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Proper hydration and healthy snack and meal ideas will hopefully leave you better prepared the next time your coach calls you off the bench.

Does your child’s sports season ever feel more like fast food season?

Growing up in Gate City (Mayberry) I remember walking to Pal’s before my B-team girls basketball game for a pre-game snack. Let’s just say Gate City Middle wasn’t on the recruiting trail for Pat Summitt.

Before you have a parenting freak-out moment, this was nearly 25 years ago, and times were different. A 32-ounce sweet tea and Frenchie Fry were my usual Pal’s picks. I still have serious heart-eyes for their Frenchie Fries, just try to seriously limit my consumption.

If it wasn’t Pal’s, it was the good old middle school vending machines serving up a Dr. Pepper, Mr. Pibb, or a Gatorade — if I was feeling extra “sporty” — paired with a Nutty Buddy.

I’m sure my mom packed me something super healthy that probably ended up dying a slow death in my locker.

As I moved toward my high school years and my tennis game became a little better than my basketball game, thanks to lots of lessons, not so much natural athletic ability, I got smarter about how I fueled my body.

Now days my pre-run fuel is dried fruit and almond butter. That’s a pretty big leap from a soft drink and Little Debbie. I can’t imagine now how I’d feel running 5 miles with that in my belly – yikes!

I know I’m not the only one who has struggled with this. If you ever run into my husband, Andy, ask him (or the better version might be from Coach Jimmy Rich) about a pre-game meal of an Arby’s Big Montana — a sandwich boasting over a pound of meat.

The gist of it was that Andy had four fouls before half time.

Vending machines, fast food, soft drinks, fad diets, this crazy busy life we all lead, a market flooded with “sport” and energy drinks — all these can make it difficult for you, a busy adult, to know what’s healthy, not to mention encouraging the student athletes in your life to make healthy decisions.

Let’s talk a little more about some of the basics when it comes to proper fuel for the athlete in your life. Hydration and healthy snack and meal ideas will hopefully leave you better prepared than when Coach Ervin called me up off the bench. (It wasn’t often).

The proper food can be the fuel needed to help boost an athlete’s performance. Fruits, veggies, whole grain carbohydrates, lean protein, low-fat dairy and heart healthy fats are the way to go. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate — www.choosemyplate.gov/teens — is a wonderful resource for anyone trying to make healthier choices or encourage a teen to do so.

We’ve discussed how important carbs are. If you take one thing away from this column, let it be that carbs are the most important fuel for an athlete. Teen girls, much like grown women, are influenced by social media, where it’s hard not to play that comparison game, and carbs are often shamed — or, dare I say, put in the same category as poison/drugs.

Carbs are not something you need to detox from!

We store carbohydrates in the muscle for the purpose of using them as fuel during activity. We also need to remember their importance in helping us recover and prepare for the next day’s game or practice.

Here are some meal or snack ideas:

  • For early mornings/practices before school/pre-breakfast:
    • Whole wheat toast with peanut butter or nut butter of your choice (SunButter if you need a peanut-free alternative) and a drizzle of honey; banana with pb or nut butter; a handful of a whole grain cereal (less than 10 grams of sugar per servings); or handful of dried fruit. I like a couple of dates or dried apricots dipped in almond butter before a run. Any of these paired with water are good options.
  • Breakfast:
    • Whole grain cereal or oatmeal made with whole, low-fat milk (whole, low-fat or skim based on calorie needs) or non-dairy substitute like unsweetened almond milk topped with berries; a yogurt parfait made with plain Greek yogurt, fresh fruit, a drizzle of honey for sweetness and some low-sugar cereal or granola for crunch; a smoothie made with frozen fruit, frozen spinach (promise you can’t taste it), pb or almond butter, a plant-based protein powder and dairy or non-dairy substitute of your choice for liquid; whole grain waffles topped with pb or almond butter plus fruit for an on-the-go breakfast; or for those who have a little longer to sit down two scrambled eggs, a slice or two of whole wheat toast topped with smear of plant-based butter like Earth Balance plus fruit makes a great breakfast.
  • Snacks:
    • Fresh fruit, veggies and hummus; low-fat cheese sticks paired with a serving of almonds or pistachios; air-popped or healthy pre-packaged popcorn like SkinnyPop; homemade healthier trail mix; dried fruit; apples paired with pb or almond butter; a healthy, on-the-go bar like lower sugar Kind bars, RX Bars or Larabars; and homemade energy balls. After practice or a game, refuel with a sports drink or low-fat chocolate milk, a banana and a handful of trail mix.
  • Lunch:
    • This can be tricky. You might have an unhealthy combo of pre-packed items from home or someone gets their hands on fast food. If your days of packing lunches are through, encourage yours to either pack healthier options like pb/almond butter and low sugar jelly on wheat with veggies, healthier deli meat options like Boars Head or Applegate on whole wheat with low fat cheese, lots of veggies, mustard over mayo and baked over traditional “fried” chips. If dining from the cafeteria, steer them towards baked over fried options, like grilled chicken sandwiches, bean burritos, or veggie pizza over a pizza topped with processed meats.
  • Dinner:
    • I realize most families rely on fast food as they travel to and from games and practice, that’s why we covered healthier fast food options last year in the column “Eat Healthy On The Go,” which you can find at GreenevilleSun.com. If you do get a chance to sit down, though, a nice recovery meal would be whole wheat spaghetti with meat sauce made with lean ground beef, turkey or chicken, a salad topped with lots of veggies and an oil based dressing, whole grain bread topped with olive oil or a plant based spread like Earth Balance plus low fat milk. Grilled chicken or salmon with a baked sweet potato plus steamed veggies is a healthy choice as well. If you follow a plant-based diet, some good options would be a veggie based chili paired with a whole grain like brown rice or a healthy homemade cornbread; a veggie burger; or a whole wheat tortilla with black beans, veggies, low-fat cheese topped with some avocado slices and salsa plus plain Greek yogurt for dipping in place of sour cream.

    Some more tips:

    • Eating a banana before and even during prolonged exercise of an hour or more is as effective as a sports beverage and often easier on the stomach. This is based on a research/study performed on male cyclists. Bananas are cheaper and less processed with no added sugars.
    • Athletes, runners in particular, that rely on sports gel, should try dried fruit as a great alternative. This is a good way to meet the same energy needs but with way less added/processed sugar and at a fraction of the cost. Dried fruit is also a good source of fiber, something many teens and adults are lacking daily.
    • Thirty to 45 minutes after a workout is a critical nourishment time. When the proper fuel is used, recovery is aided, encouraging the body to repair and recover quicker and stronger.
    • Carb-loading actually starts up to four days before, not just the meal before your big event.
    • Timing your meals is nearly as important as what you eat. Allow your body time to digest your food, ideally two to three hours before. Avoid spicy, heavy, fried and even high fiber foods prior to game time.

    Hydration tips:

    • drink 7-20 ounces of water 2-3 hours before exercise
    • drink 8 ounces during warmup or 20-30 minutes before exercise
    • drink 7-10 ounces every 10-20 minutes during activity
    • drink 8 ounces of water within 30 minutes of exercising

    Dehydration is real! It can begin with a 1% decrease in body weight (fluid loss). It’s important during exercise to consume enough fluids to match sweat and urinary loss. Remember your urine should not be a dark yellow. Pale yellow to straw color is the norm, what you’re aiming for.

    While rare, please also remember your athletes can drink too much water! The somewhat recent trend of carrying around a gallon jug of water is a tad overkill. Hyponatremia is too little sodium in the body. Water dilutes salt in the blood. Some symptoms to be on the lookout for are muscle weakness, confusion, cramps, loss of consciousness.

    When do I turn to sports drinks? Drink a sports drink when exercising strenuously for more than 1 hour. Otherwise, water is fine. Unless the activity is consistently longer than 60 minutes, food is not necessary.

    We’ve just covered the tip of the iceberg. If you want to learn more about proper fuel, I recommend “Nutrient Timing for Peak Performance: The Right Food, the Right Time, the Right Results” by Heidi Skolnik. This book is a very practical guide aimed at helping athletes gain maximum performance, recover quickly and reduce injury.

    “Sports Nutrition Guidebook” by Nancy Clark is also great. I had the pleasure to meet and hear speak at a conference a handful of years ago. This book is on its fifth edition (so you know it’s good) and is a wealth of knowledge. She has been the team nutritionist for the Boston Red Sox and worked with both top collegiate and Olympic athletes and members of the Boston Celtics.

    Jessica Barnett is a Southwest Virginia girl married to a Greeneville native, a mom, personal trainer, certified fitness nutrition specialist, runner, herbivore and ice cream lover. To learn about working with Jessica, prospective clients may email jbarnett@1teamllc.com.