Aug 26, 2016
Solving School Lunches
Kim Tirapelle

Since the implementation four years ago of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, an increasing number of high school athletes–as well as their coaches and parents–have been calling foul. Many athletes argue that the new nutritional standards, which limit high school lunches to 850 total calories, do not provide enough energy to sustain them throughout the school day, let alone meet their elevated needs for practice or competition.

The new regulations have a lot of good components, as they focus on increasing fruit, vegetable, low-fat dairy, and whole grain consumption, while limiting saturated fats, trans fats, and sodium. How can high school athletes make them work for them?

I advocate using the new regulations as an opportunity for high school athletes to learn how to fuel themselves as active individuals. Even for an athlete with a daily energy requirement of 4,000 to 5,000 calories, an 850-calorie lunch would be adequate as long as they follow a consistent fueling pattern throughout the rest of the day. That means incorporating at least three full meals paired with two to three snacks, pre- and post-workout foods, and hydration.

Let’s take a look specificaly at proper snacking, as this can be where athletes are most confused. All high school athletes–regardless of sport, gender, size, or calorie needs–should be fueling and hydrating every two to four hours throughout the school day to provide consistent nutrient blasts to muscle tissue. To do so, mid-morning and mid-afternoon and/or pre-practice snacks are a must.

Student-athletes have time to grab books from their lockers between classes, so they should be able to grab a snack from their backpack at the same time. Or, if need be, they can work with teachers to find appropriate class times to eat a quick snack that will help them meet their elevated energy needs.

Mid-morning snacks should combine carbohydrates with protein or healthy fat sources. This helps to keep energy intake consistent between meals and will also prevent an athlete from feeling excessively hungry by lunchtime. Snacks that meet these requirements and can be packed in a backpack include granola bars with protein, fresh fruit, trail mix with nuts and dried fruit, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and shelf stable meal replacement shakes.

The mid-afternoon and/or pre-workout snack should be high in carbohydrates, moderate in protein, and low in fat and fiber. These guidelines ensure that the energy the athlete consumes pre-workout will be available to their muscles quickly. Carbohydrates help top off muscle glycogen stores. Protein sources provide amino acids to the muscles that will be available in time for recovery after exercise. And high fiber foods such as raw vegetables, high fiber whole grain muffins, cereals, and breads, and high fat food sources like oils, sauces, cheeses, and high fat meats should be limited as they delay gastric emptying and therefore slow the availability of energy to the muscles, causing gastrointestinal upset.

The following mid-afternoon and/or pre-workout snacks should be paired with liquids such as water, low-fat plain milk or flavored milk, 100-percent fruit juice, or a sports drink for hydration purposes. Quick and easy ideas include the following:

  • Two granola bars or cereal bars
  • Low-fat yogurt with fresh fruit
  • Trail mix or low-fat granola with dried fruit
  • A low-fat pudding cup with wafer cookies or graham crackers
  • Two oatmeal cookies
  • A bagel with low-fat cream cheese.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act doesn’t have to be a challenge for athletes. In fact, the fresh and healthy foods that it provides are a positive. Supplementing with proper fuel before and after lunch can make or break an athlete’s nutrition, but it’s up to them to do a little planning and take the right route.

Kim Tirapelle is a Registered Dietitian for TERRIO Physical Therapy & Fitness in Fresno, Calif., where she provides individualized sports nutrition counseling to recreational, high school, collegiate, and professional athletes.

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