What should your budding sportsman be eating?


Making sure your child has healthy meals and snacks on days when they play sport or have a match is vital for them to fuel their muscles and give them the energy they need to get through the sport.

Amanda Rüsch, a Clinical Dietitian for Nutripaeds, says, “During sport your little athlete needs carbohydrates and fat for energy, and some protein to support her muscles. If possible, provide a balanced meal two to three hours before activity to supply a slow and steady stream of nutrients for several hours.


Read: Water is much better than sports drinks

“About 30 to 60 minutes before sport, a source of healthy carbohydrates with a little bit of protein would be best. Avoid fruit juice or soft drinks, as this is released a little too quickly and will cause a blood sugar crash and avoid dairy as these can cause a runny tummy during sports.”

Water or energy drinks?

“Depending on the child’s age, she should be drinking eight cups of water a day, with an extra two cups for every hour of sport,” says Rüsch, adding that energy drinks are nothing more than “sugar bombs” which are “unnecessary as a drink throughout the day, even in preparation for sports”.

The only time she says they should be used is during sports as they replenish important electrolytes lost in sweat and play a role in preventing dehydration. The only time she says energy drinks should be consumed is if the sport/match lasts longer than an hour at a time.

And even then she says the child should be given ½ cup of energy drink topped up with lots of water.

When to eat

Before the game: Some foods take a while to digest, so aim to feed your child two to three hours before their  activity and provide a slow release, balanced meal with carbohydrates, fat and protein. This should be digested by the time sports practice or game starts, and will fuel them for all the physical exertion. Options include:

  • handful of dried fruit and almond mix
  • 1 apple, sliced, spread with 1 tbsp nut butter
  • smoothie with 1 ½ fruit and ¼ cup cottage cheese
  • handful of biltong with a fruit
  • 1 boiled egg and a fruit

Pre-match snack: Closer to kick off avoid high fat, high protein snacks, as these can cause discomfort. Opt for a boost of carbohydrates such as fruit, 30-60 minutes before the whistle blows, with a small amount of protein to slow the release.

Read: Athletes: could you be iron-deficient?

Post-game munchies: In the hour after sport, a small snack of carbohydrate and protein will replenish stores and muscles.

Try one of these:

  • smoothie with 1½  fruit and ½ cup yoghurt
  • 1 cup plain full fat yoghurt with honey
  • 1 cup full cream milk blended with cocoa and honey
  • ½ avocado filled tuna mayonnaise and a fruit

Healthy meal options

So how many carbohydrates should children be eating? It’s a contentious issue fuelled by the Real Meal Revolution Banting craze, but Rüsch says that although adults primarily use carbohydrates for energy during exercise, research shows that children are efficient at using fat as well.

“Active children should be on a low carb, but not no carb diet. You should include fruit, plain dairy, starchy vegetables like butternut and sweet potato, healthy legumes, and occasionally some wholegrain products. All meals should contain protein and fat. Refined white carbohydrates and sugar is a no-no - and even though most sugary drinks, cereals and bars advertise themselves as being good for sport and energy.”

She says that between ¼ - ½ cup healthy carbohydrates such as oats, orange vegetables, sweet potato or chickpeas should be included with lunch and breakfast, with fruit in between and extra carbohydrates with intense exercise.

As parents can often get stumped for healthy, balanced foods to feed their active children, Rusch offers the following suggestions :


  • Scrambled eggs with spinach and feta, with 1 fruit
  • ½ cup quinoa porridge with berries and almond butter and full cream milk


  • Ostrich stir-fry with sweet potato wedges
  • Mixed salad with raw corn, chicken pieces and avocado


  • Chicken casserole with tomato and basil and a bit of cream
  • Salmon cooked in ginger and soy and honey, with mixed vegetables
  • Ostrich stir-fry with sweet potato wedges
  • Mixed salad with raw corn, chicken pieces and avocado

Read More: 

Eating right for young athletes

Red meat for athletes – part I

Healthy snacks for kids


Amanda Rüsch RD(SA): Clinical Dietitian for Nutripaeds www.nutripaeds.co.za

European Food Information Council; Special nutritional requirements of the child athlete; FOOD TODAY 09/2011; http://www.eufic.org/article/en/nutrition/protein/artid/Special-nutritional-requirements-child-athlete/

British Nutrition Foundation; Nutrition through life; Reviewed July 2009; https://www.nutrition.org.uk/nutritionscience/life/school-children.html?limit=1&start=5

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