School-age children (aged 6 to 16) generally need between 1,600 and 3,200 calories a day. Those who consume healthy, well-balanced meals and snacks will get all the nutrients needed to perform well in sports, with no additional calories required. However, the timing of eating and exercising can impact on how children feel and perform during their chosen activity, as well as the balance of macronutrients consumed at each stage.
• If children don't eat anything at all before taking part in sports, they may lack energy and feel light headed. However, too much food can slow them down and make them feel unwell. It is therefore important to time food consumption right.
• If children are consuming a full meal before exercise, this should be eaten around 2-3 hours prior to allow for adequate digestion. A small snack can be consumed around 30-60 minutes before exercise to help to top up energy levels.
• It takes the body approximately four to six hours to digest fat, around three hours to digest protein and about two hours to digest carbohydrates. It is therefore important that children focus on consuming mainly easily digestible carbohydrates directly before sports, so the body can focus on fuelling exercising muscles rather than digesting a heavy meal.
• Making sure children are well hydrated before they start an exercise session is important, so encourage them to drink regularly throughout the day and with their pre-exercise meal. A sports drink is OK once in a while, but these drinks contain a lot of sugar and calories so water or diluted fruit juice is a better choice.
• An ideal pre-workout snack is a banana and a couple of oatcakes; this will provide a boost of energy without weighing children down. Bananas are also packed with potassium, which aids in maintaining proper nerve and muscle function
• If eating several hours beforehand, a meal based around wholemeal pasta or brown rice with plenty of colourful vegetables is ideal. This is a great way to increase stored energy in the muscles and give children the extra oomph they need later in the day
• It is generally not necessary for children to consume food during exercise, unless they are participating in endurance or high intensity sports lasting over 60 minutes (such as long distance running or competitive swimming events). This is when carbohydrate stores may substantially decrease.
• It is, however, important for children to consume plenty of fluids during exercise, especially if they are exercising in high temperatures. It is important not to wait until children are thirsty to allow them to drink, as this is a sign that they are already dehydrated.
• Children will often feel very hungry after exercise, and food and fluid intake is crucial for optimum recovery after sporting activities. After exercise carbohydrate stores will be lower, so it is important that they are replenished with a carbohydrate-rich meal - especially if the child is doing more exercise later on that day or the following day
• The post-exercise meal should also include high quality, lean protein. Consuming this as soon as possible after exercise will be most beneficial for recovery, helping to repair exercise-induced damage to muscle fibres and help reduce soreness.
• If children are unable to have a full meal after exercise, try to ensure they have a small snack that contains both carbohydrate and protein within the first 30-60 minutes to help begin the recovery process
• To replace the fluid lost from sweating, it is vital to restore hydration levels as part of recovery, so remember to encourage children to keep drinking plenty of fluids after exercising
• A chicken sandwich or salad with sliced avocado or a piece of fruit and a handful of nuts are ideal post-sport snacks. Alternatively, a vegetable omelette or a baked potato with tuna or beans contains the perfect mix of carbohydrates and protein to help children get the most from their sporting activities.