Fueling a Young Athlete


by Margaret Hughes M.Ed, RD, CDE

Summer is just around the corner and for some of us that means it’s time to register our young ones for summer camps, sports teams, or outdoor activities. There are many benefits to taking part in either recreational or competitive sports including building confidence, developing skills, increasing self-esteem, and overall wellness.

Good nutrition is important for young athletes because it:

Supports  optimal growth and development

Meets their high energy and nutrient needs

Prevents injury or illnesses

Helps to develop good nutrition practices and attitudes that will shape healthy behaviors later in life

Let’s look at three ways to ensure young athletes get the nutrients they need:  Balanced Meals, Hydration and Planning Ahead.

Balanced Meals

Active children may need 500 to 1500 or more extra calories each day when compared to their inactive peers.* In order to meet a young athlete’s energy demands, focus on offering three balanced meals per day and include three to four snacks.

A balanced meal includes carbohydrates, protein, vegetables/fruits and fluid.

Check out these balanced meal and snack ideas:

Breakout Breakfasts

Lightning Lunches

Delicious Dinners

Super Snacks

Eggs + Toast + Grapes + Milk or Water

Ham and Swiss Sandwich + Veggie Sticks + Apple + Water

Beef or Chicken or Tofu + Broccoli + Brown Rice + Fruit Salad + Milk

Cheese + Crackers

Whole Grain Bagel + Nut Butter + Banana + Milk or Water

Minestrone Soup + Crackers + Yougurt + Blueberries + Water

Baked Salmon + Quinoa + Green Beans + Yogurt and Granola Parfait + Water or Milk

Hummus + Pita

Oatmeal + Blueberries + Slivered Almonds + Orange + Milk

Tuna Wrap or Pita + Veggie Sticks + Yogurt + Water

Greek Pasta Salad + Chickpeas + Feta Cheese + Veggies + Oatmeal Cookie + Milk

Unsweetened Applesauce + Mixed Nuts


Getting enough water can be challenging, especially for young athletes. Children and teens tend to have a poor sense of thirst and often need to be reminded to drink.* Due to a smaller surface area, children also sweat less than adults and can easily overheat in hot temperatures. Water is the best thirst quencher and hydrator, however, some children will drink more when their beverage is flavored. Try adding a splash of unsweetened fruit juice or sports drink to their water for extra flavor; this may be the difference in ensuring a young athlete consumes enough fluid.


Planning Ahead and Being Organized

Some young athletes may benefit from organizing meals and snacks around their activity. Pre-activity meals and snacks should fuel the athlete by providing energy through carbohydrate and fluids, and prevent hunger by providing a bit of fiber and protein. Post-activity meals and snacks should refuel energy stores, re-hydrate, and repair muscles. Young athletes should consume their post-activity meal or snack within 30 to 60 minutes, especially if they plan on being active again the next day.

Pre-Activity Meal Ideas

(3-4 hours before)

Pre-Activity Snack Ideas

(1-2 hours before)

Post-Activity Recovery Food and Fluids Ideas

Turkey Sandwich + Milk

½ Peanut Butter + Jelly Sandwich + Water

Homemade Smoothie + Yogurt + Water

Oatmeal + Fruit + Milk

Cheese + Crackers + Water

Chicken Stir Fry + Milk or Water

Pasta + Tomato Meat Sauce + Salad + Milk

Fruit + Yogurt + Water

Wrap or Sandwich + Veggie + Fruit + Milk or Water

It can be challenging to make the best choices for our young athletes, especially since many sporting events are surrounded by fast food restaurants, on-site barbecues, and canteens selling chips, pop, and hot dogs. Planning ahead to have access to nutritious foods is key. Portable nutrition will play an important role in fueling and refueling a young athlete. This smoothie recipe offers energy-to-go:

Energy-Boost Smoothie

1 cup frozen tropical fruit blend

1 small banana

½ cup Greek yogurt

½ cup unsweetened almond milk


Add almond milk, tropical fruit mix, banana, and Greek yogurt to the blender.

Blend until smooth.

Note: You can pour the smoothie into an ice pop tray and freeze overnight for delicious and nutritious smoothie pops.

* Sources:
Dietitians of Canada (2006) “Fueling the Young Athlete”
Coaching Association of Canada (2005) “Fueling the Young Athlete”

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