Do you find yourself at a loss when it comes to lunch ideas for teenage athletes?
In this blog post, I’ll give you the tools you need for lunchtime success for your athlete. We’ll start with how to include the three building blocks of a meal. Then, I’ll share ideas to put together a lunchtime game plan to fuel afternoon athletics, practices, and games.
Hi! I’m Jena, sports dietitian and owner of Victorem Performance Nutrition here to help you fuel your best performance.
On deck? Let’s get to the starting lineup.
Putting together a satisfying lunch that fuels your teenage athlete starts with the three main nutrition players.
Nutrition can be complex, but the starting lineup of a meal includes the three main nutrients as basic building blocks.
Meal = Carbohydrate + Protein + Fat
Let’s cover what each of these nutrients is and what foods contain them, starting with carbohydrates (carbs, for short).
Carbohydrates are the foundation of your growing athlete’s diet. Carbs provide their main source of energy during exercise. Plus, they can be stored for future high-intensity workouts (that’s glycogen – have you heard of that?!).
Teenage athletes are growing and fueling their sport. High-quality sources of carbohydrates should be included in every meal and snack for them to be on top of their game.
Tip: Look for whole grain products with 3 grams or more of dietary fiber per serving to support healthy digestion and gut health.
- whole grain bread, cereal, and pasta
- brown rice or quinoa
- dried fruit
- graham crackers
- granola bar
- energy bar
- chocolate milk
Building block number two? Bring on the protein!
Protein builds and repairs muscles. (1) It is important for your athlete to consume protein throughout the day. This supports stronger muscles and helps recover muscles after exercise to prepare for the next practice or game.
I recommend that when your athlete has protein, they pair it with carbohydrate-rich foods. This combo has two key benefits: to help stabilize energy and provide the building blocks for growing teenage athletes.
Packable Protein Food Sources
- cottage cheese
And the final member of the trio? Fats!
There are SO many reasons that fats are essential for your active teenager. Fat is essential for hormone regulation, vitamin absorption, boosting immunity, and providing energy. (2)
In particular, pay attention to the omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish. These are especially critical for a teenage athlete because they are essential for brain health and mental acuity on and off the field. Omega-3’s could be considered the All-American of fat sources.
Athletes with a history of concussion or who participate in high-risk sports especially benefit from a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids. (3)
Brain Boosting Fat Food Sources
- sunflower seeds
- olive oil
- avocado oil
*Source of omega-3 fatty acids
Now that you know what the three main players are, let’s go through some ideas for how to make a lunch that your teenage athlete will love.
Packing a Lunch Box
One of the most valuable tools of the trade for athletes is learning how to plan ahead to fuel for practice or competition. As a parent, you can consider this a performance tool and a life tool that you’re teaching your kiddo.
Bringing lunch from home is the best way to make sure all fueling nutrients are included and allows open-ended lunch ideas for teenage athletes.
- Mix and match foods from each group the night before (or quickly on the way out the door!).
- Include milk or dairy at every meal to meet teenagers’ high calcium needs and optimize bone strength during this critical stage. (4)
- Include fruit – fresh, frozen, or dried (all count).
- Add a non-starchy vegetable. You know, the salad-type vegetables! Starchy veggies are still veggies but nutritionally count as carbohydrates. Non-starchy veggies are on the second string providing vitamins and minerals to help your body USE the food we eat!
Lunch Combo Ideas
Sandwich (or two!) with whole grain bread + deli turkey breast + cheese + sliced tomato, onion, leafy greens + mayonnaise + avocado + apple + 1% milk box
Baked potato + ground beef + shredded cheese + sour cream + sliced bell peppers + grapes + 1% milk box
Pork + rice combo
Brown rice + sliced pork chop + salad + ranch dressing + shredded cheese + mandarin oranges
The easy grab
Goldfish crackers + tuna pouch + baby carrots + banana + 1% chocolate milk + 100 calorie almond pack
Boosted energy bar
Energy bar + boiled eggs + fresh ready-cut fruit bowl + peanut butter individual cup
What about if your kiddo wants to buy their lunch? Let’s talk strategy for getting the most out of your kiddo’s lunch line options.
Navigating the School Lunch Line
The most convenient option is the school lunch line because it is already provided, and there are plenty of options between the ‘Lunch Line’, ‘Basket Line’, ‘Burger Line’, and ‘Pizza Line’ to build a performance lunch.
Glance at the weekly lunch menu or print it out for the month to plan ahead. Many schools use the SchoolCafe app that offers the menu for all lunch lines and the nutrition information (including the food groups!).
Youth athletes do not need to count calories. If weight management is a goal or concern for health or athletic performance, it is best to consult a sports dietitian.
Apply the same rule of thumb – choose foods from each group (carbohydrate, protein, fat) + dairy + vegetable.
Tip: If athletics, practice, or competition is within 3 to 4 hours of lunch, it would be best to forgo the Basket Line or Burger Line. Those greasier options before exercise may cause GI distress. Save the fried chicken, French fries, and potato chips for a weekend meal or a time when your teenager does not need to be on top of their game.
Instead, choose other carbohydrate-rich foods such as pasta, rice, beans, baked potatoes, and fruit. Grilled chicken or a turkey burger patty are leaner protein options for a pre-exercise lunch.
Fuel for Victory
Lunch is not optional for athletes wanting to fuel performance. And with the triple combo of the three main nutrients that your teenager needs, the landscape of lunch ideas for teenage athletes is endless.
If your athlete responds better to someone other than mom or dad or has performance goals that include weight management, schedule a consultation with a sports dietitian.
Teenage athletes wanting to gain an edge over opponents often learn better in a team-based environment and may prefer to discuss topics in a group setting.
Knock it out of the park, fueling your athlete!