Perfect Snacks for Kids Who Play Sports (and How to Convince Them to Eat the Healthy Stuff)

Note: This is a guest post from Danielle Elliot, who writes the blog That Normal Vegan.

Danielle with her cousin Frankie.

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 (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.

For more on meal and snack composition and timing, Sacheck and Economos offer informational guides for parents and kids, as well as a scientific breakdown.

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.



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  1. I love this post. My almost 3 year old isn’t in sports yet but I’ll keep these tips in mind when she gets older and corrupted by not-so-healthy-eating friends. I know it’s going to happen; I see it already on innocent play dates when her friends pull out snacks like “fruit snacks” and she feels like she’s missing out.

  2. this post is amazing. I would love to explain to adults the ease of healthy eating as Danielle Elliot did with her friend Frankie.

  3. I love this post! My middle son plays soccer and I can’t tell you how many times I want to smack my head on the wall because the snack parent brought powdered donuts and sodas!!!! AAAAAGGHHHHHH!!!!!!! Really? Sodas for 7 year olds?!?!?! (I’m getting all riled up now thinking about it)
    My sons (3 of them, 8, 7 and 3) are almost strictly vegetarian.
    Promising more energy and running faster/longer than your friends is a huge motivator in our house! Why not let them believe that? My husband is a runner and we pace him on long runs and the kids get to see him fueling up on natural whole foods before and during the run. Being a good example is most important.

    • Doughnuts and soda??? Really???? I’d be embarrassed to bring that as the snack mom!!! (I bet the parents would snicker behind my back if I brought peanut butter stuffed celery and soy milk. But I wouldn’t care). 🙂

      • I’m sure I stealthily took a photo of it…I’ll have to look in my photo folders. I was SHOCKED!!! My son turned it all down. I was a very proud mom. 🙂
        I’m willing to bet some parents would be more in an uproar over bringing peanut butter than twizzlers and…I’m gonna say it…Gatorades. (I think Gatorades are blech…we don’t drink them at all. There are so many better/natural ways to restore your body.)

  4. Great post! Except for the string cheese. How did that get in there? We all know that dairy is linked to childhood leukemia, type 1 diabetes in childen, asthma, acne, allergies, plus a host of adult dieseases including ovarian cancer and prostate cancer. There is no nutritional reason for children or adults to eat dairy. In fact, it is harmful.

    • Nicole Stock says:

      So you are suggesting that it is OK to not give your kids dairy products? I had no idea that some of the things that you were saying could be true. I knew that cows were being injected with hormones but I had no idea about the other things.

  5. I agree on the cheese/dairy, but I kept it in there based on what Dr. Sacheck said. I personally don’t recommend it, but I know there are many dairy-friendly vegetarians that might be interested. Thank you all for such positive feedback!

  6. Constance says:

    I don’t have children, but my sisters do and I am just floored by the food choices that they make for their children and what they let their children choose to eat! My younger sister’s little boy eats Sonic EVERYDAY, sometimes twice a day! Soda is a staple in their home and so is ice cream (almost every night)! My older sister called me yesterday for advice on what to feed her 1 1/2 year old bc he is rapidly losing weight, 7 pounds in one month!!! He needs high protein with healthy fats to try and put on weight. I nearly fell over when she said, I don’t care if the fat comes from junk food, I just want him to gain weight! I had a fit! Sure he will gain weight, but it will also clog his arteries! I should expect these things though bc my sisters have terrible diets themselves!

  7. Great guest post! This reminds me of how during middle and high school sports games we would stop at McDonald’s after every away game for dinner. It used to be something I truly looked forward to after each game and would rush in, order my #2 with an apple pie and stuff my face thinking I deserved it after a long game and running around for 90 minutes on the soccer field. Today, I’m struck by how ridiculous it is that school’s allow that for their athletes (or anyone for that matter). It’s just sad that kids/athletes are not taught proper nutrition at that age and we’re literally driving bus loads of children to McDonald’s after a sporting event. I think it has to start with the parents though and until they understand the importance of good nutrition/fuel for their kids, schools won’t change anything.

  8. I love this post! I appreciate the fact that you addressed this issue even though you don’t have kids. And I think it’s great that you’re concerned about the health of your neice/nephew–liked the story about the bananas and PB. I think it’s fine to make promises about the food kids eat as you did–it’s true that it MIGHT help with all the things you mentioned–as well as improve their energy, mood, digestion and more!

  9. So glad to read this. I have a 13 year old son that does triathletes and has been a vegetarian since he has been able to make his own food choices. He is almost completely vegan now and that is tough road for kids with the peer pressure and constant influence of bad food choices. As an athlete he realized that he needs to fuel his body for racing as well as recovery. That just cannot be done on soda and donuts. Hopefully our kids are starting a trend when other kids will demand from their parents the stuff that makes “that kid so fast!”

    • What does your child eat during workouts? Can you give some examples, I’m interested for my own child. What are his alternatives when snacking and staying energized?

  10. Thanks for posting this! I am by no means a vegetarian/vegan but hey everyone to their own..anyways I stumbled across this article when I googled sports snacks (I’m the snack mom at my 8 year old daughter’s game this weekend and its the 1st game of the season as well as my 1st snack mom experience!) Well I was SHOCKED to find how many places recommended donuts, marshmallow/cereal squares, and even chocolate cookies! Thanks so much for the healthy suggestions! I hope the girls on her team are as easy going as my munchkin is (she will try almost anything once and is actually begging me to bring hummus but IDK how safe that will be after the game)

  11. Very good post. I also believe that childern need to learn from us “The Parents” after all we are the ones buying the quick on the go snacks. We need to teach our children good eating habits and By doing this we will find that we also will change our eating habits. Great Post.


  12. I like the nature of this post but nuts esp peanuts are a no go for us as my son is allergic! I also find that the issue is that parents are on the run so need make ahead healthy dinner options that can be eaten in the car or on the sidelines- sad but true! Of you try to feed then after games it is too late and they’ve likely been assaulted w candy from friends on the field- ugh!

  13. When should my 8 year old eat his snack before football training. I have noticed that when he eats something 45 minutes before he is uneasy
    So what time should he be eating last before he goes n to play at 4.00 pm for example?

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