Guest Post: How to Get Healthier Team Snacks on the Sidelines

The following is a guest post by Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, a dietitian who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She also writes weekly for the Parents magazine blog, The Scoop on Food. She lives with her husband, two boys, and one dog in Ohio.

How to Get Healthier Team Snacks on the Sidelines on 100 Days of Real Food

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Have you ever been worried about being “that mom?” You know, the one who makes a fuss about things? I was. So I watched all season long as my son’s pee-wee soccer team was given cookies, cupcakes, and fruit punch every Saturday after games and sometimes even after practice. I was new to kids’ sports and didn’t know the ropes yet.

But as a mom and dietitian, I knew I didn’t like it. Why were team sports a reason to feed children sugary, hyper-processed foods? Why were little kids, who trotted around a soccer field for less than 40 minutes, being given bottles of neon colored Gatorade?

So I decided to speak up. The next season, I emailed our new coach, expressed my concerns about the rampant junk food, and asked if we could do fruit for our team snacks instead of the usual cookies and chips. I was thrilled to get an email back saying that he loved the idea and that he was happy someone finally said something about it. That season, our team happily gobbled up bananas, peaches, fruit kebabs, and apples after games.

Now, five years later, I’ve helped parents all over the country make healthy changes to team snacks as part of what I call Snacktivism. And I’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to making changes on kids’ sports teams. Here’s my best advice so you can do the same.

5 Tips for Cleaning Up Sports Team Snacks

  1. Contact the coach BEFORE the first game.
    If your coach is on board with your idea for healthier team snacks, he or she can convey the policy to the team and set the right tone from the start. Parents are much more likely to go along with a change to snacks if the request comes from the coach. Use my sample coach email to help you get started.
  2. Know the facts.
    You may hear, “What’s the big deal? It’s just a cookie!” and “But the kids are sweating – they need sports drinks!” So be ready with the facts. I created this Sports Snack FAQ to give parents quick responses.
  3. Be kind.
    Some parents will get angry and feel judged if you suggest swapping cupcakes for orange slices. After all, how and what we feed our kids can be really personal! So avoid gossiping about somebody’s unhealthy team snack and don’t send out a suggestion for healthy snacks after someone’s already brought chips or cookies.
  4. Set a great example.
    Simply bringing fruit for team snacks may inspire other parents to do the same. I’ve heard many parents say, “That’s a great idea!” and “Wow, I never thought of that!” when I’ve brought watermelon wedges or cups of berries to the soccer field for team snacks. Get my free printable 20 Healthy Team Snacks that you can post on your fridge for ideas (or pass along to coaches and other team parents).
  5. Suggest scrapping team snacks.
    Sometimes it’s easier to skip the team snack entirely and let everyone make their own choices for their kids, especially if parents can’t agree on appropriate team snacks or if there are children on the team with food allergies.

For more resources, including a sample team email and a short slideshow packed with photos and facts to share with coaches and parents, get my free Sports Snacktivism Handbook.

Please share your thoughts on snacks for sports teams below!

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49 thoughts on “Guest Post: How to Get Healthier Team Snacks on the Sidelines”

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  1. This is not a soccer problem in my town. Oranges are the norm.
    It is, however, an issue for dance competitions I have found. The amount of candy backstage is disappointing. And my child is unhappy that I don’t want her to indulge. It’s frustrating. I may try to address with “coaches” as you suggest.

  2. When our son was taking gymnastics, as part of practice, the coach talked about taking care of your body and eating healthy foods. It had a great impact on him. It would be nice if coaches took the lead somewhat, but as long as we do what we can, it can work.

  3. I have read and re-read this article. I am inspired by tip number 4: “Set a great example.
    Simply bringing fruit for team snacks may inspire other parents to do the same. I’ve heard many parents say, “That’s a great idea!” and “Wow, I never thought of that!” when I’ve brought watermelon wedges or cups of berries to the soccer field for team snacks. Get my free printable 20 Healthy Team Snacks that you can post on your fridge for ideas (or pass along to coaches and other team parents).”

    This is especially so for children. They learn a lot from their parents and their significant others. Through example, we can motivate them to health eating lifestyle.

  4. I have read and re-read this article. I am inspired by tip number 4: “Set a great example.
    Simply bringing fruit for team snacks may inspire other parents to do the same. I’ve heard many parents say, “That’s a great idea!” and “Wow, I never thought of that!” when I’ve brought watermelon wedges or cups of berries to the soccer field for team snacks. Get my free printable 20 Healthy Team Snacks that you can post on your fridge for ideas (or pass along to coaches and other team parents).”

    This is especially so for children. They learn a lot from their parents and their significant others. Through example, we can motivate them to health eating lifestyle.

  5. Love the article!! With two boys we are on many teams that hand out junk!! Can you give any other heartier suggestions for an all day lax tournaments?? Trying to think of some kid friendly 12 year old protein filled group snack?? Someone thought bagels but thinking not the best choice? Definitely will bring the fruit and water too! Thank you!!

    1. I have a lacrosse player. We try to do things like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or wraps, turkey or ham sandwiches, protein type of power/granola bars, hard boiled eggs/deviled eggs, bananas, string cheese. My mind is blank as to what else I usually see on the team table, but that’s a start:)

    2. Thanks Courtney! Kids doing all-day tournaments definitely need some quality nourishment to replenish, especially carbohydrates and protein. I really like Cathy’s suggestions–with sandwiches you have carbs in the bread and protein in the meat, protein in eggs and cheese, carbs in bananas. You could definitely do energy bars (I really like Larabars). Also nuts, yogurt, and homemade snack balls (tons of recipes on Pinterest). And of course plenty of hydration with water. Bring a cooler stocked with healthy options and they’ll be set!

  6. A ‘middle of the road’ suggestion if you have an already established junk food snack team. When it was my turn, I brought fruit and granola bars, water and sports drink. The kids were used to chips/cookies and a sports drink on this team so while some of my choices weren’t the best, at least there was a slight move towards something a little healthier. I loved watching some of the 12-13 yo boys asking for seconds of fruit and quite a few took water, too. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, although I’ve recently noticed a slight trend away from team snacks. Thank goodness!

    1. Cathy–Totally agree. Any steps towards something healthier is a win in my book. I’ve seen kids come back for seconds and thirds when I’ve brought fruit to the field. I think we do a disservice to kids when we assume that all they want is junk food! :)

  7. I couldn’t agree more! I just about fell over when our oldest started a very basic sports program on the weekends and after 30 minutes of mild activity was given a donut and Gatorade. Great suggestion to bring up the snack issue before the first game as I will remember that in the future.

  8. Such a great post! Thank you for writing about this situation. And I’ve seen the same issue not just at sports, but in book clubs, before or after school activities, etc. – even what parents send in for school lunches. I feel it is my responsibility as a parent to use good judgment in food that I give my own kids, and if I am bringing food for all kids, I should be responsible in that, too. The peer pressure is huge! I’ve sent less healthy options than I’d like to simply because “everyone else does’ – and I know other parents feel the same way. I love the idea to partner with the coach ahead of time – and simply to pay attention and DO something rather than just accept junky food overload as reality for our kids. Thank you!

    1. Sarah–Absolutely. The junky snack culture is in a lot of places, and I think it’s just become “what everyone does” so people don’t stop to think about a) the fact that kids are getting so much junk in so many places and b) whether the kids even need a snack at clubs, scout meetings, church, etc. I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

  9. Great post! My husband is a swim coach and it seems that swimming doesn’t have quite the “snack culture” that other team sports have. Awhile back, he felt like his athletes weren’t understanding how good nutrition fit into the overall training scheme. He began to bring in articles to share with the kids about how Olympic swimmers eat to prepare for training and meets. He said he felt like this started to shift awareness from the kids perspective. These were all older kids though– that tactic wouldn’t work so well for a 5 year old :-) But, getting the coach on board with healthy snacks is key!

    1. Katie–That is great to hear. I think as kids get older, the snack becomes less about rewarding them for just showing up and playing and more about fueling them for competition. How wonderful that your husband is teaching his swimmers how food can help them train and prepare for meets–that’s something that young athletes need to understand and it will serve them well as they get older too!

  10. With the rate of rapidly increasing diabetes and childhood obesity, I believe parents need to take more responsibility as they are in a role of influence (including coaches). it is SO important for parents to set an example for kids (after all they are the ones buying the snacks). It’s great the kids are playing sport but we need to follow through with how food and exercise work together. If we want to try to make an dent in this terrible health crisis our country is in, we need to start with the kids and the adults need to get on board.

  11. LOL – sorry but I have to sort of snicker at the undertone to this article. It isn’t up to you to teach others about healthy food. If you don’t want your child to have a processed snack then just have him or her politely say no thank you when he or she is offered said snack. Trying to influence the whole teams’ choice seems like a bit much to me… I would rather bring a bag of cut up oranges to offer to my child after the game and allow my child to share if any teammates would like some than act as though I am turning up my nose at other parents’ food offerings.

      1. Yes – I realize hat is her job in the workplace ! I was more referring to the fact that it is not her job/place to impose her opinions on the team parents.

      2. I disagree. If she wants to offer suggestions for healthy snack alternatives, that is not imposing anything on anyone. It is merely offering a different opinion/perspective. Part of her job is educating others about food. What better place to do that than with the kids her children are around. She is not being preachy or judgemental. She is simply offering resources and suggestions.

      3. It’s funny in our society that we are so dead-set on nobody telling us what to do, even when those things are for the good of our health and the health of our kids. Parents follow all kinds of guidelines and policies for sports and school (bring shin guards, have vaccinations up to date, don’t smoke near the school building) so why can’t parents be encouraged to bring healthier foods when sharing with the whole team? When I help people tackle this issue in their communities, I suggest working with the coach. In many cases, the coaches agree and would rather see their players eating something healthy (or skipping the snack entirely). When the word comes from the coach, parents are much more receptive to it and seem to accept it as another guideline they will happily follow.

    1. LOL – I have to kind of snicker at your comment, KIMW. Do you have a lot of luck getting 12-year-olds to say “no thank you” to cupcakes? Please, please, share your secret!
      I think it is our job as parents to guide and protect our children from the unhealthy– sometimes toxic– temptations out there. Peer pressure is huge, so if gently herding the other team parents on board is part of the effort, put on your herdin’ gloves, moms!

      1. Yes – I have a 12 year old and a 14 year old and at home. We talk about what foods are healthy and what foods are best to avoid because they are processed or lack nutritional value. We have taught our kids ways to say “no thank you” to unhealthy foods when they are offered to them and they have no problem doing that. At age 12 and 14 I think that kids should be able to speak for themselves. They are going into 7th and 9th grades… Are you going to call the school lunch monitor for them to police sharing at the lunch tables? You have to empower your kids to want to make healthy choices for themselves…. Forcing coaches or parents to only offer a certain kind of snack isn’t teaching kids how to choose wisely in the real world.

      2. I agree that kids–especially in their tweens and teens–should understand how foods affect their bodies. Absolutely! But expecting children to pass up treats at every turn (the library, at church, on the soccer fields, at school clubs) is unrealistic. Why not make it easier on parents and limit the number of places we are pushing junk food onto kids? Because after all, it’s the parents providing the junk food in all of these places, and it’s also the parents who tend to get upset about switching to healthier foods. The kids don’t really care. They’re fine with a slice of watermelon (or no snack) after the game. In my years of doing this, I’ve never seen a kid throw a fit because there weren’t Oreos on the sidelines. I have, however, seen parents gripe about the lack of chips and Gatorade!

      3. KimW – I feel like you might be missing the POINT of the article, which is to offer suggestions on how to approach the coach of your son or daughter’s sports team and see about working together to sett an environment for more healthy snacks. Kudos to Sally for being one of “those Moms” who truly care about the health and well being of ALL the kids on the team instead of just her own and for being an advocate for those kids.

  12. Best year of soccer ever was the one when coach asked for orange slices and half liter bottles of water, preferably labeled for each girl. Alternately, you could bring a few gallons of water and cups. Every so often, someone would bring juice boxes as an end of game treat.. No chips,cookies or other junk. – it was great.

  13. My husband coaches our son’s soccer team. These are 10, 11, and 12 year olds, and they play hard for an hour. He brings a cooler of cold water for every game, but we do organize snacks for tournaments, when they’ll be playing 2 or 3 games in a day. We live in south Mississippi, so the heat and humidity are another concern. At the beginning of every season, and before each tournament, he sends out an email to the parents that details what kind of foods the boys should eat and avoid before and in-between games. There is also a list of suggested snacks for half-time, when they are in tournaments. This has helped a lot, because the parents work together to bring healthy snacks to our boys. Frozen grapes and orange slices have become some of the favorites. My husband stresses how the foods and drinks the boys consume affect their play, and that seems to make sense to the parents. This is much more important for these older kids, who are playing at a much more intense level.

    1. Tina–You are totally right that snacks become vital for kids who are playing back to back games or tournaments. They are playing hard and for longer periods of time, so their needs are different than a pee-wee soccer team trotting around the field for 40 minutes. :) I think it’s great that your husband sends out healthy suggestions and that the parents are receptive to his message and working together to provide healthy foods. That’s so important for young athletes!

  14. I am an RD also. When my oldest played soccer for the first time I gently offered to send out ideas to the parents about healthier snacks to the coaches wife as she was going to be “snack mom”….she responded that “she would NOT tell another parent what they could send”. That season was filled with oreos, capri suns, and more except when it was my turn. I am so glad to see more moms and RD moms encouraging fruit, water, and healthier options…or nothing, especially for rec sports! Thanks for a great article! The more its put out there hopefully the tide will turn.

    1. Thanks so much Alicia. Glad to see another RD is fighting the good fight. :) I think you are so right that the more people hear about this and see fruit and healthy options on the field, the more natural it becomes. I’ve had many parents say “Oh, that’s a good idea!” when I’ve brought things like watermelon or strawberries. I think the Oreos and Capri Suns have become so much the standard that people don’t think about the good ol’ orange slices anymore!

  15. I was shocked with the ‘junk’ food that my 10-year-old son was given after his hockey games, and especially by the amount – not one sweet treat or bag of chips, but multiples! However, I will admit that it is hard to be that parent.

    We tried to find a bit of balance – chocolate milk instead of a sports drink or sugar sweetened ‘fruit’ beverage, and something that was a little more healthy for snack time. It is a little harder to have juicy fruit in a change room, but there are still options – popcorn is a fave for my kids..

    I was very happy when our daughter’s soccer league sent an email suggesting healthy snacks, mainly fresh fruit, as a snack time option. Only two weeks and most parents are bringing juice boxes, fresh fruit, and cereal bars. Better, but still processed and more than they need.

    1. Colleen–I know what you mean about finding balance. You’ve got to do what feels best to you and what works for you. And I applaud any kind of movement toward something better and fresher–perfection isn’t required! :)

    1. Kerri–I’ve had really good success bringing fruit to the field. Most kids seem pretty happy to have a refreshing slice of watermelon or orange slice after a game. But one week I brought fruit, and the kids were excited until they noticed that another parent brought Doritos–then they threw the apples back and ran to the chips. Oh well! :)

      1. I usually am the coach and really I am just thankful that some parent took the time to organize snacks. I’ve mulled it over to try to ask my team to bring healthy snacks, but like you said, every other team has their own rules. It kills me because our games and practices are always right before dinner. I may try to approach it as a division wide rule, but I’m not sure how well that will go over. Hmmm….

  16. I paid my son not to eat his soccer snacks. Literally, I’ll give you 2 bucks for the cupcake and Capri sun, and I’ll also give you fruit and water.

    1. Sonia–You’re definitely not the first parent to tell me they pay their kids not to take the junky snack! :(I think there’s definitely a problem when we feel like we have to protect our kids from the team snack, which is supposed to be about kids sharing food and having community together. The snack should be something all the parents feel good about, which is why I advocate for fruit and water only. Or if parents can’t agree, get rid of the team snack altogether and let everyone make their own choice.

  17. Thank you. I just emailed our soccer coach, and we’ll hope for the best. I dread the look my daughter has on her face when she sees a snack that she knows she won’t be able to have with the other kids. I try to remind her that playing soccer is the treat…and that you don’t need a cupcake to have fun.

    1. Alicia–Good luck! I hope your coach is on board, and I hope you’ll keep me posted on what happens. And I totally agree that playing sports should be something kids enjoy on their own without needing to be rewarded every time with cookies!

  18. You probably carry more clout because you’re a nutritionist. I am “that mom,” and it didn’t work out so well. There’s another school of thought that says limiting access to goodies and sweets just makes kids binge more when they get them. I don’t agree, but it’s hard to fight the tide. Most of the time there’s no need for snacks at all. I hate to even say this but when I was a kid, we didn’t get snacks after sports. You played ball, you ran, you went home and had dinner. Maybe that’s the thing. Kids aren’t going home to a dinner. Parents work late and can’t make meals on time. Kids fend for themselves. Even in France, though work hours are nowhere near as crazy as in the U.S.

    1. We didn’t have the traditional “team snack” when I played soccer as a kid either–we had some orange slices on the sidelines at halftime and that was it. Today it’s gotten out of hand in some communities. I’ve heard about goodie bags full of candy and seen kids given entire sleeves of cookies after games! I’m sorry you haven’t had a good experience broaching this topic in the past with parents–that’s part of the reason why I advocate for getting the coach on board early. That way, the request for healthy snacks can come from him/her and parents tend to be much more receptive to that.