Fueling the young athlete: How proper nutrition can improve performance

Whether you are a competitive athlete or a casual exerciser, what you eat affects your performance. But sadly, 30 percent of adolescent athletes skip breakfast and 25 percent skip lunch. And a whopping 86 percent eat at fast food restaurants each week. If your young athlete falls into one of these groups, it’s time to help them get on track.

Everyone’s body needs the right balance of carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins, minerals and fluids to fuel their fitness. Proper nutrition can improve strength, speed, stamina, delay fatigue, enhance healing from injuries and improve performance.

Here are some pregame meal suggestions for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks:


  • Cold or hot cereals
  • Bagels, English muffins
  • Pancakes, French toast with jam or syrup
  • Fruit or juice


  • Sandwiches
  • Fruit
  • Thick crust pizza
  • Hearty soups with noodles/rice


  • Pasta
  • Potato, or rice entrees
  • Vegetables
  • Breads
  • Fruit


  • Hummus, carrots, whole grain pretzels
  • Peanut butter on fruit
  • Beans and cheese wrap
  • Half turkey and avocado sandwich
  • Greek yogurt
  • Banana

When it comes to fluid intake, make sure your athlete is getting in 12 to 24 ounces prior to exercise. To delay fatigue during exercise, they should drink eight to ten ounces of cold water or a sports drink every 15 minutes. After the game, they should drink 20 to 24 ounces for every pound of body weight lost while playing.

Just as pregame nutrition is important, so too is what your child eats after. Eating a carbohydrate with protein within 30 minutes after activity will help the body repair and recharge. Here are some suggestions:

  • Fruit yogurt with grape nuts
  • Chocolate milk
  • Cereal with milk
  • Trail mix
  • Apple and cheese sticks
  • Chicken dinner with rice and vegetables
  • Energy bar with a three to one carb/protein ratio

Meal timing prior to competition is also important, to allow for proper nutrition and digestion. When eating a large meal, allow three to four hours before heading into a hard practice or game. Smaller meals require two to three hours, and blended or liquid meals one to two hours.

Supplements and other enhancements are not necessary if your child is eating a nutritionally balanced diet and getting the necessary amount of carbohydrates, proteins and fats along with the important vitamins and mineral their body needs for optimum functioning. Help your young athlete accomplish this by making sure they eat a variety of foods in each food group and get plenty of rest.

Caldwell Shackelford Photo3

By Ann Caldwell and Maureen Shackelford, nutritionists and registered dietitians at Anne Arundel Medical Center. To reach them call 443-481-5555.

Originally published Feb. 5, 2018. Last updated Jan. 23, 2020.

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