Oct 17, 2017, 9:54:36 AM CDT Mar 17, 2023, 5:41:08 PM CDT

Fuel your young athlete: Healthy lunch ideas

Teenage girl eating apple after a run while sitting in the grass Teenage girl eating apple after a run while sitting in the grass

During the school year, young athletes are busier than ever, juggling schoolwork along with practice and, in many cases, multiple training sessions per day. Proper nutrition is key for students to stay healthy and meet the demands of their day.

Staying optimally fueled throughout the day can help student athletes better prepare their minds and bodies to cope with the increased stress load. You can help your child prepare for long days by making sure they have plenty of healthy foods and snacks in their backpack.

Below, are some tips for packing healthy snacks and lunches to fuel your child's high-performance lifestyle.

Pack a balanced lunch by including all food groups – complex carbs, lean protein, healthy fat, a fruit and vegetable. Here are some healthy ideas:

  • Tuna sandwich made with mustard, pickles and olive oil mayo on 100% whole wheat bread with baby carrots and an apple on the side
  • Peanut butter and jelly sandwich on 100% whole wheat bread with a banana and cherry tomatoes on the side
  • Grilled chicken or turkey wrap with spinach, tomato, avocado and mustard in a 100% whole wheat tortilla with fresh grapes and cucumber slices on the side
  • Bento Box: 100% whole grain crackers, boiled egg, turkey, nuts, hummus, sliced veggies and fresh berries
  • Salad greens topped with fresh sliced veggies, avocado, black beans and leftover roasted chicken with vinaigrette dressing and an orange on the side
  • Greek yogurt with fresh mixed berries and granola plus a side of sliced raw veggies and hummus
  • Choose beverages such as bottled water, unsweetened coconut water, low-fat milk, chocolate milk or soy milk

Pack lunches in an insulated lunch box with an ice pack to prevent food spoilage and foodborne illness.

Avoid packing sugar-sweetened beverages such as soda, sweet tea, lemonade, energy drinks, fruit juice or sports drinks, as they contribute mainly sugar calories without much other nutrition (unless sports drinks are used to fuel long practices lasting more than one hour). 

Don't pack processed or junk food snacks and desserts such as chips, cookies, fruit snacks, candy and packaged baked goods.

Instead, try packing some of the following healthier alternatives:

  • Fresh fruit
  • Whole-grain crackers
  • Baked sweet potato, black bean, kale or beet "chips"
  • Single-serving guacamole cups with sliced radish "chips"
  • Single-serving hummus cups with raw veggies, pretzels or whole-grain crackers
  • Raisin boxes and other dried fruit
  • Single-serving beef or turkey jerky
  • Single-serving mixed nuts or trail mix packs
  • Single-serving Greek yogurt containers or "tubes"
  • Apple slices or banana with single-serving peanut butter squeeze packs or cups
  • Applesauce cups or squeeze pouches
  • Whole-grain granola or protein bars
  • Homemade energy or protein bars

Keep healthy, shelf-stable snacks such as trail mix, dried fruit, applesauce pouches and beef or turkey jerky for your child's backpack and locker. Make sure your athlete carries a refillable water bottle, as well.

For athletes weighing more than 100 pounds, keep single servings of protein powder or shakes containing 15 to 25 grams of protein available for post-exercise recovery nutrition. When selecting a protein powder, check the container to make sure it is third-party tested and verified to be free of banned substances. Look for the NSF (National Sport Foundation) Certified for Sport symbol on the product label.

Younger or smaller athletes can use 8 to 12 ounces of shelf-stable, single-serving low-fat chocolate milk for post-exercise recovery nutrition.

If your young athlete has intense practices lasting longer than one hour or practices outside in the high heat and humidity, pack a sports drink containing at least 110 to 240 milligrams of sodium and 15 to 20 grams of carbohydrate per 8-ounce serving.

Learn More

Children's Health Andrews Institute Sports Performance powered by EXOS helps young athletes reach their sports performance goals through performance assessments, custom training plans, sports nutrition and recovery strategies. Learn more about our sports performance training program.

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