Youth Sports Nutrition Tips

by Jill Castle

As the fall sport season begins, many young athletes will train, work hard and expect to see the results of their efforts. From new equipment to top notch coaching techniques, young athletes will be looking to gain an upper hand on the competition.

A lot goes into having a great season! One area that helps all young athletes improve their athletic performance is nutrition. I’ve got 5 youth sports nutrition tips to help your young athlete gain the edge on his competition.

5 Youth Sports Nutrition Tips 

Tip #1: Eat Three Meals Each Day 

Meals provide the foundation of nutrients that the body needs throughout the day to perform, both on and off the field. About 36% of kids and teens, respectively, skip breakfast. Almost 17% of kids and young teens skip lunch.

When young athletes skip a meal, they put their body behind in the important nutrients that fuel performance, especially calories, carbohydrates, and protein. Plus, meal skippers may be more prone to overeat later and increase the likelihood of making unhealthy food choices. Make sure your athlete includes all three meals in his daily eating plan.

Tip #2: Eat Healthy Snacks (& Plan for Them)

Whether athletes have packed snacks in the gym bag, or eat a sit-down snack at home before practice, they should always have a healthy source of fuel. Unfortunately, studies show that kids and teens frequently snack on unhealthy foods.

Planning healthy snacks discourages the use of junk food, sweets, and other undesirable options during training and competition. Just like a race car needs premium fuel to perform, so does the young athlete who is training or competing in his sport. Low octane fuel – or unhealthy snacks like donuts, candy or chips – doesn’t draw out the best performance in young athletes.

Tip #3: Fuel the Recovery Phase

After intensive or extended exercise, the body’s muscles are broken down and tired. They need to recover. This can be accomplished with food, particularly food sources that contain a mixture of protein and carbohydrate.

Protein provides the amino acids needed to repair the muscles and promote muscle gain. Carbohydrates allow the reloading of glycogen (an energy source) in muscle, preparing them for future exercise.

Research has highlighted chocolate milk as a good recovery option after intense exercise. Chocolate milk has a combination of about 10 grams of protein and roughly 27 grams of carbohydrate per cup, providing an ideal combination of nutrients to repair and ready muscles for subsequent exercise sessions.

Furthermore, the type of protein found in milk is ideal for recovery. Milk contains a combination of casein (the main protein that coagulates into curd when cheese is made) and whey (the watery part that separates from the curd). Whey is recognized as a “fast protein” because it is quickly absorbed and available to muscles. Whey also supplies leucine, an amino acid that has been associated with reducing muscle soreness after exercise in adult athletes.

Any combination of protein and carbohydrate can help muscles recover after exercise. Chocolate milk happens to be convenient, easy to consume, and enjoyed by many young athletes. Ideally, young athletes should consume chocolate milk or a protein-carbohydrate combined snack within 45 minutes of exercise completion.

Tip #4: Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate 

When young athletes feel sluggish, are fatigued, or just don’t have the umph they usually count on, the issue may be dehydration.

One 2013 study of youth soccer players at summer camp showed most of them showed up to practice with some degree of dehydration (75% of them!), and progressively became more dehydrated on subsequent days of practice.

The study highlighted that young athletes may not drink enough during practice sessions, or throughout the day. One reason is they are often distracted and need reminders to make sure they are getting plenty of fluids.

Most young athletes need about 2-3 liters of fluid each day, depending on exercise demands and climate. Young athletes can get fluids from beverages, fruit, soups, veggies and yogurt.

Tip #5: Rest!

Sleep is critical to the young athlete’s growth, development and recovery. It’s the time when the body heals from the activities of the day and a time when growth hormone surges and allows growth to occur.

The National Sleep Foundation recommends children aged 6 to 13 years get 9 to 11 hours of sleep per day, and teens aged 14 to 18 years get at least 8 to 10 hours of sleep.

Jill Castle is a pediatric d ietitian/nutritionist who helps parents and professionals nourish and grow children of all ages. As a private practitioner, online educator, consultant and speaker, Jill explains the science behind nutrition for kids and makes it come alive with her practical tips and strategies. 

She is the author of Eat Like a Champion: Performance Nutrition for Your Young Athlete, co-author of Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School, creator of The Nourished Child blog and podcast, as well as several online resources for parents and professionals. 

Jill is regularly quoted in popular print and online publications as a leading childhood nutrition expert and regularly contributes to US News & World Report, USA Swimming and