Phil Holmes BA (Hons), PGCE, Adv Dip.Nut MRSPH

The return to school sees a return to food planning and preparation, particularly with many schools operating a reduced catering provision to help curb any spread of germs and disease.

Pre-lockdown I had seen very similar patterns with the teen athletes I work with. Boys were probably less disciplined than the girl athletes but a typical pattern would go as follows:

  • Stay in bed until the very last moment
  • Wake up feeling lethargic
  • Grab a slice of toast or a pain au chocolate on the way out of the door
  • Feel hungry through the early lessons
  • Eat the packed lunch at break time / buy cookies or a foot long white panini, layered with cheap, high fat cheese
  • Feel tired through middle lessons as the sugar wears off / packed lunch volume kicks in
  • If packed lunch already gone then play football with mates at lunchtime – no food after
  • Afternoon lessons a mixture of fatigue due to lack of energy or fatigue due to eating in a rush at lunchtime
  • End of school, drop into a local shop with mates to buy generally sugary carbs
  • Feel energised due to the sugar rush but then crash and feel tired again at home

The overall effect here is that:

  • lesson performance suffers – “it’s soooooo boring at school”
  • homework quality suffers – “I can’t be bothered / they didn’t teach us this today / yes, I’ve finished it already, we didn’t get much “
  • after school sports performance is inconsistent and therefore the rate of sporting progress fluctuates
  • the athlete doesn’t get enough quality fuel in regular servings
  • relationships at home suffer as the adults start the day trying to drag them out of bed and then spend the evening trying to get them into bed and to “switch that bloody light off”. This leads to easy ammunition the next morning – “Well if you’d turned your light off last night when I told you….”

Those who have school lunches do have the chance to eat at the middle part of the day. Those with PLs often eat at 10.30 or 11 and then have nothing else until around 4pm; it’s simply too long a gap.

My recommendations here are:

Pack enough for them to have 2 sittings. This ensures regular intake of food you can buy and ultimately control whilst hopefully minimizing the reliance on ‘tuck-shop’ provision which is often sugar based and made for large profit.

The ‘taste’ of certain individuals may have to be gently changed but:

  1. Use wholemeal bread instead of white. Make double the amount so they can eat at break and lunch.
  2. Make surplus pasta or rice with evening meals and therefore have it ready to use for a school meal, as a change from sandwiches, the next day = saves time
  3. Try aim for some protein with each meal – cheese strings as a snack will help ‘fussy’ eaters, boiled eggs are easy to make and store in the fridge, ham, chicken or turkey can be bought in all supermarkets in sliced form. Tuna is another good choice.
  4. Have a chat about their sporting ambition and pick out a role model (research social media first where you’ll find quite a lot of content now from star performers showing their training or physique). Think Rachel Daly or Phil Foden (football), Johanna Konta (tennis), Charley Hull (golf), Ben Stokes (cricket)….you get the idea. They are all extremely athletic and good role models.
  5. This may then help you to agree on some foods to include in the packed lunches. Enough energy takes priority over clean eating. Keep the relationship with food positive. Girls actually need calories as they would be hindering their performance by focusing on social media led physiques (from non-athletes, ironically). To boost calories / energy levels include avocado if you can. Good in pastas or sandwiches and the fat content will help the feeling of being full
  6. Many schools are now nut free so check content but flapjacks will be a good sweet tasting snack. If you can home make them and teach the athlete how to do this, even better.
  7. Use rice cakes over crisps. If you are losing this suggestion then concede but make sure they are aware that sandwiches and pasta / rice based lunches are their priority
  8. Try to include milk or yoghurts to boost calcium – providing they aren’t intolerant. These could even be frozen the night before and left to keep other parts cool the next day.
  9. Encourage veg to be included through chopped up portions in a small tub or as part of a pasta salad. Fruit is easily included.
  10. Young athletes are actually very good with water but ensure they have a water bottle to stay hydrated. Avoid anything fizzy.

These are hopefully steps that can be accepted by the moody, lazy, reluctant school attendees that may be your offspring! Over the course of working with teen athletes I’ve unanimously seen an improvement in their eating habits, a willingness to try different foods and an increased readiness to prepare food, including at breakfast time. Having enough energy (primarily for sport if they are aspirational) is critical as they return to training and, hopefully soon, playing. The knock-on effect is that this gives regular energy from better sources throughout the day which gives the added benefit of being able to be more attentive through the school day.

I have also found that a different voice works better than the familiar ‘nag’ of a parent. If you need some assistance, please get in touch.

Best wishes for the return to sport, school and the new normal.