As young athletes grow and get more competitive, their diet becomes a central focus. Learn about the best foods for athletes to get the job done.
Foods Athletes Should Eat
The mystery behind what should be included in your young athlete’s diet is never-ending, partly because miracle foods are constantly surfacing, while other foods fall from grace.
When it comes to the athlete’s diet, it’s important to consider the nutritional requirements for growth and development, as well as for athletic performance.
As a youth sports nutrition expert and author, I see young athletes make mistakes with food choices and eating habits. As a mom who has raised athletes, I also know the struggle of feeding them and encouraging a nutritious diet.
In this article, I cover some of the unhealthy eating habits among young athletes while diving into some of the best foods for athletes you’ll want to include in your meal plan.
Young Athletes with Unhealthy Eating Habits
Skipping breakfast, snacking on nutrient-poor foods, or using weight control measures like diets not only curtail nutrient intake, they can impair athletic performance.
To complicate matters, good nutrition for athletes depends on several other things that aren’t necessarily food-related.
For one, the timing and regularity of eating throughout the day, or the athlete meal plan, helps the athlete cover his appetite and meet his total nutritional requirements.
Secondly, the balance of nutrients, particularly protein and carbohydrate, can be particularly useful for ongoing muscle building and efficient recovery.
While the best nutrition for athletes involves several details, one thing is certain: food choices matter.
I’m not suggesting you have to be 100% organic or free from unhealthy foods, but child and teenage athletes do need to be well-balanced in nutrition.
Certain foods are powerhouse additions and help to make a healthy diet for the young athlete.
If you can begin to work some of these foods into your athlete’s daily diet, you can rest-assured you are incorporating optimal nutrition for training and performance.
10 of the Best Foods for Athletes
All nuts are chock-full of healthy fats, fiber, protein, magnesium and vitamin E. Use them to top yogurt or cereal, or just grab a handful on the way to practice.
If nut allergies aren’t a concern, slip a small package of peanuts, almonds or cashews into the gym bag for a quick and tasty snack.
Similar to nuts, seeds are full of fiber, healthy fats, magnesium and vitamin E. Eat them like you would nuts.
They are a great substitute if your athlete is allergic to nuts.
3. Ready-to-eat Cereal (cold cereal)
Cereal is fortified with nutrients such as folic acid, iron, calcium, and vitamins A and E, making them a good source of nutrients.
Have it for breakfast, snack, or dinner in a pinch, but beware of choosing cereal with too much sugar.
Cereals with less than 8 or 9 grams of sugar per serving are best.
Want to know what I think are the 17 best cold cereal options for kids? Read this and be sure to download my handy chart!
4. 100% Orange Juice
Increasingly, you can find calcium and vitamin D- fortified OJ, and it’s a good source of folic acid and vitamin C, too.
Don’t guzzle it though!
Kids aged 7-18 years should keep a cap on juice — no more than one cup (8 ounces) per day, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
Orange juice can be a significant source of calories when more than a cup is consumed daily.
Magical indeed! Full of fiber, protein, iron, zinc and magnesium—find ways to fit beans into your athlete’s diet plan.
Roast them for a crunchy snack, top a salad, layer into a burrito, or throw them in with diced tomatoes for a hearty pasta dish.
Cheese is a quick and easy snack, especially when packaged in sticks or blocks. Mix cheese into casseroles, pasta and layer it in sandwiches.
Cheese is full of calcium, potassium, and protein.
Yogurt is a good source of calcium, vitamin D, potassium and protein. Go for Greek varieties if you are looking for extra protein from whole foods (though most young athletes don’t need large amounts of protein in their diet).
Eat yogurt as part of a meal, a snack, or dessert.
8. Milk or Soy milk
Dairy milk is a natural source of calcium, potassium, and protein, and is fortified with vitamin D. These nutrients are present in all milk with the variation of calorie content based on the amount of fat contained in the milk.
Some teen athletes choose to drink whole milk because they struggle to meet their nutritional and calorie needs during the day, especially when they’re in a growth spurt.
If you’re not sure which milk — whole milk, low fat or skim milk– would be most appropriate for your athlete, I’ve done the research for you and have summarized the pros and cons for you in this article about whole milk.
If soy milk is your go-to, make sure it is fortified with calcium and vitamin D and shake the carton so the minerals don’t settle to the bottom.
Many athletes use flavored milk (chocolate milk) after an intense workout to help their muscles recover. There’s plenty of research that suggests this is an effective way to refuel and recover after more than an hour of intensive exercise.
The combination of carbs and protein helps replenish the muscles with energy in the form of glycogen and uses protein to repair muscles.
Want to learn more about protein and athletes? Check out my podcast episodes!
9. Dark Green Leafy Vegetables
Dark green leafy veggies like kale, spinach and collard greens offer iron and calcium.
Pair these with foods that are high in vitamin C, such as red peppers, tomatoes or citrus fruit, or serve them with meat to maximize the absorption of iron.
10. Orange Fruits and Vegetables
Loaded with vitamins C, E, A, and potassium, these help your immune system stay healthy.
Healthy athletes stay strong and able to play!
More Food for Athletes
If feeding your athlete is a challenge, I’ve got several resources for you:
My online program: Eat Like a Champion (tailored for the athlete and parent)
And don’t forget to snag my 70 Awesome Snacks for Young Athletes below!Want New Snack Ideas for Your Athlete? Click Here!
Written by: Jill Castle, MS, RDN
Published on: August 15, 2018
Updated on: July 6, 2019