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Avoiding a Junk Food Diet

Avoiding a Junk Food Diet: Five good-eating habits for the young athlete
by Aaron Paitich

June 6, 2013

Dedication, commitment, preparation: these are all words young athletes hear when it comes to participating in their respective sports. And your child should show the very same commitment when it comes time for them to eat.

An active child is a hungry one. So don’t undermine their efforts by turning into the drive-thru after their game for two bacon double cheeseburgers, chili-cheese fries, and an extra-large soda.

Sure, the life of a young athlete—and their parents—can be hectic. But that doesn’t excuse the adults from providing ample, healthy opportunities to nourish them.

“This is especially true if the parent has kids in multiple sports with different schedules,” says Jennifer McDaniel, registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Parents are simply forced to plan ahead if they want to optimize fuel. It usually requires the parent to sit down one day of the week and review schedules to plan for grab-and-go simple meals—and hopefully a couple of family meals as well.”

McDaniel, who owns and operates McDaniel Nutrition Therapy in St. Louis, Missouri, shared these five tips for parents and their young athletes to avoid bad habits during their frantic lifestyle. You might be surprised. Furthermore, you might have to start making changes in your own diet if your youngster is ever going to follow suit.

1. Keep healthy foods in plain sight
When hungry athletes barrel through the front door after practice, the first place they head is to the kitchen. Upon opening the pantry or fridge, healthy foods should be staring them in the face. Make healthy foods available to your children. Keep foods such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, nut butters, and trail mix on hand. Walk your hungry athlete through the kitchen each week to show them where they can find those healthy foods.

2. Aim for balance, not perfection
Whether we like it or not, we might find ourselves needing to pick up food on the run. Most fast food restaurants offer some healthy selections. Aim for balance, not perfection. If the child really wants French fries, balance out the meal with a grilled chicken sandwich and low-fat milk instead of a bacon cheeseburger and soda.

3. Be the role model
While it might appear that friends or the media have the greatest influence on a child’s food choices, children actually watch what their parents eat more than anyone else. If you want to improve your child’s diet, start by improving yours.

4. Don’t be the food police
Strict food rules or harsh labels such as “junk” or “bad” foods might heighten curiosity and desire to try a so-called “off limits” item. Have a healthy perspective about allowing all foods to fit. Also, avoid using food as a reward or punishment. Children can develop an unhealthy relationship with “treats” or “junk” food when it is only offered after achievement or removal as a consequence.

5. Keep their bellies half full
Keep healthy snacks on hand (e.g., trail mix, fruit, and sandwiches) so the child doesn’t go hours without eating. Having healthy foods to offer them on the way to practice or halfway through a game can keep their energy levels high and support performance. As an additional benefit, if another parent brings chips and cookies to practice, at least your child’s half-full belly will keep them from overdoing it.

More and more is demanded of young athletes these days, especially if they are involved in multiples sports and activities. Adhering to these tips will allow your child to reach their full potential in more ways than one.

“A healthy diet is essential for the active child, and the more active a child is, the more nutrients that child needs,” McDaniel adds. “Therefore, a healthy diet will support not only performance on the field, but more importantly, will support the child’s performance in the classroom and in the family.”