Got a little runner in the making? Up their nutrition game to get them to the finish line.

We don’t think we’re too far off the mark when we say Queensland kids are some of the most physically active in the country. Our great state has produced some of the country’s greatest sporting stars including Cathy Freeman, Kieran Perkins and Arthur Beetson, and the next generation is ready to take on the challenge as they get ready for this year’s Gold Coast Marathon Junior Dash events.

When preparing for events such as this, as well as weekly sport and life in general, it’s important parents bring their strongest nutrition game to the dinner table, the lunchbox and beyond.

Health and Wellbeing Queensland’s Chief Executive, Dr Robyn Littlewood has spent nearly twenty-five years as an expert in children’s nutrition, and she can’t overstate the importance of providing the right food for your growing humans, sporting or otherwise.

“Think of us all as machines who need the right fuel to keep going. Your kids are the same, and if you want them operating at peak performance, you need to fuel them right. The good news is, it isn’t hard or complicated,” said Dr Littlewood.

“You don’t need to go to specialised food markets or buy expensive supplements to give your kids the fuel they need. It’s all about getting the balance and timing of nutrition right for the level of activity they are doing.”

Here are four simple considerations when planning meals for athletic kids.

1. Focus on nutrition

With so much nutrition information around, it can be hard to know exactly what to feed sporty kids. At the end of the day, the basic nutrition principles remain the same. Instead of worrying about counting kilojoules or tracking macro-nutrients, focus on providing a wide variety of nutrient dense foods, from all five food groups: fruit, vegetables, dairy, meat, and grains. Even though active children may need to consume more food to replenish their energy, try to avoid supplementing with highly processed, high fat or sugary foods, as these are generally nutrient-poor and in the long term can lead to negative health consequences.

Sports Dietitians Australia says junior athletes should eat every three to four hours, or six times across the day. The website also has some good examples of foods for exercise and for recovery.

2. Crack the carb code

Carbohydrates are fuel the body needs to create energy. Carbs have been known to get a bad rap but are key to maintaining energy for physically active kids. Children’s food—and carbohydrate—needs vary, depending on how active they have been throughout the day.

When choosing the best carbohydrate-rich foods, look for whole grain foods, as well as fruit, potato and starchy vegetables, corn, dried beans and lentils, milk and yoghurt. These are best consumed right before training or a race to build the muscle’s energy stores. A meal rich in these carb sources should also be consumed soon after exercise to replenish the muscle fuel stores that were lost during the training session or event.

If the training session or event is longer than 60-90 minutes, it can be beneficial to top-up with some extra carbohydrate to help maintain energy levels. Fruit, muesli bars, or simple sandwiches can be good options.

3. Protein … it’s not just for bodybuilders!

Protein helps build and repair muscles which is especially important for healthy growth and development in children. Most kids can get plenty of protein through a balanced diet and foods like fish, lean meat and poultry, dairy products, beans, and nuts. For sports enthusiasts, it can be good practice to consume a source of protein after training or sporting activity to help promote muscle growth and boost adaptation from the training session. Great examples include a fruit smoothie with milk and yoghurt or spaghetti with lean beef bolognese sauce.

4. Remember the importance of hydration

Ensuring kids have plenty of fluid will help them to feel great throughout the day and perform at their sporting best. Dehydration drains energy, strength and concentration levels. Depending on their age and gender, most children need 7-14 cups of fluid a day, and this increases if they are doing strenuous activity. Encourage kids to drink regularly throughout the day, as by the time they feel thirsty, they are already dehydrated.

Water is the drink of choice for health and sports performance benefits. For something a bit different, try flavouring the water with fruit, or iced herbal teas.

Get involved and learn more

If your kids are looking like they might grow up to be the next Jonathon Thurston or Elyse Perry, or if they’re physically active often throughout the week, make sure you’re taking an active role in their diet and ensure they’re getting all the protein, carbohydrates and hydration they need.

All that said, to find out daily nutrient requirements, including protein, carbohydrates and fluids, check out the Australian Government’s Eat For Health calculator.

More great reads on feeding sporting kids

• Browse our delicious and nutritious recipes
Healthy food for kids on the go
Lunchboxes: keeping it real
Simple ways you can help your child learn to love veggies