Nutrition Tips for Teen Athletes to Perform their Best

Jill Hussels, RDN| View Author Bio
Three young athletes standing on starting line of track, ready to race.

As a dietitian and mom of two active girls, I know how important and challenging it can be to provide nutritious meals and snacks for hungry kids with a busy schedule. With each sports season, comes after-school practices and games which throws us off our routine meal schedule. I find having a nutrition game plan for when they are on and off the field helps ensure they are getting the nutrition they need to fuel their growth, development, and athletic performance.

Below are some tips for snack and meal planning to help your teen athlete perform their best.

#1: Start the Day with Breakfast

A teen’s body needs fuel in the tank after a night of sleep. Research shows eating breakfast regularly keeps their brains and bodies fueled properly, providing the energy needed for the upcoming day’s activities so they are focused and ready to learn.

As a parent, I know mornings can sometimes be hectic and the thought of a sit-down meal can be overwhelming. Instead of skipping breakfast altogether, consider encouraging your athlete to take breakfast-on-the-go or grab breakfast served at school. Both options are a convenient way to start their day with a nutritious meal.

A well-balanced breakfast includes a mix of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, protein, and dairy. Easy breakfast on-the-go ideas include:

  • Milk and yogurt fruit smoothie and a homemade breakfast bar
  • Greek yogurt, mixed berries, granola
  • Whole grain bagel topped with nut butter, banana slices and a bottle of milk
  • Apple Pie Overnight Oats
  • Whole grain wrap with ham, cheese, and spinach
  • Egg and avocado mash on whole wheat toast and a yogurt

For additional delicious meal ideas to help teen athletes start their day, check out this create your own Dairy Delicious Breakfast Bowl and these other breakfast recipes.

A colorful assortment of nutritious foods beautifully arranged in bowls, promoting a healthy and balanced diet.
#2: Plan Snacks Ahead

When it comes to athletic performance, it’s important for teens to eat right and hydrate to fuel their workout. Planning snacks in advance helps ensure there are nutritious options needed for activities throughout the day. In addition, snacks can help fill nutrient gaps in a teen athlete’s diet.

When it comes to snacks, the most important nutrients to consider for an athlete are carbohydrates and protein.

Carbohydrates (fruits, vegetables, grains, and dairy) provide the main source of energy for muscles.

Protein (lean meats, dairy, nuts/nut butters, seeds, eggs) provides building blocks needed to build, support, and repair muscles.

I tell my athletic girls to think of snacks as “mini meals.” They should aim to pair carbohydrate-rich foods with high-quality protein foods. They should also select snack foods that provide vitamins and minerals and that are low in saturated fat. Including protein with snacks can help athletes with meeting their overall protein needs for the day.

Consider these easy and teen-friendly grab ‘n go options when planning snacks for home, school, or on the road.

  • Whole grain cereal with milk
  • String cheese and whole grain crackers
  • Carrots with hummus
  • Banana with nut butter
  • Smoothie made with Greek yogurt, milk, and fruit
  • Graham crackers and peanut butter
  • Trail mix made with pretzels, whole grain cereal, dried fruits, and nuts
#3: Recover After a Workout

It’s just as important for athletes to focus on consuming the right foods and drinks after a workout to support recovery. After a big game or tough practice, athletes should focus on these three concepts for recovery:

  1. Hydration to replace fluid and electrolytes lost in sweating during the activity
  2. Carbohydrates to replenish energy used during the activity
  3. Protein to rebuild and repair lean muscle mass

If it will be several hours before the next meal, athletes should eat a post-workout snack following their practice or game. Dairy is a great choice for exercise recovery. Chocolate milk has the ideal amounts of protein and carbohydrate to support muscle repair and rebuild. White milk can also be a choice and both can help with hydration needs.

Photo collage with 3 images. Left image shows close up view of female athlete holding a bottle of chocolate milk. Upper right image shows bottle of white milk next to pickle ball racket and bag. Lower right image shows an action shot of a teenage girl kicking a soccer ball into a soccer net.

Other easy recovery nutrition snack ideas include:

  • Cottage cheese and pineapple
  • Pita chips and hummus
  • Whole wheat bagel and cream cheese
  • Peanut butter and banana sandwich
  • Apple or pear slices with cheese stick
  • Yogurt with granola and berries
  • Trail mix with nuts and dried fruit

Teen athletes can follow up their recovery nutrition snack with a well-balanced meal in the next couple of hours. Ideas for post-workout meals* include:

  • Burrito bowl with rice, chicken, black beans, corn salsa, guacamole
  • Grilled salmon, sweet potato, steamed broccoli, dinner roll
  • Pasta with meat sauce, salad, breadsticks
  • Grilled chicken breast, brown rice, green beans, sliced melon

*Include milk or lactose-free milk with meals for those with lactose intolerance.

It’s also important that your athlete drinks lots of water throughout their practice or game for hydration to replace fluid lost through sweating.

For more sports nutrition tips for teen athletes, visit Dairy and Sports Nutrition: Teen Athletes | New England Dairy.

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