The Best Foods for Teen Athletes at Every Meal

Here's how your teen athlete should be eating at breakfast, lunch and dinner for optimal performance.

April 10, 2020

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Photo by: John Lamb/Getty

John Lamb/Getty

Athletes know food is fuel, but for teen athletes, what they eat is about more than just better performance, it's about growing up healthy. Teen and adolescent athletes have unique needs beyond that of an adult athlete in terms of carbs, protein and good fats, as well as vitamins and minerals. And unlike adults who often turn to supplements, teens can and should meet their nutrient needs from foods.

“The biggest difference in nutrition needs between adults and teens is making sure teens are getting enough of the key nutrients iron, calcium, vitamin D and zinc. Teen girls are at risk for iron deficiency and teen boys are usually still growing, so their overall nutrient needs are higher,” says youth sports dietitian Sarah Pflugradt, MS, RD, blogger at SalubriousRD.

But what does that mean in terms of what young athletes' meals should look like? Do all sports have unique needs? And how often should teen athletes be eating? Pflugradt helps us break it down.

Load Up on a Variety of Nutrients at Breakfast

Knock out several key nutrients at breakfast: iron, calcium, vitamin D, zinc. Whole grain breakfast cereals can provide nearly all of kids’ iron needs, 10 percent of their zinc, and a quarter of the important B vitamin folate. Top that cereal with milk and meet nearly 20 percent of calcium and 15 percent of vitamin D needs. Frosted shredded wheat, Raisin Bran and toasted oh’s are all good examples. On the go? Snack on dry cereal and drink the milk from a to-go bottle. Add fruit for bonus vitamin C.

Eat Vitamin C at Lunch

Kids who don’t get enough vitamin C and run the risk of being sick more often, especially when their bodies are being used to the max in sports. Some of the best sources of vitamin C are fruits and vegetables. Only eight percent of high school students meet the recommendations for fruit intake and only two percent achieve vegetable recos, according to authors of a recent study. You might not have total control over what your kids eat for lunch, but parents can give one strong suggestion: Grab at least one fruit and one vegetable, especially when there’s an important competition coming up.

Carbs Make Good Pre-Activity Snacks

Carbohydrates are key. Don’t let the low-carb diet mania creep into fueling kids. Nutrient-rich carbohydrates are important for mental clarity in team sports like basketball, hockey, football, soccer and others. Enough carbs can also help prevent muscle damage. Aim for a snack with around 15 grams of carbs like an orange, two kiwifruit, a (smaller) granola bar, six ounces of chocolate milk, a small box of raisins, or in a pinch, a spoonful of honey. Again, bonus points for fresh fruits because that vitamin C can help alleviate sore muscles.

Make Protein Part of Post-Activity Snacks

Pflugradt notes that some researchers suggest that eating protein shortly after a muscle-intensive training sessions can help repair and build more muscle. This could be important in swimming, track, wrestling and other strength-based sports. In general, though, teens and tweens are probably getting enough protein and don’t need much extra. Additionally, they should not get protein from supplements. Protein-packed post-activity snacks include: Greek yogurt, hardboiled eggs, a lunchmeat sandwich, a tuna pouch, nuts with dried fruit.

Dinner Is an Opportunity to Make Up for Missed Nutrients

At dinner, help teens slow down and nourish their bodies with the nutrients they may have missed in other meals – in a relaxed setting – as much as possible! Think of the dinner plate in quarters: half should be fruits and vegetables, a quarter as whole grain carbs, and a quarter as high-quality protein like fish, lean meat, eggs, dairy foods. On a vegetarian teen athletes’ plate the vegetable, protein and grain sections morph together with high-protein grains like farro, quinoa and barley served with protein-rich beans and hearty veggies like broccoli, cauliflower, potatoes and mushrooms. Vegetarian athletes have to eat veggies, says Pflugradt — not just pasta! Vegetarians also need to get enough of vitamins B12 and D; good sources are eggs and ready-to-eat cereals (check the label).

Store-Bought Snacks for Teen Athletes

Need a portable snack for a teen athlete? Try our dietitian-recommended, teen-approved favorites.

Protein-Packed: Safe Catch Chili Lime Tuna pouch with natural spices and avocado oil, Siggi’s Strawberry Tubes with low added-sugar and a whopping five live-active probiotic cultures.

Good Fats and Carbs: KIND Peanut Butter Mini with 15 g carbs, Justin’s Almond Butter Covered Almonds with 11 g carbs

Quick Carbs: Hippeas Chickpea Puffs with vegan fiber and protein from chickpeas, Spoonful of Nature Nate’s honey in a to-go packet

Serena Ball, MS, RD is a registered dietitian nutritionist, food writer, and mom of four children. She blogs at and is the author of the best-selling The 30-Minute Mediterranean Diet Cookbook. Follow her @TspCurry on Twitter and Instagram.

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