How to Fuel Your Family for an Active Day

From the WebMD Archives

Your 10-year-old son grabs a sandwich before his soccer game. Your daughter has a swim meet in one hour and snacks on a candy bar and a tall glass of milk. How should you feed your growing kids to fuel their active lifestyle?

Children’s nutritional needs vary depending on their age and activity level. In spite of their differences, family members have a lot in common. Here’s what to keep in mind to energize kids for their active days.

Food as Fuel

Every child needs the same types of healthy foods. “The biggest difference among children is the amount of foods that they should eat, based on their age and activity level, says Mitzi Dulan, MS, CSSD, co-author of The All-Pro Diet: Lose Fat, Build Muscle, and Live Like a Champion.

Although a very active 17-year-old boy requires more calories, protein, and other nutrients than his 8-year-old sister, both kids should fill their plates with nutrient-rich foods, such as lean protein products, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy foods, and healthy fats.

“A parent’s job is to provide the healthiest food, and the kids’ job is to eat it,” Nancy Clark, MS, RD, author of Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guide Book, tells WebMD. “Children have the ability to regulate their food intake according to their needs,” and we should allow them to eat when they are hungry, and stop when they are full.

Clark says parents should encourage the idea that food is fuel, and that it provides the energy for growth and activity.

Older boys who are interested in strength training should know that it takes strength training and a balanced diet with enough carbohydrates and protein to make bigger muscles, Clark says. Girls who worry about their weight need to be reminded that bodies come in different shapes and sizes and that eating healthy foods is top priority.

What to Eat Before and After Exercise

Working muscles need carbohydrate and water to keep going, and kids should prepare for the demands exercise makes on their bodies all day long. Eating balanced meals on a regular basis is a good start.


It’s best for children to decrease the amount of food they eat as exercise approaches. When a workout, game, or match is scheduled close to a regular meal, children may need to cut back on their usual intake, and have the rest of the meal afterward. Kids who haven’t eaten a meal for at least two hours before a workout, game, or match probably need to snack beforehand.

Clark recommends balanced snacks with 200 to 300 calories prior to exercise. Snacks should count toward good nutrition, so serve children foods that you would give them at other meals, such as half a sandwich and a glass of 100% orange juice, or trail mix made with nuts, whole grain cereal, and raisins. Account for the calories kids eat as snacks to prevent going overboard on energy intake.

Is there any truth to the idea that you should wait for 30 minutes after eating to swim? That depends on the child. Some kids can tolerate eating before swimming for recreation at a pool or beach. But, Dulan says, kids on swim teams may not want to eat heavy meals before practice or a meet, because it could lead to an upset stomach and affect their performance.

“After a workout or game, athletes should refuel within 30 minutes of exercise to replace losses and get ready for the next time they exercise, Dulan says. A balanced post-activity snack or meal with carbohydrate, protein, and some healthy fat, along with fluid to replace losses, is a wise choice for young athletes.

Fluid Needs During Physical Activity

Fluid helps to cool the body, which is especially important during exercise. In addition, every reaction in the body that allows kids to keep going takes place in a watery environment.

Children need at least this much fluid every day:

  • Ages one to eight: four to five eight-ounce cups
  • Ages nine to 18: eight to 11 eight-ounce cups

Active kids may need more fluid and should be encouraged to drink when they are thirsty. Dulan suggests drinking about eight to 10 ounces of water every 10 to 20 minutes during a game, and drinking more after exercise ends.

All beverages count toward satisfying fluid needs, including water, milk, and 100% fruit juice, but not all beverages are appropriate for kids.


Water Still the Best Choice

Some drinks, such as milk and 100% fruit juice, contribute important nutrients. Others, including soda, sports drinks, and energy drinks, are the source of significant added sugar and may supply unnecessary calories.

Most children fare well with drinking water to quench their thirst, during exercise and otherwise. There’s no need to spend money or calories on sports drinks that promise to provide nutrients necessary for exercise. A balanced diet and adequate water is sufficient.

According to Clark, sports drinks are meant for more than one hour of continuous vigorous exercise, and most kids probably don’t need them. “Sports drinks are mass marketed to everybody, but not everybody is an athlete,” she says.

A 2011 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that kids skip sports drinks and rely on water and low-fat (1%) and fat-free milk to replace lost fluid. Drinking milk at meals and snacks is also one of the messages of MyPlate, the government’s new food guidance system.

Milk is a source of nine essential nutrients, including calcium and vitamin D, which often come up short in a child’s diet. In addition, milk provides protein, and is considered a beneficial recovery drink after exercise. Children ages two to three years need 2 cups of milk daily; four to eight year olds require 2 ½ cups; and everyone nine and older should include three cups of milk daily.


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