Give junk food the Red Card

It’s hard to believe that it is already May and we are well into the Spring. Although there is one thing that reminds me that despite the unpredictable weather, change is in the air. Or rather, there has been a ‘change of air’ as there is something that is now, thankfully, absent. No longer am I greeted with the unmistakeable thick stench of abandoned muddy rugby boots every time I cross my front door. Strangely, there always seems to be more pairs of boots and empty gumshield cases than children in my household. But I don’t dare open any unfamiliar looking boot bags among the heap, lest I disturb their murky contents.

For now, though, it is safe to breathe in deeply and enjoy the Spring air. Rugby season has finally finished, which means some temporary relief from the particular ‘rugby smell’ that can assault your nostrils when you least expect it. It will be almost 5 months before the season begins again and one of my children will be forced to delve through the dirty kit in search of their missing gumshield. But this doesn’t mean that I will now be able to put up my feet and try to remember what we used to do on the weekend before spending it on the sidelines. For my family, the end of one sport always kickstarts the next and since it’s Spring, it can only be athletics and the beginning of track season.

Instead of packing bags of muddy boots and scrum caps, we now take spikes and foam rollers, but they are still stuffed into some enormous kit bags we have to lug around. The sport may have changed but as parents, we still face the same challenges. How do we manage to get everyone to training and competitions and keep them well-fed and watered? Not to mention, taking care of ourselves? It is difficult enough to coordinate family meals around any weekday sports training, especially if you have more than one child or sport. But sports competitions and fixtures that take place over several hours on the weekend are a whole different challenge. Especially because sports events are always catered more for the spectators rather than participants and this is never more true than when it comes to children’s sports.

The bulk of sports clubs that host tournaments and competitions are run by dedicated volunteers, but most are also very poorly funded. This is often evident by how they try to save funds through the catering they provide. Often the only choices available to parents are both expensive and unhealthy. How many clubs rely on raising moneys through a perpetual tuck shop of sweets and treats? Typically, hungry families can select from an array of chocolate bars, biscuits disguised as ‘flapjacks’, brightly coloured pick ‘n mix sweets and fizzy drinks. Sometimes there are hot options, but they are generally limited to bacon rolls, hot dogs or chips. Even the clubs that provide post-match teas to visiting teams often resort to cutting costs by using low-quality cheap ingredients. Ask any child who plays a team sport and they will be able to reel off a list and rate, all of the clubs and schools that give them a good match tea and those to avoid at all costs. Even at larger sports competitions which may host several outside caterers, the choice for families among the competing burger and ice cream vans remains the same. Something greasy and highly salted, something deep-fried or something full of sugar? Is it any wonder that seeing a convoy of fast food vans hitched up to a school or stadium for a children’s sports competition has become normalised?

Of course, the obvious solution is to bring all your own food. After all, no one is forcing you to buy this rubbish. But in the reality of children’s sports, games and races are often slightly chaotic and don’t always keep to time. You might then think that if parents know that things can run late for particular sports for spurious ‘leaves on the line’ reasons, they would just always bring more food. However, it is difficult to get it completely right because there are delays and there are DELAYS. You may also unexpectedly have to stay even later because your child steps up and subs in for someone injured or they manage to make it to the final. Sure, we’re happy for them but even the most organised parent will be feeling a moment of dread as they mentally stocktake their remaining supply of food.

Even if you somehow bring enough of the right food to sustain your child’s hunger and energy to play their sport well. The challenge is that you must also have enough food to make it back home safely again, without having to stop to feed them. Who would want to delay getting home even further by having to stop to buy some of the same unhealthy food that you spent the entire day avoiding? But after a long day, when you are also knackered, you need resilience of steel to keep driving past the motorway service stations when you have a car full of hangry children.

It would be great to think that things are getting better. With the new sugar tax being enforced on high sugar drinks and the increased focus on tackling childhood obesity, and sources of unhealthy foods, surely that will include sports. Unfortunately, there has always been a strong relationship between the funding and sponsorship of all sports with manufacturers that promote junk food. Which means that healthy food is now in a bit of a blind spot when it comes to sports. Junk food not only does not look out of place, but it is expected. Is it any surprise, then, that junk food is also promoted, sold and relied on as a source of income at children’s sporting events?

As parents, we could carry on as normal until Jamie Oliver gets his trainers on and turns his attention to the junk being pushed to our children playing sport. But he seems pretty busy, so in the meantime, I think we can only try harder to resist the rubbish by saying no. It means having to be the ‘bad cop’ and being more organised, planning ahead and bringing enough healthy meals and snacks yourself. But at least I can offer 3 small tips that might make it easier:

  1. Don’t do it alone. If you are preparing and packing all of this food to watch your children play sport, they should at least be helping you do this. They don’t need to know that by doing it, they will also be helping you wean them off ketchup.
  2. Go large. If your children are old enough to pack all their own food and they claim that they have packed enough, do not under any circumstances believe them. They know what will happen if they run out of food, you are desperate and there’s no healthy food for miles. Be one step ahead by grabbing an extra bag of rolls or bread that you know they like to eat and taking some extra portable fruit or veg packs for good measure. That’ll teach them.
  3. Always pack emergency rations. You may have brought a picnic of biblical proportions and even extra provisions but what if things go completely awry or you hit a traffic jam going home? Having some long-life packs of snacks such as nuts, trail mix or packs of crackers that you can leave in the car will save you.

These tips may not solve everything, because nothing is ever easy about being a parent. But you have to hope that if more families also stop buying junk food at their children’s sports events then the unhealthy vans may eventually roll on by. Meanwhile, I still face the eternal challenge of coordinating mealtimes with an ever-changing schedule of my family’s sports. And with Spring now here, I know that I am about to make things worse, as I ponder several fliers advertising different athletics events coming up. With so many leaflets full of smiling, happy medal-wearers, the difficulty will be in choosing an event. Should I sign up for a fun run, a 10km or a Half-Marathon? Then again, what about a triathlon or cycling sportive…And more importantly, do you get a t-shirt??

While considering what to sign up for, I return to the kitchen once more. This time to make something portable. Try these Tropical bars for a snack you can grab before a big workout.

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