Nutrition For Young Athletes Nutrition For Children And Foods For Athletes

All athletes require certain dietary adjustments to maintain concentration and energy for optimal performance. Nutrition for children must also meet kids’ needs for proper growth and development. When it comes to nutrition, young athletes who make balanced food choices are laying down the fundamental building blocks of a healthy life.

Since providing adequate nutrition for children often falls partly, if not entirely, to the adults who care for them, parents often wonder if they are correctly managing the nutritional adjustments necessary for their children’s active lifestyles.

The best resource for this kind of information, especially if you think your child may be developing health problems or nutritional deficiencies, is your child’s doctor. Coaches and nutrition experts can also be valuable resources for general information about nutrition for young athletes and can help you figure out what your child should be eating and when.

General Nutrition for Young Athletes

When it comes to nutrition, young athletes require foods that provide energy and focus. They also need the right balance of nutrients to recover the minerals and fluids that are often lost or depleted by strenuous exertion. Consider the following general tips on nutrition for children:

  1. Children, both athletes and non-athletes, need sleep. The most carefully designed nutrition for teenagers and children can be undermined by poor sleep habits.
  2. Core nutrition for children, adults, athletes and non-athletes alike should involve plenty of leafy green vegetables, fresh fruit, whole grains and lean protein.
  3. Pay attention to changes in your child’s health during the athletic season. If you notice extreme shifts in weight or mood, contact your nutritionist or family doctor.
  4. Try not to make sudden radical adjustments to your child’s diet or introduce new foods on the day of a race or competition. Also, even though some sports like gymnastics, dance or wrestling may encourage weight loss, consult with a doctor before allowing your child to diet.  

Focus on Teenage Athletes’ Nutrition During Training

Children can be highly susceptible to marketing campaigns and myths about dietary supplements, specially formulated drinks and protein shakes. Adequate nutrition for teenagers, including proper intake of protein, calcium and necessary complex carbohydrates, can usually be found in healthy whole grains, green vegetables, lean protein and milk.

Instead of a protein shake each day during the training season, offer two extra glasses of reduced fat milk, along with sensible, protein-rich meal choices (such as a turkey sandwich for lunch), which should provide all the additional protein your teen needs.

In particular, active children need a diet rich in:

  • Calcium: Calcium builds strong bones and can be found in dairy products and leafy green vegetables.
  • Carbohydrates: Healthy carbohydrates, such as whole grain cereal and pasta, brown rice and fruits and vegetables, provide energy for the body.
  • Iron: Iron carries oxygen throughout the body and is found in red meat, chicken, salmon, eggs, whole grains and leafy green vegetables.
  • Protein: Protein is necessary for building and repairing muscles. Provide plenty of lean protein, such as lean meats, soy, dairy products and nuts.

Especially during the training season, focus on plenty of green vegetables, healthy whole grains (especially in the morning) and lean protein. Regular meals are best, but if time commitments make fast food or skipped meals necessities, try to choose healthy options like veggie pizza, and keep nutritious snacks such as cheese, raisins and fruit readily available.

Incorporate Pre-Workout Foods for Athletes

Prior to workouts, nutrition for teenagers should include long-burning fuels and complex carbohydrates to prevent a mid-workout crash. About three hours or more before intense activity, try to load your child up with whole grains or pasta and lean protein, and help steer her clear of simple, quick burning sugars like candy and soft drinks. (Candy and soft drinks are never a good nutritional choice for growing bodies, but before a workout, they can be especially undermining.) Keep pre-workout meals low in fats, which take longer to digest.

For snacks less than three hours before exercise, choose carbohydrate-heavy snacks, such as:

  • Bread
  • Crackers
  • Fruit
  • Juice.

If possible, encourage your child to avoid eating too much or drinking too much water right before working out. A full, sloshing stomach can cause cramping and gastrointestinal distress.

Provide Replenishing Foods for Athletes During and After Workouts

During the workout, encourage your child or teenager to drink enough water to avoid dehydration. About 16 to 20 ounces of fluid per hour are usually adequate. During extended periods of exertion, more than this can dilute the electrolytes and limit the benefits of hydration. Sports drinks can provide the electrolytes needed to maintain a proper water-electrolyte balance, but they are usually not necessary for intense activity that lasts less than one and a half hours.

Children usually need more hydration than adults do, since their surface area to body weight ratio is higher and they tend to gain heat faster. In addition, children don’t always recognize thirst when it occurs, so you may need to actively encourage them to drink.

After a workout ends, replenish lost fluids and provide vitamin, protein and calcium-rich foods to restore the nutrients consumed by activity. Within the first hour after a workout, encourage digestible, healthy foods such as:

  • Eggs
  • Juice
  • Pretzels
  • Whole grain crackers with peanut butter.

Aim to have your child consume carbohydrates 30 minutes after exercising, and again two hours later to help replenish energy and rebuild muscle tissue.

Ensure Adequate Teenage Athletes’ Nutrition Before Competitions

Teenage bodies store glycogen and then expend it during sustained exertion in much the same way adult bodies do. For teenagers who will be engaging in endurance activities, like cross-country running, provide plenty of complex carbohydrates like whole wheat pasta the day or two before the event.

For competitions involving shorter bursts of activity, but high levels of focus, make sure that children eat a good breakfast on the day of the competition that includes lean protein and healthy carbohydrates, such as yogurt with granola or whole grain cereal with fruit. You may also want to provide fruit like bananas and apples that contain high levels of potassium to help kids perform optimally and avoid cramping during the competition.


Clark, N. (2011). Q&A: What should I feed my athletic kids? Retrieved May 15, 2011, from

Gavin, M.L. (2008). Feeding your child athlete. Retrieved May 15, 2011, from