Pizza, fries, nachos, soda pop … the dinner of champions it’s not. But it’s often the dinner that kids dashing from school to practices, games and home wind up eating.
Fast food, concession stand fare and packaged snacks are staples in many households. That’s especially true for children in organized sports, even when parents acknowledge they aren’t the healthiest options, according to a study published in the July/August 2012 issue of the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.
“Mostly it’s convenience, especially with parents working and everybody being so busy,” said Kiersten Firquain, a mom and the chef and founder of Bistro Kids, a school lunch provider. “It’s so much easier to go to the concession stand when you get to the game.”
So what’s a parent to do?
Even when healthy meals are a priority, serving them up requires planning. Take Janet and Brian Mark of Shawnee, Kan. They both work full-time, their sons (Nate, 13, and J.J., 12) play competitive baseball, and their daughter (Lizzie, 8) takes dance lessons and plays volleyball and soccer.
Summer was challenging enough, with overlapping practice schedules and multi-day, all-day tournaments. Now school, with its early mornings and homework, is back in the mix.
The Marks rely on light meals like noodles before practices and tote a cooler filled with protein-packed snacks, granola bars, sandwiches and water bottles to games and tournaments. On weekends, they make pans of lasagna, enchiladas and other dishes perfect for quick weeknight meals.
They then usually wait to eat later in the evening, after everyone is back home, so they can connect as a family around the dinner table.
“That’s really important to us,” Janet Mark said. “Sometimes it falls apart and doesn’t work, but we try.”
What’s for dinner is key, said Nichole Burnett, a family and consumer sciences agent with Kansas State University Research and Extension in Johnson County. Foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar are not only unhealthy, but they reset kids’ taste buds. A steady diet of fast food spurs cravings and makes healthy options taste worse in comparison, she said.
“Vegetables don’t taste quite the same if they’ve been eating chicken nuggets and French fries at most meals,” said Burnett, who spends many of her own evenings and weekends shuttling her two daughters to tumbling, volleyball, cheerleading competitions, softball and other activities.
Even fruit tastes less sweet to a young palate used to artificially sweetened sports drinks and sodas, she said. Sweet drinks also add unneeded calories and fill kids up, making them less likely to eat that healthy snack. That’s why Burnett recommends filling a reusable bottle with plain old water instead of buying sports drinks and other beverages.
“Kids will do better when eating healthier and staying hydrated with water,” Burnett said. “That will show up in how they’re performing.”
Good nutrition isn’t a one-shot deal, though. It’s something parents can work on throughout the day, said Beth Bader, the author of “The Cleaner Plate Club” (Storey Publishing, 2010).
“Every time you add something healthy to the mix, it takes the pressure off the evening meal to be the end-all be-all of balanced nutrition,” said Bader, whose 7-year-old daughter, Amelie, competed in her first youth triathlon earlier this year. “It frees you up.”