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4 Ways to Get Your Young Athlete to Eat Better

By Dave Pond - Special to USA Hockey, 03/29/16, 2:00PM MDT

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It’s time to ditch those grab-and-go, in-the-SUV dinners that fuel parents and skaters alike.

In fact, said Jennifer McDaniel, a registered dietician and Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD), it’s a perfect time to focus on not just what we eat, but to take advantage of every chance to sit down, relax, and gather together as a family.

“Mealtimes give you a real opportunity to connect and get a pulse on each member of the family, all while enjoying nourishing and tasty food,” she said. “Making the time to do this in the offseason might be what you need to carry over good habits when life gets busier.”

We’ve already seen how impressionable our young athletes are, as they model their game after the NHL’s elite. So, off the ice, it’s just as important for them to see role models (that’s you) and solid nutrition and eating habits playing out before them, too.

“We have to embrace healthy eating ourselves – let them learn from observation,” McDaniel said. “That means making sure to sit down to eat at a table (versus eating out of a bag or eating in the car), choose healthy foods at mealtime, and limit those less-nutritious snacks that don’t help fuel your body.”

In fact, studies have shown that when junk food’s available, kids (and adults) will gravitate to it.

“Proximity has power – we’re 30% more likely to eat the first food we see in our pantries,” she said. “If I have sugar and junk in the house, I’m much more likely to offer it to my kids. And, if they see it, they’ll ask for it, and you risk it becoming their go-to snack.

McDaniel recommends removing sugary junk food from your family’s ordinary routine, and saving it for special events like birthday parties or the “donuts-with-dad” get-togethers. Here are a few other tips she offers to help brighten up your mealtime and your family time.

Add Color to Every Meal

“A color-based diet isn’t a bowl of fruit loops or sprinkles on ice cream, as my kids would like to define it,” McDaniel said with a laugh. “I define a colorful diet in which half the plate is filled with produce from a variety of fruits and vegetables.”

The rainbow of colors found in fruits and vegetables originate from the antioxidants found within them. Typically, the darker the color, the more nutrient-dense that food is.

“For example, Red Delicious apples (with their thick apple skin) have more antioxidants than yellow apples,” she said. “However, don’t pass on Golden Delicious apples if your children like them.”

Solve the “What’s In It for Me?” Riddle

“Talk with your kids about how eating more fruits and vegetables will help them today – because that’s what they tend to focus on in life,” McDaniel said. “For example, teenagers might be interested to know that fruits and vegetables contain vitamins and minerals that can help their skin look healthier, or that pre-game snacks of real fruit (not prepackaged ‘fruit snacks’) contain natural sugars that will help them feel more energized. 

Let Them Have a Say

The more involved our children are in the mealtime process, the more likely they’ll be willing to try new foods, McDaniel said.

“One of my favorite tricks to use with my own son is to offer dips with fruits and vegetables,” she said. “Kids love to dip foods. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics just published an article confirming that kids eat more veggies when offered a dip.  Offering your kids fun, healthy and creative dips can be a great way to boost nutrition.”

Another idea is to let them help come up with recipes they think sound good to incorporate that new food.

Do It Together

While it may be easier for you to do the cooking yourself, teaching your kids how to cook empowers them with lifelong skills.

“Your kitchen is an amazing classroom, and kids don’t realize they are learning when they are having fun,” McDaniel said. “This skill set provides them what they need to lean less on eating out or on high-calorie prepared and processed foods.

“Teaching them how to cook at an early age equips them with an interest in healthy food and cooking that they’ll carry with them for life.”

Jennifer McDaniel is a national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and has been involved in the sports nutrition training of Olympic-level athletes through Carmichael Training Systems. For more information, visit mcdanielnutrition.com.

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