Ready, eat, go!

By: Yuki Hayashi

Photography by Michael Alberstat Author: Canadian Living Credits: Photography by Michael Alberstat


Ready, eat, go!

By: Yuki Hayashi
Hectic weeknights are the Achilles heel of even the most multitasking parent. Between the school/work commute, homework, Kid A's sports and Kid B's music lessons (and transportation to and from said extracurriculars), busy parents face a daunting time crunch. Despite this challenge, it's crucial that kids are properly fuelled for their evening activities.

When children attend after-school sports practice without eating a proper snack or meal beforehand, the negative effects are both physical and mental, says coach Greg Pace, of Pace Performance in Hamilton. "When kids are underfuelled, performance drops. Then, on the psychological side, motivation goes down. When kids are feeling lethargic, they may not want to go to practice. They think they don't like it, when, really, they're lacking energy."

Pace, who has trained all levels of athletes through the Kids of Steel triathlon program, adds that kids may get frustrated when things feel more difficult on the field or in the pool due to their lack of energy.

Similar issues arise for kids whose after-school activities are artistic rather than athletic, says Patricia Chuey, a Vancouver-based registered dietitian. 
"A child who's sitting in a language lesson, for example, will still need to be well-fuelled to concentrate and not be distracted by hunger."

Fortunately, feeding your kids on busy nights can become easier, once you establish a routine. Here are the tips, scheduling tricks and cooking hacks recommended by our experts.

1. Know when to feed your kids
To ensure your children have time to digest their food and are not slowed down by sluggishness or cramps, Chuey, mom to a nine-year-old hockey, lacrosse and basketball player, recommends accurately timing a snack or meal to the after-school activity.

"The amount of time available between eating and exercise is almost more important than what is eaten," she says. If your children have less than an hour between school and the activity, give them easily digested low-fat, low-fibre snacks like yogurt, half of a turkey and vegetable sandwich, a homemade muffin, veggies and dip or crackers and hummus. Then feed them dinner after practice.

If there are two hours between school and the activity, give them a lunch-size meal like pasta and meat sauce, a veggie-packed chicken stir-fry or a lentil-vegetable wrap. Offer them a second helping or light dinner after practice.

If there are three hours or more between school and the activity, give them an early dinner. Cover half the plate with vegetables, one-quarter with a quality protein and the rest with whole grains. Then offer a snack after practice. (Not everyone likes an early dinner, however, so find what works best for your family. Some kids may prefer a big snack before their activity and a light post-activity dinner.)

Save time by chopping veggies and storing them in reusable containers in the fridge, baking muffins on Sunday and stocking up on single-serve yogurt.

2. Upgrade your car cuisine
When hectic schedules call for in-car dining, skip the drive-through in favour of healthier options. Chuey's family packs on-the-go dinners like homemade wraps, sandwiches, meat-and-vegetable kabobs and hard-cooked eggs for the car. In a pinch, she'll order takeout subs and sandwiches on whole grain bread stuffed with lean meats and wholesome veggies—without the sauce. As for prepared smoothies, "look for ones with yogurt or some protein added, and opt for a small size, which is still quite large for a child," says Chuey.

3. Embrace the slow cooker
Using a slow cooker means healthful, home-cooked meals are ready when you are. Chuey swears by hers: "On days when there's a hockey, lacrosse or basketball game or practice, I'll often make a vegetable pasta dish or something that gets better with time in the slow cooker." She adds that a portable slow cooker full of stew or pasta, along with bowls and cutlery, can be transported easily, so the kids can eat at the rink.

4. Fuel your kids strategically
For children who go straight from school to sports, Pace recommends packing an extra-large lunch so they can eat a second helping as soon as school is finished. Avoid foods that are overly high in slow-to-digest fats and protein. Think fruit and crackers or a veggie and hummus wrap. Remind your kids to drink plenty of water, too.

Finally, don't underestimate the role a "recovery meal" plays in replenishing energy stores. Once practice is over, head straight home to eat, or provide food for the drive. Pasta salad, a turkey-and-cheese sandwich or fruit with cheese is a great option. Coach Pace says timing is everything. "Get them fed within 20 to 30 minutes of their workout—that always makes the next day's activities better."

Keeping your kids' meals healthy and delicious can be a challenge. Here are 4 common nutritional mistakes in your kid's diet and how to fix them.
This story was originally titled "Ready, Eat, Go!" in the September 2014 issue.
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Ready, eat, go!