It’s not easy to feed a teenage athlete! Busy schedules, growing bodies, and the desire for peak performance make fueling your active teen challenging.
As a previous elite athlete, and now a mom of young athletes, I also know the struggle of encouraging your kids to make healthy choices. But, whether an athlete is trying to lose weight, improve body composition, build muscle, or perform at their best, the athlete diet should be a priority.
- What foods are most important to fuel sport and life?
- How should meals be timed around activity?
- What does a quality meal plan look like?
These are the questions we tackle in this article, leaving you with knowledge and tips to best set your teen up for success.
3 Essentials for a successful teen athlete meal plan
A nutrition plan for teenage athletes requires a few considerations.
1. Nutrition for growth and peak performance
Teenage athletes are still growing and developing — physically, mentally, and emotionally — and they experience physical demands exceeding that of their less active peers.
So, feeding them enough of the right foods is a critical part of their training. Here are my top nutrition tips:
Fuel for activity!
Staying ahead of the game means making sure that your body has the energy levels and nutrients it needs in advance. The teen athlete diet should include meals with:
High-quality protein sources (such as eggs, beef, poultry, pork, fish, and seafood) to:
- Repair muscles and other tissues
- Keep the immune system healthy
- Regulate hormones
Healthy fats (such as avocado, coconut, olives, butter, olive oil, nuts and seeds, whole fat dairy) for:
- Efficient slow-burning energy
- Absorption of many vitamins and minerals
- Proper hormone function, and satiety
Nutrient-dense carbohydrates (such as colorful vegetables and fruits, roots and tubers, rice, oats, and quinoa) for:
- Quick energy for muscles (and the brain)
And adequate fluids (mostly water) to:
- Regulate body temperature, and lubricate joints
- Support muscle contraction and relaxation
- Transport nutrients and oxygen through the body
Eat real food – skip the package!
A variety of whole, unprocessed, nutrient-dense foods gives active teens maximum reward.
It’s easy to overcomplicate nutrition. When you focus on real food, you can get all the nutrition you need. Do your best to ignore the hype, including:
- protein powders and sport drink products
- marketing efforts directed towards athletes
- and the rise and fall of the next best “superfood”
These products are convenient and claim to be a simple fix.
But there are no magic formulas to replace the magic of real foods!
“How many calories do high school athletes need?” If you are focused on well-balanced nutrient-dense, real food meals (as we discuss in this article), and eat to satisfaction, counting calories is unnecessary for healthy athletes.
Refined, processed, and high-sugar foods can quickly pack in empty calories that will leave an athlete feeling:
- Lethargic from the highs and lows of blood sugar imbalance
- Stiff, sore, and slow to recover
If you’re struggling to get your young athletes off of processed junk foods, try some of my recipes and tips for transitioning kids to a real food lifestyle.
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Create a winning plate
Create a winning plate with this four-step process for putting together a high-performance meal to emphasize nourishing, real foods for life.
1. Pick your protein
Aim for a palm-sized portion (or up to two) of beef, poultry, pork, lamb, fish, seafood, eggs, or carefully paired vegetarian options.
2. Veggie and fruit fill up
Fill the rest of your plate with colorful, fibrous vegetables and fruits for necessary vitamins and minerals.
3. Fat’s your friend
Top your food with healthy natural fats. Aim for one thumb-sized portion of olive oil, avocado oil, coconut oil, or butter. For solid foods, like avocado, nuts, or olives, use a cupped hand.
4. Choose your carbs
Add unprocessed complex starchy carbohydrates, such as sweet potato, yam, potato, root veggies, winter squashes, rice, oats, or quinoa.
5. Drink water
As a general guideline, drink half your body weight in ounces of water every day. If you are training, add sixteen to twenty ounces per hour.
2. Plan meals around training times
Nutrient timing allows you to maintain energy throughout an event, maintain your brain’s ability to think well, decrease injury risk, and improve recovery.
Most athletes do best eating a full-sized meal at least two to three hours before any intense activity, and then adding snack-sized portions before and after for proper fueling and repair.
Meals or snacks before training should emphasize protein and carbs with moderate fat. After training, muscle tissues are looking for starchy carbs (sweet potatoes, potatoes, winter squash, root veggies, rice, banana) to refill glycogen stores, and a little protein (eggs, tuna, meat) for rebuilding.
Meal timing and food choices may look something like this:
Sample meal plan for early morning practice
Eat a good-sized dinner the night before:
- Steak, roasted root vegetables, green salad with olive oil and vinegar
In the morning, before training, choose a real food snack:
- Banana and nut butter
- Drink plenty of water
Enjoy a complete breakfast following training:
- Chicken sausage, sauteed kale, and ½ a sweet potato
Have a quality lunch:
- Chicken taco salad with mixed greens, tomatoes, avocado, olives
Round out the day with a well-balanced dinner:
- Baked salmon, rice, and roasted asparagus
Sample meal plan for after school training
Grab a healthy breakfast:
Have a quality lunch:
- Peanut butter banana sandwich on sprouted bread, veggie sticks, hummus, and jerky
- A handful of olives, jerky, apple
- Drink water
- ½ sweet potato, hard-boiled egg
Finish the day with a well-balanced dinner:
- Pork tenderloin, roasted green beans, butternut squash with butter
Sample meal plan for late evening games
Have a good-sized balanced breakfast:
- Veggie omelet with oatmeal and blueberries
Eat a quality lunch:
Healthy after school snack:
- Orange with cheese and sprouted seed crackers
Make dinner a smaller meal:
- Grilled chicken thighs, roasted potatoes, steamed broccoli
- Drink water
3. Plan ahead for a manageable approach
Knowing WHAT and WHEN to eat is critical, but putting it into consistent action is the hardest part. It comes down to the same discipline and preparation that successful athletes apply to their sport.
Building a meal PLAN
Here are some tips to help you make a real-food plan part of your training regimen:
- Map out the week: Take out the family calendar and schedule in daily practice times, weekly games, and other commitments so that you can SEE where meals need to fit in.
- Keep food simple!: Make a list of three go-to breakfast meals and lunch choices, and five nourishing dinners. Build habits by starting simple.
- Have ingredients on hand: Make real foods accessible.
- Set aside time in the kitchen: It takes less time than you think to prepare fresh foods (washing, chopping, storing, and cooking) and any food prep that can be done in advance makes the week run smoothly.
- Plan ahead: Know what you are going to have for breakfast, pack healthy lunches teens will love, and put together simple snacks to throw in the gym bag.
Adjust to meet your teenage athlete’s needs (journal)
There are many individual factors when it comes to the best nutrition and meal planning recommendations for teenage athletes. Taking note of what’s working and what’s not within your own family is valuable information.
How does your athlete feel (digestively, energetically, recovery-wise) in response to certain foods and meal-timing strategies?
Grab a notebook, or better yet, the Peak Potential Journal (which includes motivational quotes, gratitude practice, space for goal setting and recording a daily win — all helpful for young athletes) and keep track of progress.
Recipe ideas for teenage athletes
Here are a few more ideas for healthy meals for teenage athletes, and snacks that can be incorporated into the training plan. Keep in mind that fancy complex recipes are not necessary, but real food ingredients are.
And if your teenage athlete struggles with new foods, try some of my strategies and healthy recipes for picky eaters.
- Fried eggs and spinach over sweet potato or Turnip Sweet Potato Hash
- Vegetable Egg Muffins with Ham (make ahead) and Chia Seed Oatmeal
- Blueberry Rosemary Sausage with Raspberry Almond Chia Pudding
- The Ultimate Primal Cobb Salad
- Greek Chicken Jar Salad
- Turkey Caprese Wraps with leftover Roasted Root Veggies
- Chicken “Pasta” with Sundried Tomato Pesto and Fruity Green Salad
- Korean Beef Bowls
- Minced Stuffed Pumpkins with Fresh Oregano Salad
- Pumpkin Spice Smoothie and rolled deli meat
- Leftover Ginger Marinated Flank Steak and roasted potatoes
- Hard-boiled eggs and a banana
Next steps for meal-planning success
In this article, we discussed three major considerations for putting together a teenage athlete meal plan:
- Creating a winning plate with real food to fuel activity
- When to eat, and what to eat around training
- How to bring real food and nutrient timing together to create your own athlete meal plan
With these ideas, sample meal plans, and plenty of recipes, you are ready to put your teen athlete meal planning knowledge into practice. Keeping your athlete in mind, remember that life is a journey, so enjoy the process of learning to fuel for success with your family.