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10 Foods Athletes Should Eat

Learn about the foods athletes should eat to be at the top of their game. Fuel top athleticism, grow optimally, and be healthy. These foods can spur a young athlete’s success on and off the court.

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.

Remember the hoopla around coconut oil? Yeah, not such a great idea if you want to have a healthy heart down the road.

When it comes to foods athletes should eat, it’s important to consider their nutritional requirements for growth and development, as well as those for athletic performance.

An Athlete’s Diet Should Consist Of 7 Key Elements

To breakdown the nutrition aspect for young athletes, generally an athlete’s meal plan should include:

  • Adequate calories for growth, development and performance
  • Protein for muscle growth and repair
  • Carbohydrates for muscle energy
  • Fat for fat-soluble vitamins and rounding out caloric requirements
  • Vitamins and minerals to maintain health and development of brain, bones and the body
  • Water and other fluids to maintain hydration
  • Fiber for normal bowel movements and gut health

As a youth sports nutrition expert and author of Eat Like a Champion, I see young athletes make mistakes with food choices and eating patterns. As a mom who has raised my own young athletes, I also know the struggle of feeding them and encouraging a nutritious diet. 

In this article, I cover some of the unhealthy eating patterns among young athletes and dive into some of the key foods for top performers. You’ll want to include these in your athlete’s meal plan.

The best foods for athletes:

  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Ready-to-Eat Cereal
  • 100% Orange Juice
  • Beans
  • Cheese
  • Yogurt
  • Milk or Soy Milk
  • Dark Green Leafy Vegetables
  • Orange Fruits & Vegetables
best food for athletes list

Unhealthy Eating Patterns Get in the Way

It’s no mystery that many children and teens miss out on important nutrients like calcium, vitamin D, fiber and potassium.

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 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 development and efficient recovery. 

While the best nutrition plan for athletes involves several details, one thing is certain: Food choice matters.

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 their nutrition. 

In fact, I believe there are certain foods that are powerhouse additions to the athlete meal plan. They help encourage a healthy diet and optimal athletic performance.

If you can begin to work these foods into your athlete’s meal plan, you can rest-assured you are incorporating optimal nutrition for training and performance.

10 Foods Athletes Should Eat

10 Foods You Should Eat Everyday if You’re an Athlete (Or, Most Days)

Here, you’ll find my top 10 list of best foods for athletes, why I recommend them, and how to incorporate them into the diet.

Include the following foods in your athlete’s eating plan and your athlete will be well on his way to fueling himself better.

1. Nuts

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.

2. Seeds

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.

Here are the cereals I think are options for kids: 17 Best Cereals for Kids

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.

5. Beans

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.

6. Cheese

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.

7. Yogurt

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.

Read my advice on how to pick the best kids yogurt!

25+ Fast & Nutritious Breakfast Recipes for the Young Athlete book cover

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 or in a high-calorie burning sport.

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’s 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 sweaty exercise.

The combination of carbs and protein helps replenish 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!

Whole Foods vs. Supplements: Which is Best?

Are Protein Supplements Good for Young Athletes?

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.

Want to learn more about iron and athletes? Read 8 Facts About Iron and Young Athletes You Should Know.

10. Orange Fruits and Vegetables

Loaded with vitamins C, E, A, and potassium, these help your athlete’s immune system stay healthy.

Healthy athletes stay strong and won’t be benched!

More Nutrition Resources for Young Athletes

If feeding your athlete is a challenge, I’ve got several resources for you:

Fast & Healthy Dinner Recipes for Young Athletes

Healthy Breakfasts for Teenage Athletes

Pre-Season Training Camp: 9 Nutrition Tips for Young Athletes

And don’t forget to snag my 70 Awesome Snacks for Young Athletes below!

Want New Snack Ideas for Your Athlete? Click Here!
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  1. I was really impressed by the picture of meat and veggies, but stopped reading when you got to cereal. Cereal for athletes? I’m sure you’ve heard talk that the boxes are usually healthier than the cereal. Not saying much. Besides if a food needs that much fortification to be “healthy,” why bother?

    1. Hi Jennifer, I respect your viewpoint on not considering cereal a healthy option for athletes, however, I take a different viewpoint. Many young athletes are on the go, need shelf-stable fuel, and like cereal as a quick pre-training option. No one food makes or breaks a growing athlete — it’s the total balance of food over time.