Weekly Wellness: Nutrition tips for kids

Sun-Times Media file photo
Sun-Times Media file photo

Our weekly fitness column, “Weekly Wellness,” is back again. This week, Matt Gallagher, from MFC Sports Performance in Darien, discusses why teaching kids to pick their own (read: correct) food at an early age can make a major difference in their overall health for years to come.

I have touched on diet in previous articles, mostly for adults, and I feel it would be valuable to give my insight on nutrition for kids from my own personal experience working with many kids. I will start by detailing the method I use for educating kids on nutritional habits and the types of foods to consume before and after athletic events.

When I work with kids aged 10 years old and older, they usually listen very well when it comes to nutritional information. For kids younger than 10, it’s usually in one ear and out the other. But they listen up in the 10-12 year old range and beyond, and usually start asking questions as well. I think many kids I work with know intuitively that something about the way they eat is hindering them. 

As far as educating kids on nutritional habits, first, I ask those kids who are ready for nutritional talks to tell me what they typically eat every day. I have them write out the foods and we go through each food one by one. I grade each food as “good,” “so-so,” or “avoid almost always.” Once they can visually see that most of the foods they eat every day are not helping them, but hurting them, they are excited to hear about how to change their habits. I explain to them that sugary snack foods are hindering their mental function and physical output, as well as depleting their bodies of nutrition. Sugary snacks or juices are the biggest culprit in a typical kid’s diet, and when I can help kids to cut out these sugary foods and replace them with a whole food source or a protein source, they feel instantly more focused and clear mentally, and things really start to click.

Next, I give them five foods to eat everyday. If I can see these five foods in a kid’s diet everyday, I know they are getting adequate protein, calcium, potassium, carbohydrates and healthy fats. I do not give kids a limit on the amount of these foods they can eat. I only ask that they include them in their diet. 

The list is as follows: 

  • eggs (the whole egg)
  • plain Greek yogurt
  • chicken breast or other lean meat
  • banana
  • Ezekiel 4:9 bread

I get a bit more detailed with my kid clients about how to put these foods into a day’s worth of eating, but for the sake of this article, I will condense the content. If I can help kids to fill up on these vitally healthy foods for their growing bodies, and get them to eliminate almost all sugar, I will see kids lean out very quickly, if needed, and/or have a direct positive change in their energy all day and during their workouts and athletic events.

I feel every kid should be able to cook at least a couple of items for himself/herself, and you cannot beat the nutrition in eggs and lean meats. It’s not that tough to spray a pan with Pam and scramble a couple of eggs, nor to take a frozen chicken breast and throw it on a small George Foreman grill. Plus, cooking teaches a child to take some responsibility for what foods he or she put into his or her mouth, and, consequently, how he or she feels day in and day out. The other three foods on my top five, chicken breast or other lean meat, banana, and Ezekiel 4:9 bread, are easy to eat on their own, or turn into a sandwich.

As far as prior to an athletic event, a child should certainly have a healthy complex carbohydrate and protein based meal 2-3 hours before the event, and if he or she is pretty hungry immediately before the athletic event, a banana is a great choice. I have seen children go from complaining, lethargic, and glossy-eyed, to hard-working and enthusiastic athletes in five minutes from one banana. It really is remarkable. A banana is also a great food choice for during playing with friends and/or family and half-time, or a break, of an athletic event.

Post-workout or post-event, the meal can be a bit heavier. This is a great time to have more complex carbohydrates and protein, in addition to healthy fats and vegetables. 

The Takeaway: I have found kids really do want to make changes to their dietary habits after they are properly educated on the topic. It is best to start with how kids are feeling on an hourly basis, or how they feel immediately after eating a certain food. Help kids to register that a certain food that makes them want to take a nap afterwards is a food that needs to be eliminated because it is this same food that depletes the body of nutrition, possibly hinders growth, negatively impacts their performance on the field and makes them softer (more body fat). Teach kids that as an athlete, they need the proper daily fuel sources to function as optimally as is possible for their growing bodies. Try my list of five foods out with your kids and let me know if you notice immediate changes as well!

Matt Gallagher is the Fitness Director at MFC Sports Performance in Darien, which specializes in functional training for both adults and younger athletes. You can reach Matt by emailing him at Matt@MFCSportsPerformance.com

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