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Healthy Snacks for Teenage Athletes (Quick Ideas for Sports)

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

Wonder if your athlete is snacking on the foods they need to perform in high-intensity 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 options for young athletes, along with a list of nutrient-dense snacks. As a pediatric dietitian and author of a sports nutrition book for young athletes, I know that getting sports snacks right can make a real difference in athletic performance.

You’ll learn:

  • What healthy snacks can do for the young athlete, especially those with complex carbohydrates
  • How to plan nutritious snacks for athletes, from homemade to store-bought
  • My rules of thumb to make sure your athlete gets the nutrition and sustained energy that’s most important for training and competition
Healthy snacks for teenage athletes

Unhealthy Snacks for Teenage Athletes

There are more real life examples of unhealthy snack foods than there are of healthy ones for high school athletes.

Unfortunately, these don’t truly fuel with proper nutrition 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 like candy bars 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 Teen Athletes?

It’s no surprise that one of the most popular questions I’m asked by parents of 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 healthy foods as a snack.

While the answer is simple, you might be wondering what exactly that means…

Is it apple slices?

A protein bar?

Whole grain crackers or pasta?

Fueling your athlete shouldn’t be a mystery nor should it be difficult.

[Related: Easy Snacks for Hungry, Growing Teens]

Sports Nutrition and Snacks: Get My Insider Tips 

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

  • Provide an easy to consume fuel source for an active body, whether training or competing
  • Snack options that are actually eaten
  • Satisfy hungry teens  — or in other words — snack ideas that are filling snacks.

How to Plan Snacks for the Teen Athlete

When I help young athletes and their parents, I ask them to consider a few key things. I’m sharing these with you here:

1. Focus on Carbohydrate and Protein

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 and help to keep energy levels up.

For example, you can find complex carbohydrates in a piece of fruit, whole grain bread, Greek yogurt, black beans, sweet potatoes, and homemade game day granola.

Protein is key to building muscle and repairing it after strenuous exercise.

Protein is available from meats, poultry, fish, hard-boiled eggs, and dairy products. Plant-based protein can be found in 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

Related: Should I Allow My Athlete to Use Protein Powder?

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

But these aren’t ideal for the young athlete who is training, or exercising for over an hour.

Picture of a female pole vaulter in healthy Snacks for teenage athletes.

2. Not Every Athlete Needs a Snack

When does the teenage 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 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 whose workouts are 2 hours, they will probably need a more substantial snack.

My rule of thumb is:

If your child is exercising for less than an hour, they probably don’t need an extra snack outside of their 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 athletes 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 or juice 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, a half hour to an hour to digest a light, carbohydrate-based snack (ie, granola bar, toast, fruit, or dry cereal) will suffice. 

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 snack for sports practices 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 their athletic performance, go for wholesome, real food.

Wholesome, nutritious food will fuel growth and be a primary fuel source for athletic performance.

[Got a granola bar lover? Check out our granola bar guide for kids!]

Healthy Snack Combinations for Teens

When you compile your list of healthy snacks, be sure to consider the food groups: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein sources, dairy, and healthy fats.

How can you combine them so they provide both carbohydrate and protein? 

Milk and dairy products like cheese, cottage cheese, yogurt, and chocolate milk work well because these naturally contain both a protein and carbohydrate source.

Fruits, including fresh, frozen, dried, and even canned in their own juices can be combined with dairy foods (fruit and yogurt) and whole grains (fruit and a muffin).

Hard-boiled egg, nut butter, nuts, beans and bean dip, deli meats, protein bars, and beef jerky all offer a good source of protein.

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

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

Want New Snack Ideas for Your Athlete?

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.

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

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

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