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Healthy eating habits for young athletes

The start of the school year means Fall sports for many kids, and concerns about what and when to feed these young athletes for their parents. Yet according to a recent release by the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, nutrition needs of youth athletes do not significantly differ from their non-sport participating peers. The report lists several concerns:

  • Young athletes consume more fast food and sweetened beverages than children not involved in sports.
  • Healthy food and beverages are not easily available at concession stands.
  • Treats like candy, chips, sweetened beverages and pizza provided by parents after games and practice are typically high in sugar and fat.
  •  Youth sport schedules often overlap with family meal times and can result in eating fast food.
  • Parents and coaches often falsely believe that playing sports offsets the negatives of eating unhealthy food.1

Professional sports teams typically employ nutritionists and chefs to make sure that the athletes have easy access to nutrient-dense foods that support health and physical activity. Parents play this role for our young athletes, making sure they meet their nutrition needs and also develop lifelong healthy eating habits. Healthy eating is not only important to play sports at a high level, it’s also important for achievement in school and promoting overall health.

The essentials:  what and when to eat and drink before, during and after sports


  • Carbohydrate is the most important fuel for young athletes because it’s the primary source of energy for exercising muscles. Carbohydrates should comprise 45% to 65% of daily total calorie intake. Good sources of foods high in carbohydrate include whole grains (cereal, bread, pasta, rice, crackers, tortillas), vegetables, fruit, milk and yogurt.2
  • Protein builds and repairs muscles and supports the immune system and should comprise approximately 10% to 30% of total daily energy intake. Good sources of protein include lean meat and poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products, beans and nuts.2
  • Fat is an energy source and also essential for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, E, D and K. Fats should comprise 25% to 35% of total daily energy intake with saturated fats no more than 10% of total energy intake. Good sources of healthier types of fat include fish, nuts, seeds, avocado, and olive and canola oils. Fat from chips, candy, fried foods and baked goods should be minimized.2
  • Plain, unflavored water is always a healthy beverage to make sure your young athletes are hydrated. For exercise that lasts over one hour, or for practice or games on hot and humid days, sports drinks can supply necessary electrolytes as well as promote hydration.1
  • Use the Choose My Plate method to plan meals, filling half the plate with vegetables and fruit, one-quarter of the plate with a food high in protein, and the remaining one-quarter of the plate with whole grains to provide young athletes a balance of carbohydrate, protein and fat.3


Make sure young athletes start their day with a balanced breakfast so they have energy for their school day as well as practice or games after school. Offer plain oatmeal made with milk and sweetened with fresh fruit or unsweetened frozen fruit; or eggs, whole grain toast and 100% fruit juice; or a smoothie made with plain Greek yogurt and fruit.4

Plan meals 3-4 hours before practice or a game to minimize nausea or upset stomach during exercise. For most young athletes, this means eating a balanced lunch is a key fuel source for after school practice or games.4 School lunches provide the carbohydrate and protein kids need for fuel; or opt for a bag lunch with a turkey or peanut butter sandwich, fruit, and yogurt. Encourage your children to drink plain, unflavored water, low-fat milk, or 100% fruit juice for optimum hydration without added sugar.

Snacks 1-2 hours before practice or a game should be low in fat and fiber to allow for quick digestion. A piece of fresh fruit, bowl of cereal with milk, or yogurt with fruit are typically well tolerated and keep energy levels high. Drink plain, unflavored water or 100% fruit juice for hydration.4 After practice or a game, plan meals and snacks that promote muscle recovery. Include a combination of foods with carbohydrate and protein such as a turkey sandwich on whole grain bread with lettuce and tomato; yogurt, fruit and granola; or a bean burrito and glass of milk. Chocolate milk is an excellent post-exercise beverage because it contains carbohydrate and protein to refuel muscles.

In all meals and snacks, limit foods that are high in added sugars and saturated fat such as fast food, processed foods like chips, crispy snacks, and snack cakes; flavored juice drinks, and sweetened beverages. These are often foods that are easily available, but contain few of the essential nutrients young athletes need and can inhibit athletic performance and increase body weight.1


  • Pack a cooler with sandwiches, fruit, raw vegetables, string cheese, yogurt, and hummus to take to sports games. You’ll save money and improve nutrition by avoiding the concession stand.
  • If practice happens at the same time as dinner, make sure your young athlete eats a balanced lunch and brings a packed pre-practice snack with them to school. ½ sandwich and fruit, pretzels and string cheese, or crackers with peanut butter are nutrition-packed options to fuel young athletes.
  • When you pick up your child after sports practice, have a post-practice, pre-dinner snack ready for them in the car. Nuts and grapes or oranges slices, apple slices with nut butter, string cheese and crackers will help refuel muscles and satisfy your children’s appetites until dinner.
  • Plan leftovers or use a crockpot for quick and healthy homemade meals on busy practice or game nights.
  • Encourage your children to make nutrient-dense choices if the team stops for fast food after a game:  a grilled chicken sandwich, bean or chicken burrito, side salad, and apple slices satisfy their appetite and give them essential nutrients their bodies crave.


1.     Healthy Foods and Beverages for Youth in Sports. President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition. Series 17, Number 1. Spring 2016. http://www.fitness.gov/pdfs/2016-spring_elevate_health.pdf  accessed 8-20-16

2.     Purcell LK, Canadian Paediatric Society, Paediatric Sports and Exercise Medicine Section. Sport nutrition for young athletes. Paediatrics & Child Health. 2013;18(4):200-202.

3.     USDA Choose My Plate. https://www.choosemyplate.gov/ accessed 8-20-16

4.     8 Game Day Nutrition Tips for Young Athletes. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. http://www.eatright.org/resource/fitness/sports-and-performance/tips-for-athletes/8-game-day-nutrition-tips-for-young-athletes Accessed 8-21-16

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