Q: I know that nutrition is an important key to succeeding in sports. What are good pre-game and post-game snacks for kids? Also, is water enough for hydration or are sports drinks more effective?

If your child is between three and six years old and just getting started in sports, a consistent diet of whole foods is vital. This means limiting processed food whenever possible. Some great snack options for little ones include a hard-boiled egg with grapes, an apple with peanut butter or a glass of whole milk. These balanced options provide the necessary mix of protein and good fats. Kids have an innate sense of fullness, so it’s OK to provide them with a snack whenever they feel hungry: This is especially true when you’re providing balanced foods that contain healthy fats, proteins and carbohydrates.

For kids between the ages of seven and 11, you can adjust the snacks to fit their growing lives—not only are they getting taller, but their sport is likely becoming more competitive! Make sure you’re still offering high-quality food, and provide snacks at specific times. Blend up a smoothie or give them a handful of mixed nuts and dried fruit around one hour before they take the field. Snacks that provide protein, healthy fats and carbohydrates will help power them through their game. About 30 minutes post-game, it’s also important to have something for them to munch on. Something with protein and carbohydrates will help them replenish— like a yogurt parfait with berries and granola.

Past 11 years old, our children’s training and activity levels become even more intense. To match that increased level of competition, teenagers’ snacks should provide foods rich in iron, calcium and vitamin D. During this time, building strong bones is vital to maintain bone health through adulthood. You can meet this need with vitamin D-fortified dairy (milk, cheese, and yogurt) and leafy greens. Sun exposure is necessary for vitamin D synthesis, though even in sunny Arizona, many people are vitamin D deficient. Dietary sources are limited, so a supplement may be necessary, but discuss with your physician as a blood test is typically ordered before supplementing vitamin D.  Iron-rich foods are especially important for young athletes as the increased exercise increases the need for iron. Encourage foods like red meat, dried apricots, tofu, spinach, broccoli, beans and lentils to prevent iron-deficiency anemia. A pre or post workout snack of beef jerky and dried apricots is a quick grab-n-go option that is rich in iron, protein, and healthy carbohydrates to fuel your child.

For all kids— regardless of age— nothing beats water when it comes to staying hydrated. While flavored sports beverages with electrolytes are heavily marketed as the best options, research shows that kids don’t lose as much sodium as adults when they sweat. This means that “replenishing” sports drinks are not necessary. The volume of fluid intake is more important than what is in it. If you have a picky drinker, try sparkling or flavored water without sweeteners or artificial flavors. And if they’re set on a sports drink, try diluting it with water. Not only will the drink go farther, but the flavor remains and the fluids do, too.

While children often have individualized nutrition needs, it’s important to provide balanced, whole-food snack options and remember that plenty of water is key. Keeping them fueled pre- and post-activity will give them the energy and nutrients they need—from T-ball to the big leagues!

Christi Wheeler is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) who is board certified in pediatric nutrition and holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Clinical Nutrition from Arizona State University. She has worked in pediatrics for more than nine years with the past two years at Phoenix Children’s Hospital. To learn more, visit www.phoenixchildrens.org

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