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Feeding the teen-aged athlete


If dinner with the family has become a version of the “feed me” plea from the 1980s cult movie “Little Shop of Horrors,” it is probably no surprise that teen athletes require a lot of calories. Between driving to practices, games and other activities, it’s easy to fall back on the “no time” excuse and succumb to the drive-through.

But while helping to keep your athlete fueled does take some basic nutrition knowledge, it’s really not that complicated.

“First you have to care,” says registered dietitian Becky Freeman, a sports nutritionist for the University of New Mexico’s department of athletics.

“Do some planning … pay attention to whole foods and simple ingredients … and keep trying,” she says.

Her top tip?

Consider the “big picture” — daily food requirements and building good eating habits — rather than fussing about the ratios of protein, carbohydrates and fats in their diet. And make sure they drink plenty of fluids.

 Start with breakfast

What Freeman sees in working with college athletes is a generation that is not in the habit of eating a good breakfast. And that, she says, sets up an active person for poor performance for late-day practices.

“A lot of kids will just say ‘I’m not hungry in the morning’ and leave it at that,” she says.

Parents should not let them off the hook that easily.

If your kids don’t regularly have something to eat before they leave the house for the day, start small.

“Some whole grain, non-sugary cereal,” Freeman says, “will provide some much-needed carbohydrates first thing.”

If the morning routine is so tight that there’s no time for a bowl of cereal, try something portable in the car: scrambled eggs wrapped up in a tortilla or even a granola bar.

 Brown-bag it

Packing a lunch and snacks ensures your teen will have access to food throughout the day that doesn’t come from a vending machine.

She also says that young athletes will feel better during their workout if they eat several times during the day and stay hydrated by drinking water, milk and eating watery foods.

If your teen has a late lunch, it’s more than four hours between breakfast and lunch, try sending a small baggie of finger-food — like nuts and dried fruit — that can be snacked on between classes.

Snacks, Freeman says, should be part of the overall plan for the day and should not be confused with treats.

Pair protein with carbohydrates: grapes (or an apple) with some string cheese, peanut butter-filled pretzels or even homemade trail mix are some suggestions.

Freeman says if your athlete is practicing after school, a pre-workout snack is a must.

However, feeding your athletes a steady diet of packaged food marketed as “energy bars” washed down with sports drink is not a good idea.

Again, pick foods with simple ingredients.

“Apples, oranges and bananas are all pretty portable and not expensive,” she says.

And what about the dreaded “snack calendar?”

If it’s your turn to bring snacks for the entire team, opt for a simple-ingredient granola bar or small packages of trail mix.

How many calories?

To help with your family’s version of a “training table,” Baylor College of Medicine has a good tool that can help determine teens’ caloric needs and provides a visual pie-chart of foods needed to get there.

Go to and look for “Healthy Eating Calculator.”

Greek Yogurt with Fruit    Greek yogurt carries a larger protein punch than the non-Greek kind. And protein repairs muscle tissue. Top with some fruit (½ cup of berries or banana) and you’ll quickly rebuild your energy needs. Stick with the plain Greek yogurt and add your own fruit to avoid a lot of sugar and other additives found in many commercial yogurts, Freeman says.   

Banana with Almond or Nut Butter    Banana is a great way to replenish electrolytes lost from sweat. When you enjoy it with a small amount of almond butter (or other nut butter), you add healthy fat and a bit of protein. Justin’s makes squeeze packs (available in 1 and 2 tablespoon sizes at a variety of places from Whole Foods to Walmart) that are perfect for on-the-go consumption.   

Chocolate Milk    Yes, we’ve been hearing this for a while, but chocolate milk does have a good carbohydrate ratio to restore lost glycogen and repair muscle tissue. Exercise scientists say this recovery drink is most useful for competing endurance athletes who need to sustain a level of performance — such as long-distance runners, cyclists, swimmers and triathletes, Freeman says. Some brands, like Horizon Organics, are shelf-stable and do not require refrigeration.   

Protein Shake    Stick with the homemade variety (bottled brands have added sugar that would make a layer cake blush). Buy an insulated stainless steel bottle, and your smoothie is portable and ready for that critical 30-minute post workout re-fueling window. Find a protein powder without a lot of added sugar and additives, add some frozen berries, veggies (spinach works well) and almond or coconut milk. Don’t forget a little fat (flaxseed, walnuts or a little almond butter).   

Avocado    For those who prefer savory snacks, avocados are versatile. They go great mixed with a little mustard or salsa. Spread on a good whole-grain cracker or bread (try it with Wasa Crispbread) to add a good source of carbohydrates.   

Fruit and Nuts    Apples and oranges are easy and portable snacks to enjoy post workout at home or at the office. Bananas are a quick source of carbohydrates and also provide the potassium needed after a workout.    A small package of almonds (Trader Joe’s has a great line of individually packaged nuts and fruit) add the good fat.    Dried fruit also fits the bill—just check for added sugar.