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Educating Parents Is Key To Healthier Food Choices For Youth Athletes

A University of Minnesota study recently found that the food and beverages available at youth sports is often unhealthy: 
  • Most snacks available at sporting events are ‘junk' food;
  • Because junk food sales helped youth sports organization raise money, parents expressed concern that moving to healthier foods would negatively impact their bottom line;
  • Parents were confused about sports (energy) bars and sports drinks; andDirection Five Health cooking class
  • Many parents felt that, simply because their child was playing sports, they were healthier than most kids, so they didn't worry as much about all the junk food they were often consuming during and after sports.

The study suggested  three main reasons the food young athletes consume is so unhealthy:

  1. Lack of education. Parents don't know what is and is not healthy for their kids to eat, and, more importantly, why.  Without knowing why certain foods and drinks are unhealthy, no amount of education on the difference between healthy and unhealthy foods is going to matter.
  2. Advertising and marketing.  It should come as no surprise to any parent that the companies that sell less-than-healthy products full of sugar and salt to families/kids/schools is to somehow convince them they aren't so bad so that kids try them and end up developing a craving for - you guessed it - the sugary and salty foods they are selling!  
  3. Parents are too busy to cook.  Very busy lives don't leave parents much if any time to prepare wholesome, healthy, home cooked meals to sit down and eat together, which studies show are critically important to kids and families.

Education is key.

Of the three, I believe education is the most important:

  • If we expect parents to replace their kids' drink sports beverages with healthier alternatives which do not contain food coloring and sugar or artificial sweeteners, we need to tell them what they can drink instead to replace the electrolytes lost during sports.
  • If parents are to tell the difference between the 'sports' or 'energy' bars that are no more than thinly-disguised candy bars and ones that offer protein and dietary fiber but with a lower sugar and fat content, parents need to know what to look for on a nutrition label that will help them quickly distinguish between the two.  If identifying healthier substitutes takes too much time and energy - something that the research shows are in short supply in many families - parents are going to choose the one with a brand name they recognize, which, unfortunately, is often the least healthy choice.
  • If we want parents to take the time needed to plan out a week's meals, including those on days their kids play sports (which, these days, seems to be just about every day of the week!), they need to give them strategies, recipes and meal-preparation tips so they won't leave everything to the last minute, because, chances are, if that happens, they will end up viewing going to a fast-food restaurant as a decent option, which it seldom is. Parents can find the time, if they are motivated to make eating more healthy foods a priority.  Perhaps take an hour on Saturday to plan menus and snacks for the week and take an hour or so on Sunday to go to the store. When you arrive home, have your kids help wash lettuce, chop veggies, etc. We all have to plan for our good health and the health of our families; it doesn't happen on its own!

Partnering for better nutrition

Junk food will continue to be offered at concession stands and at schools until parents and kids, working together, decide it's time for  a change. Ask a company that sells healthier foods to help your school or team. Promote them and purchase their products.

Both parents and kids need to understand that a proper diet is just as necessary as excercise for a child's good health, not only now but when they are adults. Simply put, it is a myth that it is okay to eat junk food at youth sports events because all of those unhealthy calories, fats, and sugars are somehow cancelled out by exercise.

All this takes effort, but I think we'll all agree our kids are worth it!

Home-made granola bar recipe

To get you started on the road to replacing high sugar, high fat snacks with healthier alternatives,  try this recipe for home made granola bars. Make a double recipe and keep in individual plastic bags to grab on the way to your child's next game.

Sunshine Bars

Makes about 3 dozen 1 1/2 inch bars


1 cup orange juice
1 cup dried apricots
1/3 cup honey
1/2 cup walnut oil
1 1/2 cups rolled oats
1 cup whole-wheat flour
1/2 cup wheat germ
1 ½ teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup raisins
2/3 cup almond meal (finely ground almonds)


  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  • Grease a 9 x 9 inch baking dish with walnut oil.
  • Heat the orange  juice to a boil in a small saucepan 
  • Add dried apricots.
  • Bring the liquid to a boil again and turn off the heat.
  • Cover pan and let the apricots soak in the juice for 10 minutes.
  • Drain and cut the apricots into small pieces with 
  • kitchen scissors or a sharp knife.
  • In a medium-sized mixing bowl cream together the honey and walnut oil.
  • Add apricots and raisins and stir together.
  • In a large mixing bowl stir together the oats, flour, wheat germ, cinnamon, and sea salt.
  • Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and mix well.
  • Press dough into the baking dish. Bake for about 25 minutes. 
  • Allow to cool completely before cutting.

Note: You may substitute agave for the honey if you are vegan, and use non-gluten flour in place of the whole-wheat flour and non-gluten oat bran in place of the wheat germ.

Direction Five group shotPatty James, M.S., C.N.C., is Founder and Director of DirectionFive Health, a national culinary and nutrition program for kids based in Northern California. A nutritionist and holistic chef, Patty is also co-author of the book More Vegetables, Please! 


You can learn more about Patty and D5 by visiting her website, liking her on Facebook or visiting the DirectionFive Health Facebook page.

Posted July 28, 2012