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Healthy Snacks for Athletes Under 18

Learn how to choose healthy snacks for athletes and get inspired with a variety of sport snacks for your young athlete.

Wonder if your athlete is snacking on the foods he needs to perform in sports? What if you had a go-to list of healthy snacks your athlete could eat for game time and practice?

Wouldn’t life be a little bit easier?

In this article, I’m diving into healthy snacks for young athletes, along with a free list of sport snacks.

You’ll learn:

  • What healthy snacks can do for the young athlete
  • How to plan nutritious snacks for athletes, from homemade to store-bought
  • My rules of thumb to make sure your athlete gets the nutrition that’s most important for training and competition
Healthy snacks for athletes under 18

Unhealthy Snacks for Teenage Athletes

There are more examples of unhealthy snack foods than there are of healthy ones for the child athlete. Unfortunately, these healthy snacks don’t truly fuel and satisfy your child, especially if he’s a growing young athlete.

Just take a look at the concession stand. Often, it is loaded with high fat, sugary foods that aren’t appropriate for game day.

Sideline snacks brought by well-intentioned parents are not much better.

Just the other day, a mom was describing the box of donuts her child was offered after the lacrosse game. Really?!

What are the Best Healthy Snacks for Kid Athletes?

It’s no surprise that one of the most popular questions I’m asked by parents of young athletes is: 

What should I give my child to eat before he goes to practice or a game?

It’s a great question. 

The answer is pretty simple: give your young athlete a healthy snack.

While the answer is simple, you might be wondering what exactly is a healthy snack…

Is it a piece of fruit?

A bar?

Crackers or pasta?

Fueling your athlete shouldn’t be a mystery and it shouldn’t be difficult.

Sports Snacks: Get the Insider Tips 

While all snack foods should offer up a healthy punch of nutrition for kids — even the run-of-the-mill after-school snack — the best snacks for the young athlete are ones that:

  • Provide easy to consume fuel for his active body, whether he’s training or competing
  • Are actually eaten
  • Cover his hunger and appetite — or in other words — are filling snacks.

How to Plan Pre-Game Snacks

When I help young athletes and their parents, I use a few key considerations. I’m sharing these with you here:

1. Focus on Key Nutrients

The nutrients that are the most important for an exercising athlete are carbohydrates and protein.

Carbohydrates offer the preferred source of fuel for exercising muscles. For example, you can find carbs in fruit, whole grain foods, and dairy products.

Protein is key to building muscle and repairing it after strenuous exercise. Protein is available from meats, poultry, fish, eggs, and beans, for instance.

If you target these nutrients when planning healthy snacks, you’ll offer the fuel sources needed for optimal performance, while helping your athlete feel good.

The presence of protein also helps your athlete ward off excess hunger

Sport snacks that contain only a carbohydrate source, like fresh fruit or crackers, are fine for short events, practices or less intensive exercises.

But they aren’t ideal for the young athlete who is exercising for over an hour…and that usually means training.

Picture of a female pole vaulter. A Healthy Snacks List for young athletes.

2. Not Every Athlete Needs a Snack

When does the kid athlete need a snack?

Again, this reflects on the intensity and duration of the exercise schedule and routine.

For example, if you’ve got a little soccer player who has a 45-minute practice, she may not need any additional sports snack outside of her regular meals and snacks.

However, if you’re the parent of a high school basketball player or swimmer, she will probably need a more substantial snack.

My rule of thumb is:

If your child is exercising for less than an hour, he probably doesn’t need an extra snack outside of his routine meal plan.

Alternatively, if your athlete is exercising for over an hour, in an intense sport like swimming, rowing or sports involving running, plan a heftier snack, or even a 4th meal to cover energy needs for exercise.

Examples of athlete who need a snack:

  • A rower who participates in an extended training session (two hours) may need a peanut butter sandwich and a glass of milk before practice.
  • A volleyball player, who also practices for a long time but at a lower intensity, may do well with a slice of peanut butter toast.

Give your athlete plenty of time to digest his snack. Generally, she’ll need a half hour to an hour to digest a light, carbohydrate-based snack (ie, granola bar, toast, fruit, or dry cereal). 

For heavier snacks that include combinations of nutrients (protein, carbohydrate and fat), like a sandwich, allow an hour or two for digestion prior to exercise.

Curious about fluids? Read: The Best Way to Rehydrate Young Athletes.

3. Always Add Nutrition

The questions you should be asking yourself as you plan your athlete’s healthy snacks are:

  • How can I add nutrition? 
  • Where can I bring in variety?
  • How can I plan healthy snacks on the go for my athlete?

Here’s the bad news: There are plenty of foods around that are full of empty calories.

Yes, they have calories, but they contain few to no nutrients.

Hello candy, chips, and dessert!

Simply said, these foods don’t add nutritional value to your growing athlete’s diet.

Instead, because you’re supporting the growth and development of your child as well as his athletic performance, you want to go for wholesome, real food.

So keep this in mind as you think about healthy snacks for athletes.

Wholesome, nutritious food will fuel his growth and his athletic performance.

Sport Snack Combinations for Kids

When you compile your list of healthy snacks, be sure to include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein sources, dairy, and healthy fats.

More specifically, milk and dairy products like cheese, cottage cheese, yogurt work great as both a protein and carb source.

All fruits, including fresh, frozen, dried and even canned in their own juices.

Other protein sources like hard-boiled egg, nut butter, nuts, beans and bean dip, deli meats, and jerky all offer a good source.

Wholesome, pre-packaged snacks can work too. Try granola or granola bars, bricks of milk or 100% juice, whole grain crackers and cheese, or packaged trail mix.

Which healthy snacks does your athlete eat to fuel his sports performance?

Other Sports Nutrition Resources 

For more about the principles of sports nutrition for young athletes, check out my book, Eat Like a Champion.

Want your athlete to learn how to properly fuel his body?

My program Eat Like a Champion (based on my book) is designed to teach and train your young athlete what to eat, when to eat, and the general principles around sports nutrition for growing bodies.

Check it out below!

Eat Like a Champion is a sports nutrition program for young athletes and their parents to learn how to fuel the growing body for a competitive edge.

This post was originally published in April 2018. | Updated in December 2020.

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