Runners need fuel to run. For most runners, it isn’t some special high-octane fuel, but simply a good balance of fruits, grains, dairy products, vegetables, and protein. For adult runners, eating is about decisions. If you want to run well, you need to eat well. With children, it is the parents or caregivers who choose - or allow - what children eat.
For children, the fuel they need to perform well in school or in sport, are again, the same fruits, grains, and dairy products. But instead, too many kids live on pop and meals loaded with sodium; high calorie and low nutrition-value snacks; and sugar coated everything. This includes even the kids on our athletic teams.
When FUELING YOUNG RUNNERS was first published in a PDF format, many coaches printed it off for parents and caregivers who are the decision makers on what their children eat in the home and even outside the home. We encourage you to do the same.
A PARENTS GUIDE TO FUELING YOUNG RUNNERS
Think fuel, not diet – When talking to kids about nutrition, please avoid the word “diet,” even when talking about what they eat every day – their diet. To some kids, diet means one thing: losing weight, and it is best to leave this subject to trained professionals. Talk about food being fuel and that they need the right kind of fuel to run well.
Set the example - Parents need to be good role models. If they want their children to eat healthy, they need to set the example. Stuffing down a meat and potatoes meal but telling the children to eat their veggies and fruit is not going to get the job done. Healthy eating must be a family value; not just something for the kids.
Read the label - It is amazing what you will discover if you take time to read the ingredients of what your children are about to eat. Fact: There is more sugar in some popular yogurts than there is in most candy bars or packaged snacks. Fact: Some drinks tout 130 calories per serving, but an ordinary bottle (not the liter size) has two or even three servings. When kids drink the entire bottle, that is 390 calories, and in most cases, absolutely no food value - just sugar, carbonated water, chemicals, and food color.
Avoid use of food as a reward... - Too often, when kids do something special, parents reward them with food; from a little treat on the way home to “anything goes” at the child’s favorite restaurant. Experts say this sets a bad precedent. Instead, reward children with some shared special experience, not food, and especially not unhealthy food.
…but also, not as a punishment - Although we don’t recommend rewarding kids with food, it also is a no-no to take away certain foods as punishment, including dessert. First, dessert should be a healthy part of dinner, not some over-the-top, sugarcoated, calorie-rich treat. If kids do something wrong, find a way other
than using food to get their attention.
Start by cutting down on the soda pop - If you want to have an immediate impact, don’t commit an entire shelf in the refrigerator to soda pop. Everyone knows soda pop is loaded with calories, fills a child up so they will eat less good food and offers absolutely no food value. If you want your children to be healthy, start by limiting pop.
Breakfast cereals - Nutritionists tell us that some popular children’s cereals contain a whopping five teaspoons of sugar in every serving. This is nearly two times more sugar than most children should consume in an entire day! For breakfast, cut the sugar cereals and add some fruit and protein.
Manage their protein - Protein is an important part of every child’s nutrition, but like anything else, protein can be overdone. Think small when it comes to meat portions; vary your proteins – lean meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, beans, nuts, soy; and try grilling, broiling, roasting or baking but not so much breading or frying.
Watch the sodium - Processed foods, especially cheesy foods; deli and luncheon meats; cured meats like bacon and sausage; and ready-to-eat foods like canned soups and chili, are loaded with sodium – too much sodium for good health. Also, avoid the packaged lunches that are aggressively marketed to kids today and single serving packages of chips. Though popular for kids’ sack lunches, they are sky high in sodium.
Find healthy treats - At last check, the USDA still has only five major food groups and treats are not one of them. So, when kids do get a treat, make it a small portion. Better yet, create healthy smoothies, frozen fruit, dippers, or homemade trail mix. That way they get something that is both sweet and healthy.
Stop the grazing - Allowing children to eat in front of the TV, at their computer, or in their bedroom, is not healthy. These can lead to the mindless consumption of a huge number of calories, and probably all unhealthy calories.
Beware of marketing - Running icon Frank Shorter astutely said “…we have marketed our way into this health crisis.” Just consider the packaged lunches and after-school snacks being aggressively marketed to kids today. They are hugely popular, but also are sky high in calories, sodium and almost anything else that is unhealthy. When kids start asking for this or that in their lunch, think twice. They probably saw it advertised on kids’ TV and that alone should set the alarm bells ringing.
Limit sports drinks - For athletes who train hard for more than 60 minutes, sports drinks may have some value. For everyone else, and that includes most every child, they offer little more than extra calories, sugar, and sodium to our diets. Sports drinks are a huge profit-driven industry that has targeted our children but offers little or nothing to their overall health. Kids, when running, or for that matter doing any sport, should drink water before, during and after each game or practice.
Beware of any kids’ meal advertised as healthy – Kids’ meals in most restaurants, and in particular, the fast-food restaurants, are anything but healthy. What these restaurants do is add a cup of applesauce or a small bottle of fat-free milk to the fries and burger or fried chicken and call it good. It isn’t, not by a long shot.
And make allowances - Don’t stop kids from eating their favorite foods but try to serve them less often and in smaller portions. A second hot dog at a picnic or an ice cream cone on a hot day will not destroy all your efforts to have them eat healthy.
The Journal of Youth Running is supported by
THE MICHIGAN RUNNING FOUNDATION