The energy needs of gymnasts are much higher than the average child their age. This means that gymnasts need to be keeping up with their high energy needs through the amount and types of food they eat. And while this is challenging for almost every high level gymnast, this can become even more of a challenge when the gymnast is a picky eater. No matter what the limitations, it is crucial for them to meet their energy needs and performance and health issues as a result of to under-fueling.
Division of Responsibility
The goal for feeding all children is to help meet their nutrition needs by allowing them to explore new foods and discover their likes and dislikes. Feeding a child is a partnership, and there is an (age appropriate) division of responsibilities. A parent's job is to choose and prepare food, provide regular meals and snacks, make eating times pleasant, and be considerate of your child’s lack of food experience without solely catering to their likes and dislikes. The gymnast's job is to decide to eat or not to eat the foods provided, ad how much to eat of of the food provided. Understanding this division of responsibility will help make meal time a positive experience and help your gymnast develop a healthy relationship with food.
Avoid labeling your gymnast as a “picky eater”
Picky eating is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more we label kids as one way, they will continue to behave in that way. When kids are labeled as a “picky eater” they can sometimes use that as an excuse to stay in their comfort zone and not try new foods. Instead of picky, I'd encourage you to think of your child as "shy" around food, in a way that they don't feel safe or comfortable to try yet, but could just need some more time, information, and low-pressure support from you.
If meal time is a struggle for you and your gymnast as a result of picky eating, consider these tips to help your child develop an open mind and healthy relationship with food while still fueling their body for performance.
Focus on Making Meal Time A Positive Experience
For many families with picky eaters, meal times can feel all but present. The anticipation of "will they" / "won't they", the arguing, pleading, bribing, and even yelling can make mealtimes dreadful not just for the parent but for the kid as well.
To make mealtimes more of a positive experience for all parties, it may be helpful to reset your expectations. A child that feels pressure at mealtime is not a child that is listening to their body, nor are they likely to go out of their comfort zone. A picky eater could have so many thoughts running through their head:
What if I don't want eat it?
What if there is something about this food that I do not prefer?
Will I disappoint them?
What if I actually do like it? Will I have to eat it again?
What if I'm not "the picky one"? Then who am I?
While there may be good intentions behind your comments or reactions, they could give you the opposite of what you want. Instead, in a calm moment, help your child explore their fears and anxieties around food and help them to work through them.
It may also be helpful to help your gymnast dig deeper into their food preferences. As a child, this is something they are still learning about themselves and may need some help. Instead of just asking them if they like a food or not, or allowing them to completely write off a food, ask them more specific questions about food characteristics like flavor, texture, temperature, or spice. It may even be helpful to do this with foods you know they do like to help you both better identify new foods they may be more likely to enjoy.
Bribes Never Work
As well intentioned as they may be, if you're looking for your kids to become competent eaters on their own accord, bribes surrounding food rarely work in the long run.
For example, when you tell your gymnast, “If you eat your vegetables, you can have dessert” it is actually making the dessert more valuable and desirable and the vegetables not as valuable.
Instead of rewarding your child for eating, explain to them why they should incorporate a certain food. For example, “ Today, I put chicken on your plate, Chicken has protein that can help make your muscles stronger for gymnastics”. This approach is more positive and is making the food at hand important while helping the child form a healthy relationship with food. When kids are educated on what and how certain foods fuel their bodies, they will be more likely to eat new foods.
Be a Good Role Model
Children cannot model what they cannot see. They often need your reinforcement that a food is "safe" to eat. As the parent, it’s important to set a good example and eat the foods you would like them to try, as well as discuss those foods in a more descriptive way (ex: this broccoli is so crunchy!
Prepare One Meal For The Family
As a busy gym parent, it is not your job to also be a short order cook. If you continually give your gymnast an option to eat something completely different than the rest of the family, they expect that to always be an option and may be more resistant to trying new foods.
Instead, get your child involved (as much as their busy schedule allows). Allowing them to help you with the menu planning (like asking for them to choose one meal per week or what fruit they'd like to see) grocery shopping, meal preparation, can help them get more comfortable around new foods or be willing to try something.
Add them in your child's favorite meal
With each meal, try to incorporate at least one "safe" food - something you know your child will eat (if nothing else). As previously mentioned, as a parent, it is your job to make the final call of what's being served and it is ultimately their choice to eat or not. That way, they are at least comforted by one food they know, like, and trust.
If your child often requests a favorite meal, a simple step may be to try to add something new or different paired with or in this meal. For example, if your gymnast is a big fan of mac and cheese, you can try dicing up broccoli or zucchini in the mac and cheese or even serving it on the side. The gymnast may be more inclined to try the new unfamiliar food with their favorite meal.
Incorporate Nutrient Dense Foods In Unique Ways
Oftentimes kids are resistant to eating foods like proteins or vegetables, which are an important part of a gymnasts fueling plan. Vegetables contain all the vitamins and minerals that every gymnast needs to keep their immune system strong and promote recovery. So it is important to figure out ways to include them in their diet. While we never want to hide, trick, or do anything that would cause our children to lose our trust and become even more skeptical around foods, it may make it more palatable for picky eaters to eat these foods incorporated into more familiar dishes.
Protein can be added into meals by mixing dry milk powder into mixed dishes like meatballs or meatloaf or by cooking grains like rice in bone broth. Vegetables are easy to incorporate in a smoothie or in pasta sauce. Below are a couple recipes that have hidden vegetables!
Vegetable pasta sauce:
4-5 cups cherry tomatoes - whole
1 large onion (red or white) - chopped
2 small zucchinis (about 2 cups) - diced
2 red peppers - diced
2-3 large carrots (about 2 cups) - peeled and diced
4 cloves of garlic - sliced
2 tsp dried oregano
1-2 tsp salt - or to taste
black pepper - to taste
In a large pot, add all the ingredients, except for the cherry tomatoes. Cook on medium-high heat for about 8-10 minutes or until the veggies are slightly browned and softened. Stir regularly and use a small amount of oil or water to prevent the veggies from sticking to the bottom of the pot.
Then, add the cherry tomatoes, ½ cup of water and stir well. Keep cooking, covered and on medium heat, for about 10-15 minutes stirring frequently. Keep the mixture to a low simmer.
When the cherry tomatoes are cracked and have opened up, you can remove the cover and keep cooking for a few more minutes to let the water evaporate a bit so the sauce is not too watery after blended.
Transfer the mixture to a blender and blend until you reach a very smooth texture.
Taste and adjust the seasonings. Also, if you want a thinner sauce, simply add a small amount of water and blend again.
Recipe inspired by: Plant based Jess
Berry and spinach smoothie:
2 cups frozen berries
1 cup greek yogurt
½ cup orange juice
¼ cup fresh spinach
Recipe inspired by: All recipes
Try, Try, and Try Again
Continue to offer new foods even if your gymnast has already said no to them before. Try offering the same foods on different days, at different times and try different recipes where the food is prepared in different ways. Don’t give up, because chances are if it is continually offered, they will try it at some point and may learn to like it. The research has shown that it can take up to 12 exposures to a new food before kids are willing to even try it . Exposure could be listening to parents talk about how different unfavorable foods may benefit them or maybe even having the gymnasts help prepare the food.
Let Them Explore
Encourage picky eaters to get more involved with food related tasks as a way of learning more about new foods and becoming invested in the process. When time allows (and in age appropriate ways), take them to the store with you, allow them to help pick out food, teach them about where it comes from, allow them to hold it, smell it, and even play with it.
All of this may help them warm up to eventually trying something new.
What if they refuse to eat anything at the meal?
As a parent of a gymnast, you are allowed to set boundaries along the grounds of safety. If your gymnast is choosing not to eat, especially at a crucial time (like before practice or a competition), you are still allowed to enforce that boundary.
"My number one job as your parent is to keep you safe, and going to a long gymnastics practice without eating is not safe. If you are choosing not to eat anything, you are also choosing to stay home from practice tonight. How can we work together to make a choice that aligns with the goals you've shared with me?"
By putting the ball in their court, empowering them to make their own choice, and inviting them to be part of the solution, a gymnast may feel more ready to eat. And if not, ultimately that is their choice.
When Is Picky Eating *More* Than Just Picky Eating?
Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID)
Sometimes the causes of picky eating are rooted deeper than just food preference and can have more to do with medical conditions, sensory challenges, history and trauma surrounding food and eating environments. ARFID (avoidant restrictive food intake disorder) is a feeding disorder characterized by extremely selective eating behaviors with little interest in eating food. They may only eat a limited variety of foods which, without proper intervention, can lead to health problems and malnourishment.
Signs and symptoms of ARFID:
Being very selective when it comes time to eat a meal
Negative reactions to smells, tastes, textures, or colors of foods.
Being fearful of new foods, called “neophobia,” and scared of negative experiences related to unfamiliar foods.
lack of interest in eating accompanied with a very low appetite
Being afraid of what might happen when they eat; for example, experiencing stomach pain, choking, or vomiting.
Side effects of ARFID:
Deficiency in vitamins, minerals, and protein
Poor growth and development
dizziness and fainting due to low blood pressure
a slow pulse
weakened bones (osteoporosis) and muscles
stopped menstrual periods (amenorrhea)
If you are noticing that your gymnast may be experiencing symptoms of ARFID, it is strongly recommend to discuss these concerns with your child's pediatrician, and will likely require the help of a child feeding team, which includes a Registered Dietitian, Speech Language Pathologist, Occupational Therapist, and/or Mental Health Professional.
As parents, the number one goal is to keep our children safe, and that includes ensuring they are getting enough energy and nutrients into their body to keep up with the demands of the sport. While picky eating can feel like the ultimate struggle around your dinner table, please know that when educated and empowered, most children do grow out of it. Sometimes, they just need the support and guidance of a third party. If you're looking for more support fueling your picky gymnast, as a registered dietitian, I am here to help.