young athlete nutrition
Kids, Nutrition, Tips / How-Tos

Young Athlete Nutrition Plan: How to Feed Active Kids

Sports are a fun way to get kids off the couch and onto the playing field, but setting young athletes up for sustainable success does require a little extra thought at mealtime. Whether your kids love swimming, soccer or horseback riding, the tips below will help you create a young athlete nutrition plan that keeps their bodies energized at every age!

4 General Tips for Young Athlete Nutrition

A well-balanced diet is important for all children, but as kids expend more energy through sports, their nutritional intake becomes even more essential to maintaining healthy growth and development. Although specific guidelines will vary based on your child’s age, sex, physical development and activity level, here are four general recommendations for healthy young athlete nutrition.

1. Focus on complex carbs.

Many parents who are themselves very active tend to rely on protein as a source of pre-workout energy and post-workout recovery. But this common rule of thumb doesn’t necessarily apply to nutrition for kid athletes

Rather than protein, complex carbohydrates are the most important energy source for young athletes. (Find our list of favorites below!) While protein and fat do provide feelings of fullness and still provide an important role in muscle building, it’s complex carbs that most directly power your kids’ athletic activities by breaking down into the building blocks that supply muscles with energy.

2. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!

You might be surprised to learn that fluid intake should be monitored more than food, as it’s very easy for young athletes to get dehydrated. As a good rule of thumb, your child should drink about 8 ounces of water for every 15 minutes of activity.

So what about sports drinks?

Sports drinks can be helpful to replace glucose and electrolytes lost during athletic activity, but they are generally not necessary unless the activity is very intense or prolonged. If the activity is less than an hour long or moderate to low intensity, water alone is perfectly fine; if the activity is vigorous and over an hour, electrolyte replenishment may be recommended. Consider 8 ounces of a sports drink containing carbohydrates and electrolytes typically depleted by the activity: potassium, magnesium and sodium.

Extra tip: You can avoid the artificial colors, flavors and additives in store-bought sports drinks by making your own with fresh lemon juice, honey and sea salt.

3. Don’t stress over sodium.

Unless your child has a preexisting condition like heart or kidney disease (in which case you should follow your doctor’s medical advice), you don’t have to worry about avoiding sodium in your young athlete’s nutrition plan. Kids lose so much sodium through sweat that they may need to increase, not decrease, their sodium intake!

4. Feel free to be flexible.

Depending on how much energy your kids are burning off, you may need to adjust your typical meal plan to provide enough calories, complex carbohydrates, fats and protein. There’s no one-size-fits-all plan, so choose whichever flexible meal solution works best for your family:

  • Supplement with snacks: Keep a selection of kid-friendly junk food alternatives in your fridge or pantry, focusing on complex carbohydrates like homemade granola or popcorn.
  • Increase portion size: If your kids are still feeling hungry after meals, try serving larger portions. (If you order Nurture Life kids meal delivery, choose meals from one age group above your child’s for a larger portion that’s still nutritionally balanced.)
  • Add a meal to your day: Who says you have to stick to breakfast, lunch and dinner? Especially as your kids enter puberty, you may find a four-meal-a-day plan to be more appropriate.

Keep in mind that these adjustments should depend on the duration of your child’s exercise. For activities of about an hour per day or less, you likely do not need to supplement additional calories.

The “Yes!” List of Best Foods for Young Athletes

To keep your kids active on the sports field and off, it’s best to build their daily meals around minimally processed complex carbohydrates. Six of the best foods for young athletes include:

  1. Whole wheat pasta 
  2. Oatmeal 
  3. Quinoa
  4. Brown rice 
  5. Sweet potatoes
  6. Legumes: black beans, kidney beans, garbanzo beans

For a balanced meal, round out these fiber-rich complex carbs with a serving of lean protein, healthy fats and fresh vegetables. You can also get everything in a single convenient serving by choosing a ready-to-eat Nurture Life meal that’s already balanced for you.

The “Less” List: Foods to Reduce and Avoid

At the opposite end of the spectrum are the foods your little athletes should limit—at least if they want to avoid mid-game sugar crashes and hunger pangs! In your young athlete nutrition plan, limit simple carbs with little to no nutritional value:

  1. Cookies
  2. Candy
  3. Cake 
  4. Sugary cereals
  5. Processed pastries
  6. Sodas 

In addition to these obvious culprits, watch out for heavily processed items specifically marketed to athletes; many “healthy” energy bars and sports drinks for kids are full of added sugar and artificial ingredients.

Nurture Life Meal Plans for Your Young Athlete

The best foods for young athletes will depend on age and activity level, but there are a few examples of meal plans that I frequently recommend to families who order Nurture Life kids meals. These choices emphasize complex carbs in a variety of kid-approved flavors and textures.

Meal Plan #1

Breakfast: Oatmeal with dried fruit and nuts plus a hard boiled egg

Lunch: Cheesy Zucchini Pomodoro

Snack: Apples with peanut butter (or peanut butter alternative)

Dinner: Teriyaki Salmon With Brown Rice & Veggies

 

Meal Plan #2

Breakfast: Breakfast burrito with scrambled eggs, shredded cheese and whole wheat tortilla

Lunch: Chicken Meatballs with Pasta & Veggies

Snack: Greek yogurt with muesli or home-made granola and fruit

Dinner: Beef Chili Verde with Roasted Street Corn

 

Meal Plan #3

Breakfast: Egg sandwich with whole wheat English muffin

Lunch: Chicken Bites with Mashed Yams & Green Beans

Snack: Cucumber sticks and whole wheat pita with hummus

Dinner: Pork Al Pastor with Veggies & Black Bean Rice

By focusing on real food with plenty of complex carbohydrates, your young athlete will have enough energy to conquer the playing field while feeling and performing their very best. If you have more questions about the latest research on nutrition for kid athletes, don’t hesitate to reach out to us at support@nurturelife.com!

Lara Field at Nurture Life

Lara Field

Lara has been working with Nurture Life since its inception, collaborating with the culinary team on the creation of all menus and recipes to ensure they are nutritionally appropriate and correctly proportioned for every age and stage of a child’s development and providing pediatric nutrition expertise to Nurture Life customers. Lara is the owner/founder of FEED—Forming Early Eating Decisions, a nutrition consulting practice specializing in pediatric nutrition and digestive diseases. Lara has over a decade of experience in clinical practice at two of the top ranked pediatric hospitals in the country, Lurie Children’s Hospital and University of Chicago Medical Center. Lara received her B.S. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and M.S. and dietetic internship from Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, Illinois. Lara truly enjoys the process of eating (and feeding!), from procuring the ingredients at various grocery stores and farmers markets, to organizing her pantry/refrigerator at home to make it easy to select healthy options, to preparing balanced meals with her children. Whether it be a decadent treat to a hearty, home-cooked meal, there is no greater satisfaction for Lara than enjoying food with her family.