Expert Q&A

Child athletes: Special dietary needs?

My seven-year old daughter is a figure skater. She practices two hours a day, five days a week. What should I be feeding her to keep up her energy?

-Nicki from New York

This is a great question. As a growing athlete, your daughter has unique nutritional concerns for optimal growth and performance. She probably has higher protein, calorie, and vitamin and mineral needs than less active girls her age. Extra protein needs for the young growing athlete can be easily met in the normal diet that contains milk products and other protein (e.g. meat, fish, tofu, beans, nuts). Eating more calories should come naturally because of an increased appetite from a high level of physical activity. If those calorie needs are filled with nutritious foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, the increased vitamin and mineral requirements will be met as well.

While all of the above is important to ensure your daughter does not become nutritionally deficient, the key to enhancing energy and improving performance is the complex carbohydrate. Carbohydrates can efficiently fuel the body before, during, and after sports events or competitions. Prior to practices and events, meals should consist of complex carbohydrates, low-fat protein, and fluids. Timing of carbohydrate ingestion is also important. The following table offers guidance in timing and meal selections.

3+ hours before

2-3 hours before

1-2 hours before

2-3 hours after

Fruit or veg juice

Fruit or veg juice

Fruit or veg juice

Fruit or veg juice

Fresh fruit

Fresh fruit

Fresh fruit (low fiber such as plums, melons, cherries, or peaches)


Bread, bagels

Bread, bagels

Fruit yogurt

English muffins

English muffins

Large banana

Peanut butter, lean meat, low-fat cheese

No margarine or cream cheese

Cranberry-apple juice

Low-fat yogurt


Sports drink

Apple juice

Baked potato



Orange juice

Cereal with milk




Pasta with tomato sauce




Children in competitive and performing sports that require dedicated practice several times per week should receive regular nutrition assessments, recommendations, and education, preferably by a registered dietitian. This is especially important for your daughter, because her sport may encourage restricted food intake to achieve desired weight for performance.


Erica Lesperance, RD, LD
Contributing Expert

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