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Healthy Dinner Ideas for Busy Athletes

If coming up with healthy dinner ideas is a struggle, you’ve got to read this!

As a working mom/pediatric nutritionist, some of the hardest parenting days for me were the ones when my kids were active in sports and reliant on me for their transportation.

Driving to practice, watching games, and nailing down a healthy dinner plan all seemed to converge at the same time…and the truth?

I bet this is the case for many of you who parent young athletes. Even if you don’t have young athletes, having some healthy dinner ideas will help you get healthy meals on the table.

So many times, though, instead of having a game plan, dinner is left to the last minute. As a result, several things happen.

  1. Your athlete waits a long period of time after practice before dinner is ready while you make it.
  2. The “meal” ends up being a “grab whatever you can” endeavor by the family because you have run out of time.
  3. Or, you’re so tired of driving, watching and volunteering that you decide to grab take-out, or hit the drive-through instead.

These scenarios are familiar to me! I got my game plan for healthy dinner ideas in order and everything changed.

healthy dinner ideas for young athletes
A Healthy Dinner for Busy Athletes Click To Tweet

What No Game Plan for a Healthy Meal Really Means

Healthy meals are the backbone of a sports nutrition plan for any athlete, including yours. Whether your athlete is just starting out playing sports, or is on the varsity team in high school, having a plan for a healthy dinner is critical for several reasons.

Most practices happen after school, making dinner the refueling stop before bedtime. When dinner is delayed, an athlete’s hunger can become unbearable, resulting in a pantry raid, a refrigerator shake-down, or constant snacking.

A “hangry” athlete isn’t easy to handle!

A window of opportunity exists after your athlete has an intense bout of exercise. For the first 30 to 45 minutes after a tough workout, your athlete’s muscles are highly receptive to nutrients from the food he eats.

Carbs and protein get quickly shuttled into the muscles to reload them with energy and start the repair process. This can be accomplished with a refueling snack, like chocolate milk, or it can be met with a healthy dinner.

If your plan falls through, or worse, you don’t have one, this reload and repair opportunity could be lost.

Without a doubt, a healthy dinner at home is less costly than a healthy dinner out. And I’ll go out on a limb here and venture to say it’s more nutritious, as well.

And let’s not forget the hallmark of childhood: kids growth and development. Every meal counts toward your athlete’s health and wellness, not just his sport.

A healthy dinner should contribute 25% to your athlete’s overall nutritional intake for the day. Ensuring dinner is a meaningful, nutritious meal makes sense.

Can’t Think of Healthy Dinner Ideas?

In a nutshell: a healthy dinner is more nutritious, less expensive and when timed right, is advantageous to your young athlete.

So why do you struggle with coming up with healthy dinner ideas?

I’ll share my thoughts of my own barriers with generating healthy dinner ideas and making a healthy dinner every night, and emphasize what I found works (for me).

Want New Snack Ideas for Your Athlete?

Too Much Input

Parents are busy with lots of input coming from all directions and may lose their sense of time or focus when it comes to planning a healthy dinner ahead of time.

My solution: I planned the meals on Sunday, mapping out the type of cooking that would match my schedule. For example, game night usually meant a slow cooker meal that was ready when we all returned home.

Too Tired

Parents are tired at the end of the day. For many, the days are long and full, and the motivation to cook wanes as the day marches on.

My solution: I started meal preparation early. After lunch, I would make a salad (green leafy or fruit) and anything else that could be prepped ahead of time, like roasting veggies, as they can be warmed up later. And…I took a nap if I could squeeze it in (even 15 minutes helps)!

Lack of Ideas

Parents don’t know what to make for a healthy dinner. The idea of sports may throw them off a bit. Making a meal that effectively contributes to a young athlete’s growth and sport makes them feel a bit unsure.

My solution: I knew the components of a meal for athletes, but my “fresh” ideas would sometimes escape me. I kept a recipe book of healthy dinner ideas that worked well and used it for inspiration.

You will likely struggle with making a healthy dinner for your young athlete if you don’t have a plan. Click To Tweet

Keys to a Healthy Meal for Athletes

I’ve made a few healthy dinners in my day as a parent of young athletes. Like I said, I keep a recipe book of healthy dinner ideas for inspiration as I plan meals for the week.

There are a few keys that I focus on to make sure meals are fast and nutritious:

1. Nutritious, not Fancy

An athlete’s body needs fuel. That fuel can come from a wide variety of foods. It’s not like your athlete’s tummy will recognize pasta from a potato.

No, it will process food without notice of type, digesting it into usable fuel consisting of protein, carbs, fats and vitamins and minerals.

That’s the good news. You don’t have to be fancy or elaborate. Your healthy dinner just needs to be balanced, incorporating the nutrition your athlete needs.

2. Delicious and Meaningful

Of course, flavor and appearance, when appealing, will spur on a hearty intake. Kids and teens, especially, are motivated by the appearance of food and its taste. So, even if your food isn’t fancy, make sure it looks appealing and it tastes good.

Incorporating all the food groups (proteins, grains, fruit, vegetables, and dairy foods), or as many as you can, takes the meal up a notch by making it a meaningful contribution to your athlete’s nutritional needs and his growth, development and sport.

3. Fast and Accessible

I’m a big fan of quick meals that require little preparation and a short list of ingredients. I think most parents of athletes are in the same boat with me.

You want to maximize your efficiency while maintaining the healthy quality of the meal.

A fast and healthy dinner is key. I like letting athletes take charge of assembling their meals, either through a family-style service or a dinner bar/smorgasbord set up.

It gives them autonomy and increases their interest and likelihood of eating the meal.

I’ve Made My Healthy Dinner Recipes Available!

If you need help making a healthy dinner for your young athlete or generating healthy dinner ideas, I’ve compiled some of my tried and true dinner recipes in Fuel Up! Healthy Dinners for Young Athletes.

In this e-book, you’ll get 3 weeks of dinner recipes fit for the young athlete — 35 fast, nutritious and delicious dinner recipes requiring minimal cooking.

I agree with Olympian swimmer Mark Spitz:

“If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”

Mark Spitz

You will likely struggle with making a healthy dinner for your young athlete if you don’t have a plan.

What healthy dinner recipes do you consider a “win” in your family? Share in the comments below and help spark even more ideas!

Check out my sports nutrition program designed to teach and train young athletes how to fuel for performance.

Get the big picture and read The Young Athlete: Ultimate Guide to Nutrition.

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