Ask A Dietitian: What Are The Best Snacks to Give My Athlete?
Whether it’s before, during, or after a game, these are recommendations and ideas for how to fuel your young athletes in training.
Feeding your child a healthy diet is important every day, but it's even more so when you have a young athlete. Diet impacts energy levels, stamina, and even mood, so fueling your child adequately so they perform at their best is key before, during, and after a training session or game.
Before Training or Competition
The foods and beverages consumed before training or competition play a key role when it comes to energy, stamina, and performance. Recommendations for what that looks like varies based on the time consumed.
12 to 24 hours prior: Make sure your child consumes water or other low-calorie, decaffeinated fluids to ensure adequate hydration.
3 to 4 hours prior: Eating a meal three to four hours prior to activity is also important and should primarily consist of complex carbohydrates and lean protein. Fat doesn't need to be avoided. However, fat takes longer to digest, so it's recommended that you choose lower fat foods.
Recommendations for meals 3 to 4 hours prior:
- Whole grain crackers with peanut or almond butter
- Cereal with low-fat milk
- Turkey sandwich on whole grain bread
- Low-fat yogurt topped with berries and whole grain granola
1 hour prior: If your young athlete feels a little empty or that they need a little pick-me-up before game time, offer something that's primarily composed of natural sugars that are easy to digest. Avoid foods that contain added sugars as these can cause dramatic changes in glucose, which can impact energy and stamina levels. Also, choose foods that contain little to no protein or fat. These two nutrients require more digestion than simple carbohydrates, causing the body to divert blood flow to the GI tract for digestion rather than to muscles during activity.
Recommendations for snacks 1 hour prior:
- Banana and water
- Orange sections and water
- Grapes and water
- Sports drink
During Training or Competition
Fluid replacement should be the primary focus during training or competition. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that drinking fluids every 15 to 20 minutes, and that cool water is usually all that's needed if the activity is an hour or less.
In fact, there appears to be little benefit in consuming a sports beverage instead of water when the activity is an hour or less. When engaging in a vigorous activity that lasts longer than one hour, a sports replacement beverage that contains glucose and electrolytes can be beneficial.
Fluid replacement during exercise:
- Consume cool water every 15 to 20 minutes for activities one hour or less.
- For activities longer than an hour, consume cool water every 15 to 20 minutes during initial activity and then consider switching to a sports beverage every 15 to 20 minutes.
After Training or Competition
The focus after training or competition should be to replenish fluids and electrolytes and provide a source of easy-to-digest carbohydrates and a little protein.
Within 1 hour after activity: Continue to rehydrate with cool water. Sports drinks are not needed after activities that are an hour or less because electrolytes are not typically depleted. Two exceptions to this are: 1) if your child had heavy sweating, or 2) if the activity was vigorous and over an hour. Within that hour afterwards, a light snack that is primarily carbohydrates and has a little protein; this is also a natural way to replenish some electrolytes.
Snack ideas 30 minutes to 1 hour after activity:
- Skim or 1% milk, or lower sugar chocolate milk
- Whole-grain granola bar and water
- Low-fat yogurt and water
- Smoothie and water
Within 2 to 3 hours after activity: Plan to serve a healthy meal two to three hours after your child completes their activity. The meal should consist of complex carbs, lean protein, and some healthy fats. This meal helps replenish any needed electrolytes and provides needed energy and depleted nutrients.
Meal ideas for 2 to 3 hours after activity:
- Whole-grain pasta with tomato sauce, steamed broccoli, and low-fat milk or water
- Grilled chicken, fish, or lean beef with brown rice, green beans or salad, and low-fat milk or water
- Turkey sandwich on whole-grain bread with condiments, lettuce, and/or tomato, fruit salad, and low-fat milk or water