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Fueling your kids for summer sports camps

By Gabe Staub | July 3, 2018 | Health Conditions

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Every year I’ve sent my two kids to summer sports camps.  Many are half-day camps, but as kids reach second grade, the camps might stretch to 8 hours a day for 5 days.  Some can be held outside in the 90-degree heat and high humidity.  I’d challenge adults to do the same thing! 

Since sixth grade, my 14-year old daughter has been attending half-day to full-day volleyball camps at local high schools or universities.  She did her first overnight volleyball camp last year.  I don’t take her to these camps to get her out of the house and off her phone, but to help improve her skills and confidence.  

My 8-year old son attends a summer camp where he is pretty much active all day long – inside and outside.  He’s into everything from Ninja Warrior and Parkour to traditional sports like basketball and baseball.  I don’t think he stops…ever.  He loves it but typically is exhausted. 

Does any of this sound like your kids’ summer vacation?  Well, for me, it’s going to happen again this summer.  But, because I’m a dietitian who specializes in sports dietetics, I’m focused on making sure that my kids have enough food and hydration to make it through their camp days.  

Your Role as a Parent – A part-time sports nutritionist

Besides getting your kids to-and-from these camps and also making sure you stay on your own schedules, you also play the role of the summertime performance nutritionist.  This means understanding that sports camps increase your kids’ energy and hydration needs.  So, you play a role in 1) providing nutritionally sound food and drink options and 2) packing and preparing these items before camp. I encourage you to work with your campers on shopping, preparing, and packing their snacks and hydration choices.  This is a win-win: young athletes learn the importance of proper fueling for sport and you take some of the responsibility off of your busy plate. 

HYDRATION – It’s summer.  Your kids are going to sweat

Hydration is crucial.  This is especially true for camps that are outside and for sports that require additional gear.  Both of these increase sweat rates.  The goal of hydration is to minimize water loss from sweat, protect against dehydration and heat-related illnesses, and to help keep performance declines at a minimum.  To do this, I’d suggest following these guidelines and then alter them based on your kid’s preferences and needs.  After all, some kids sweat more than others. 

Pre Camp Hydration: Getting hydrated

Start drinking water with breakfast and while in the car traveling to camp.  If you want to be a professional performance nutritionist you can also try two more hydration techniques:

Having your kids to tell you what color their urine is – urine is a good indicator of hydration status. The goal is a clear to pale yellow color.  If it is darker, your camper needs to start drinking.  Start with 8 to 16 oz. 1-2 hours prior to camp.  If you’re pressed for time, grab water for the car ride. 

If you have a scale, ask your campers to weigh themselves. Why? This will serve as their baseline. 

Compare it to their weight at the end of camp to see how many pounds of fluid they lost.  If they lost a few pounds, then lost fluid needs to be replaced over the course of the day.  It can also tell you your child’s sweat rate which can help you guide your child’s drinking routine during the camp.  This practice also teaches your kids the importance of hydration on performance and about understanding their body’s needs. 

During Camp Hydration: Avoid dehydration, heat-related illnesses, and performance declines.

  • Pack a bottle (or more) of cold water. Cold water increases the likelihood of consumption.
    • You may want to keep track of how much your kids drank during camp – that can help you can determine how much to pack. This also helps individualize your camper’s fluid consumption during their hydration breaks.
  • Consume fluids every 15 to 20 minutes if possible. 4-to-6 ounces or 3-to-5 gulps is probably ideal.
  • Don’t wait for kids to say they’re thirsty; their thirst mechanisms might not be the best indicator.
  • Sports drinks are not needed initially and may not be needed at all. However, as the day goes on, I would recommend an eight ounce drink for younger kids and a 16-ounce for older kids. This is especially true for kids who don’t have a snack break.  The sports drink does two things –provides carbohydrates that will help to maintain kids’ blood sugar and will also provide fluids with electrolytes.   
  • Avoid energy drinks.
  • Remember that foods like oranges, watermelon, cantaloupes are high in water and contribute to hydration.
  • Check to see if the camp has a water fountain or provides water jugs for the kids.

Post Camp Hydration: Rehydrate.

  • If your camper doesn’t have any water left or doesn’t have access to a drinking fountain, then bring water with you to the pick-up line.
  • If you weighed your kid in the morning, have your camper weigh again (with sweat-soaked clothing off). Is there a weight difference?
  • If yes, then for every pound lost have your child consume 20 to 24 ounces of water over the course of the day…. not all at one time. Food will also provide some water.
  • Salty snacks might be good, too; some kids lose more salt than others. You might notice their shirts show white rings; smell worse, or your kid may complain of their eyes burning.  That’s likely salt in their sweat. 

Snacks– Keep your kids fueled to play

The goal of snacking is to help ensure your camper can play and participate without feeling overly fatigued because of low sugar levels.  Don’t worry about your kid eating every last bite.  Exercise can sometimes diminish the desire to eat.  As long as they take a few bites and realize the benefit of doing so, it’s a win for you and your camper. 

When preparing snacks here are some things to consider:

Your kid’s food tastes and preferences – I’ve failed at times by buying new items like fruit pouches, yogurt drinks, or granola bars without having my kids try them. I put them in their lunchbox or sports bag, and a week or two later I find them still there – wasted, moldy, or untouched. Don’t waste your money.  Pack snacks that you know your kids will eat.  Trying new things can happen either at the grocery store, by way of friends (it happens), or at home.

Nutrient content of the food – During camp breaks, carbohydrates should be more of a focus than other nutrients. Why? Kids are using their stored glycogen (sugar in their muscles) and may be running low.  To help keep their blood sugar stable, aim for snacks that provide long-lasting sources of carbohydrates without added sugar and low to moderate in fat and protein.  I’ve seen kids show up at camp with candy, pastries, and soda.  While these provide an immediate rush of sugar, the energy goes quickly and they provide little, if any, supporting nutrients.   

Prepareability – No, that’s not a real word, but when it comes to packing snacks, you really should consider your time and ease of preparation. I support prepackaged snacks, fruit, vegetables, bars, and trail mixes.  They save time, and as a busy parent, you need more time to prepare other meals, get work done in the office or at home, run errands, and perhaps take your kid to their next event. 

Cost – I support fresh, local, and organic produce and other similar items. However, they’re not always affordable or accessible.  Buying food in bulk will cost you more in the short term, but may save you money in the long term.  Paying for prepared snacks will also cost you more.  So, for example, you’ll want to weigh the cost of buying individually packaged trail mix or nuts versus buying one larger bag and making smaller portions.    

Storage – Do your kids’ snacks need to be kept cold or cool? Will the snacks melt or become susceptible to spoilage if they become hot. Do you need a cooler or lunch box/bag or can you just stuff a few snack items in your kid’s travel bag? Will the snacks travel well based on the camp’s location and schedule?  For instance, if the camp is outside and doesn’t provide shade or coolers for kids to place their snacks, then packing items like chocolate milk boxes, yogurts, string cheeses, or anything that needs to be cold or cool might not be the best option. 

How quickly does your camper eat the snack? – Some camps allow 5 minutes to eat a snack while others provide 10 to 15 minutes.  If your kid has only a few minutes to eat, go for fruit, salted pretzels, peanut butter (or other nut butter) crackers, and granola bars.  Some foods, like milk-based products, might not sit well for a kid who has to eat and run.  

Quick List of Snacks (to name a few)

Fruits and Vegetables – Apple/orange slices; watermelon; cantaloupes; pineapples; prepackage fruits in 100% juice or water; grapes (try frozen); bananas; berries; applesauce; pears; dried fruits/chips; celery; broccoli; cucumbers; peppers; sweet potato cubes

Snacks/Munchies – salted pretzels, animal crackers, granola bars, granola, mini-bagels, crackers, graham crackers, cereals like Mini Wheats or Honey Nut Cheerios

Packed with protein – Greek yogurt tubes, string cheese, nuts, trail mixes, chocolate milk boxes (or another milk source), PB&J, rolled deli meats, hummus, and nut butter packets.

Bars and energy chews – I like bars and chews but I’ll choose those that have a limited number of ingredients and are low in added sugar.  There are plenty of options and they pack and travel well.  I’d recommend these more for your older athletes as they may need more calories or more dense options.  Sometimes this age group receives longer breaks but also their camps might last more than four hours.  Read the labels and ingredient lists carefully – marketers do a great job of making you think their products are healthy choices. 

Other Tips – While these are not food related, they can help keep your camper safe and cool during summer sports camps.  Here’s a list of what I’ve seen or tried with my own kids:

  • Water Bottles – Ice cold water in 20 plus oz. bottles. Put your camper’s name on the bottle.
  • Ice Packs – helps keep food cool and may be used to cool the athlete as well.
  • Book bags/drawstring bags – in addition to being fashionable, they can carry a lot of towels, water, lunch bags, snacks, and other items
  • Cool towels/ice towels – these can help control body temperature and may actually serve as a performance aid. You can spend top dollar on cool towels or you can pack a ziplock bag with ice and a washcloth or two.
  • Breakfast – Fueling for camps starts when your camper wakes up. If you have the time to prepare a hearty breakfast like pancakes, waffles, or egg-based options take advantage of it.  If you are rushed for time, low-sugar instant oatmeal, overnight oats, and or toast with nut butters are quick and easy and provide some good sources of energy. 
  • Sleep – Your camper will be tired and may have to maintain the same high level of conditioning and skills training for a week or more. Adequate sleep will allow your camper to wake up refreshed and energized.  Aim for going to bed and waking up at the same times each day.  Kids require at least 9 plus hours of sleep per day.  Your older kids might require even more!
  • Bring food to the pick-up line – if your kid didn’t eat, they will likely be in starvation mode. If you have healthy options with you they will likely eat them.  This is also the time to provide food items with more calories and protein to help your athletes refuel for their next day of camp.  Additional cold water can be a good idea, too.