This is an excerpt from Fueling Young Athletes by Heather Mangieri.
When two of my kids were in third and fifth grades, they both had early school lunch periods and came home from school extremely hungry. They did not need an after-school snack; they needed a meal. My solution was to serve dinner at 4 p.m. and then a mini-meal around 7:00 p.m. Between dinner and the evening mini-meal was swimming practice, gymnastics, religious education, and my third son’s therapy (he has severe autism, so his evenings are filled with therapy rather than sports). Every day was go-go-go! I was lucky enough to have a flexible job so that I could be home when my kids got off the bus. However, not all parents are. Whether your kids go to after-school care, stay after school for practice, or go home to a babysitter, they need a balanced meal. It might be a mini-meal, but it is still a meal. If kids are not taught to eat meals when they are hungry, they will fill up on quick snacks.
Remember the discussion in chapter 1 about what makes a star athlete: Champions do not decide their future. Champions decide their habits. Their habits decide their future.
This year, things changed. My fourth-grade daughter eats lunch early, but my sixth-grade son eats lunch later. That means that she comes home hungry, but he doesn’t. My solution is to feed my daughter dinner at 3:45 p.m. and then heat my son’s dinner a little later, around 4:30 p.m. My third son has difficulty gaining weight, so he eats on a very structured schedule. His mealtimes fall at 3:30 and 7:00 p.m.
So, what do you do when kids are on different schedules? You get flexible. Sometimes even in the same family, meal skeletons (patterns) have to be set up differently. That is the reality of a sporting family! Having multiple kids running in multiple directions is often a reality, but it does not mean that the family’s health has to be sacrificed.
The kids are very hungry as soon as they get home, but I can’t make dinner that quickly.
Bulk-cook ahead of time.
Open my refrigerator on a Monday, and you would think I was ready to feed an army. That’s because I take three to five hours on Sunday evenings to prepare and cook seven or eight full meals for the week. I use all of my kitchen resources to make it work: slow cooker, oven, stovetop, microwave - even my outside grill is getting action. I chop and dice vegetables for the week, and I clean and cut up fruit so it is ready to go. Everything goes into glass containers in the refrigerator. This works for us because between homework and extracurricular activities, I do not have time to cook a healthy meal every night.
Take a minute to think about the foods you visualize when you hear the word snack? For many kids, the word refers to a quick, often salty, crunchy food (e.g., popcorn or chips) to eat to stave off hunger. Snack foods can fill kids up quickly, but many do not provide proper nourishment.
Having meals ready in the refrigerator prevents kids from grabbing low-nutrient snacks to satisfy their after-school hunger. Get them in the habit of eating a healthy meal; then they can have a balanced mini-meal later in the day.
I have no time to cook during the week, and on the weekends we are always traveling for my daughter’s traveling league.
Plan ahead and get creative.
When it comes to eating well, options other than spending lots of time in the kitchen are available. Here are a few examples:
- Use a slow cooker. A slow cooker is the answer to a busy family’s prayers! Before you leave for work in the morning, toss all of the ingredients in the cooker, turn it on, and go to work. When you get home, the meal is ready. You will need to do some prep work the evening before. I recommend having everything ready to go so that the morning is as easy as possible. Clean and trim chicken, have potatoes cleaned and ready to cut, chop vegetables, and so on. If you are adding spices, have them measured and ready to add to the dish.
- Stop for a healthy fast-food meal. Eating out is a reality for many busy sport families, and that is OK. Today, it is possible to find a healthy option at most restaurants, even fast-food establishments. Table 9.1 earlier in this chapter offers tips for eating well when traveling. Those same foods can be used when the travel is only from school to practice.
- Load up your cooler and take your food with you. If you cooked in advance as I suggested, this is a time to cash in on your preparations. Grab a few of those homemade meals from the freezer, put them in a cooler, add a few ice packs, and off you go.
- Have a frozen meal. I don’t often encourage frozen meals (unless they are homemade), but busy times call for easy solutions. If you have a favorite frozen meal or entrée that you know your youth athlete will eat, keep a few in the freezer as a backup. On a day when all else fails, that frozen meal is better than nothing at all.
I make a healthy dinner, but my kids won’t eat it.
Serve two dinners;or serve the meal before they fill up on snacks.
A major complaint from parents is that their kids will not eat what they make for dinner. If kids are filling up on low-nutrient snacks after school (e.g., chips, cookies, crackers), when dinnertime rolls around, they may not be hungry for your well-balanced meal. Forget snacks; youth athletes need meals. Serve the meal first.
All of my kids are picky and like different foods.
Just like adults, kids and teens have likes and dislikes. They also strive for control (some more than others). One way to help them have control is to offer food choices - not 10 choices, but 2. Cooking meals in advance makes this very easy because the food is already in the refrigerator. Think of a meal that is well accepted by most members of the family, and have it available. For example, I always have turkey burgers in my refrigerator. If my son does not like the meal I prepared for dinner, I allow him to heat up a turkey burger and have it with a side of fruit and vegetables.
My kids always complain about what I make for dinner.
Create a meal rotation.
It would be nice if kids just ate what was made for dinner every night, but that is not the reality. As a parent, you have the benefit of not buying or cooking food that you do not like; kids are not so lucky. It is important for kids to try new foods and eat a variety, but it is not necessarily fair that you get to make all the decisions. To increase the chances that your kids will eat what you cook, involve them in the process. Children like to be included in decisions, and it helps them learn about food, nutrition, and meal planning. Have them help you create a meal rotation for the week that includes their favorites. Have each member of the family choose a day of the week and write down what he or she wants to eat that day. When one child complains that she doesn’t want to eat that, you can remind her that it is not her night to choose, and that another night everyone will have to eat her selection. With everyone’s help, the weekly menu is made.
If everyone agrees, the meals can be simple and repeat weekly. Have the family decide on five meals that everyone loves, such as spaghetti and meatballs, tacos, stir-fry, chili, and sandwiches. During the busy season, rotate through these meals if necessary. The goal is to eat a healthy, balanced meal without causing stress to the chef.
Learn more about Fueling Young Athletes.