Note: This is a guest post from Danielle Elliot, who writes the blog That Normal Vegan.
When I hang out with my younger cousins, I cringe as Isabella, 11, tells me she ate PopTarts before her soccer game. Or when Frankie, 10, says he had a burger in the middle of his little league doubleheader.
As any parent knows, it can be challenging to get kids to eat healthy snacks. I once had the nerve to ask my neighbor why he lets his kids eat Oreos at half time.
“Quite frankly, he has to eat something,” he said. “He’ll burn it off anyway.”
He couldn’t have been more wrong, but I get it. He’s tired of begging his kids to eat oranges. I hope you don’t feel as defeated!
I’m not a parent, but I spend enough time with kids to understand the challenges of getting them to eat healthy foods. Isabella and her sister, Olivia, are usually willing to try what I’m having, but Frankie is another story. He seems to exist on chocolate and Captain Crunch. He wouldn’t go anywhere near my vegan birthday cake last year, especially when he heard my mom had added sweet potatoes to the recipe.
One recent afternoon, I mentioned that I wanted to go for a run. “Can I come with you? I run really fast. I can go really far. How far are you running? Like a 5K? I can do a 5K,” he exclaimed, the words spiraling out of his mouth faster than a runaway train. How could I say no?
So, you want to be the best? Then eat this!
Olivia and Frankie soon decided it was time for a snack. They asked for Cheetos; I smeared some peanut butter on sliced bananas. Frankie suddenly lost his appetite.
He tried to tell me it was because he didn’t want to get a stomachache while we were running. That’s when the idea popped into my head. What if I appeal to his love of sports — and winning — to get him to eat; if I go beyond the “it’s good for you” approach and treat him like the athletes he idolizes?
“You know, bananas with peanut butter is a great breakfast before a run,” I explained. “That’s what I eat before my races. The potassium is good for your muscles, so that you don’t cramp up, while the peanut butter adds protein and gives you that little energy kick to keep you going longer than your friends.”
I’d caught his attention. You could see the shift in his eyes, the wheels turning in his head.
He cautiously picked up the banana: “This is actually kind of good. I didn’t think I’d like it, but I do,” he said. “What else is good for soccer? What’s gonna make me stronger? Is that why you eat all this stuff?” he asked.
He’d opened Pandora’s box. Two hours later, we’d gone through the entire pantry and half of the fridge, showing him all the vegetarian foods that might help him hit a baseball a little further. Maybe I was promising too much, but I’m not afraid to resort to desperate measures. He seemed enthralled to hear that food fuels our bodies in the same way gas fuels a car.
We also discussed endurance, and how sugar actually zaps energy. “But I’m always full of energy after sugar,” Frankie contested. “Do you stay full of energy for long?” I asked. “But what about chicken?” he asked. “My mom says I need to eat chicken.” That’s when we talked about how much energy the body wastes in trying to digest meat. I introduced him to all the vegetarian sources of protein.
It’s amazing to realize how early the Standard American Diet is ingrained in young minds. I take every opportunity I can to teach them about vegetarian and vegan options, but am careful not to leave them thinking their mom doesn’t understand nutrition. It’s a fine line when you’re not the parent.
Quick, healthy snacks for young athletes
Once I had Frankie willing to try nutritious foods, I needed to brush up on childhood nutrition. Research confirmed what I assumed: young athletes thrive on many of the same foods as adults, but the recommended portions and nutrient ratios vary.
Researchers Jennifer Sacheck, Ph.D., and Christina Economos, Ph.D., delved into the topic a few years ago for MLS.com (that’s Major League Soccer). Here is a list of healthy snacks, based on Sacheck & Economos’s recommendations as well as conversations with several nutritionists. I tested them out on a string of kids lately, and all got the thumbs-up. (I prefer not to count calories, especially when eating with kids, but I’ve included the recommendations here for those that are interested.)
Pre-Activity (~100-300 calories)
- Whole grain pretzels
- Half a wheat bagel with jam
- Fresh fruit
- 1/2 cup raisins and peanuts
- Carrot or celery sticks with hummus & pita
Post-Activity (~100-300 calories)
- Applesauce and string cheese
- Fruit smoothie with calcium-fortified soy milk
- Trail mix
- Apple and peanut butter
- Half a peanut butter sandwich on a bagel
You can also check out NMA’s fueling guides, just keep these kid-specific guidelines in mind:
- Balanced kid’s meal: carbohydrates (46-65%), protein (10-30%) and fat (25-30% and not less than 20%). Through balancing it, you should provide 25-31g of fiber.
- Calcium: 800mg/day (4-8 year olds); 1300mg/day (9-13 year olds). Young athletes need to develop strong bones, but there’s no need to overdue it with too much milk. Good sources include fortified soy milk, beans, tofu, broccoli, kale and almonds.
- Vitamin D: crucial to calcium absorption. Most kids require a supplement or fortified foods and drinks.
- Iron: kids tend to be really low on this crucial mineral. Vitamin C helps absorb iron from non-animal sources such as beans, spinach, tofu, lentils and apricots.
- Zinc: helps with muscle recovery. Get it from beans and whole grains.
- Focus on whole fruit, not juice.
- Avoid caffeine and sodium. Children are less capable of thermoregulating, making adequate hydration crucial. Caffeine and sodium mess with hydration.
Don’t overdo it
If your child isn’t doing more than the USDA’s recommended 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity on most days of the week, he or she doesn’t need extra snacks. Soccer, as with most recreational sports, often doesn’t count as a full 60 minutes of vigorous activity, as so much of it involves standing around. In other words, an hour of soccer practice twice a week does not mean your child needs huge dinners and snacks, no matter how nutritious.
Keep the healthy train rolling
My conversation with Frankie went on for so long, we never did go for that run. But he called last week to see if I still wanted to go. He promised to eat a banana with peanut butter on a whole grain bagel for breakfast if I said yes.
That, as far as I’m concerned, is a miracle. The next time he comes over, I’ll have a stock of new foods ready for taste testing.
Is it okay that I coerce him into eating healthy foods by making grand promises, by saying he’ll be running like the wind and might score more goals? I think so. What do you think?
Danielle Elliot had a perfectly normal childhood in a “normal” suburban family – i.e., lots of carnivores who consider vegans weird. In 2008, while training for her first half marathon, she decided to go vegan, and it’s finally starting to feel normal. Follow her adventures as a vegan traveler, athlete and daughter to super-quirky parents on her blog, That Normal Vegan.