choice for the body and brain, powering muscles for activity and helping children to concentrate on the field.

2. Hydrate with water

Many kids and teens reach for sports drinks when being active as they think these drinks will improve their sports performance or provide better hydration than water. Sports drinks can be beneficial for people participating in endurance or high-intensity activities that involve long periods of sweating, like marathon running. However, for most children doing routine exercise, like participating in a game of footy on Saturday morning, sports drinks are unnecessary. Sports drinks contain an astonishing 9 teaspoons of sugar in each bottle that growing bodies just don’t need. Cordial, fruit juice, energy drinks, sports drinks, and soft drink are also high in sugar and bad for teeth. Water is the best choice.

3. Fuel to go and play

Healthy snacks give children on the go a chance to re-fuel, a bit like putting petrol in the car when the gauge is on low. Rather than being tempted by the lollies and treats on offer at the canteen, bring along healthier options like homemade sweet or savoury muffins, half sandwiches or the traditional half-time oranges.

If the food available at your local sports club is a few oats short of a bowl of porridge, you could also consider getting in contact with the junior committee to push for changes. Healthway offers support and funding of up to $4000 to help sporting club canteens to increase the number of healthy food options available via the Healthy Sporting Club Program. Less junk food available will mean less pressure from your kids to purchase it, something other parents will thank you for too!

Half-time oranges

Photo credit: Glenn Keelty, Flikr

4. Post-match treats

Giving away free meal vouchers to sporting clubs to award to kids as prizes is a stroke of marketing genius by the junk food industry. Creating brand loyalty early on is key to increasing sales of burgers and soft drink in the years to come. The partnership of junk food companies with grass roots junior sporting programs is an unholy union that can give children the wrong idea about the kinds of food they should eat when being physically active.

Kids don’t need to be rewarded with fast food for participating in sport, instead, fuel them up with the extra nutrition that budding athletes need. Choose something to help build up their bones, brains, muscles, and their immune system. A small smoothie or yoghurt are good options, or trail mix with dried fruit, nuts, seeds, and some popcorn thrown is a fun and healthy choice for developing champions.

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