Fuelling Up: Healthy Snacks for Young Athletes

Fuelling Up: Healthy Snacks for Young Athletes

Sports Performance

Hockey, lacrosse, and soccer are but a few of the endless sports options for children and adolescents. Participation in sports at a young age develops skills, confidence, and good health. While sports are beneficial in many ways, young athletes are also undergoing critical periods of maturation. Consumption of nutritious snacks for young athletes is essential for growth and development while also supporting the energy demands of physical activity.

Young athletes should be arriving at a practice or game with enough stored energy to serve them through its duration. While most of this energy comes from balanced meals eaten prior to exercise, snacks are also essential as they provide the energy needed to optimize physical performance and improve mental focus for peak execution on the field, ice, or court.

Consider the following nutritious snacks for young athletes:

  • Carbohydrate foods digest the fastest and come from vegetables and fruit, grain products, crackers, dried fruit, and some energy bars. Eating a snack high in carbohydrates 3-4 hours before a sports practice is shown to increase glycogen in the muscle, essentially providing the body with a quick boost of energy. The result? More power and focus throughout practice.
  • Protein-rich foods are digested more slowly than carbohydrates and sustain energy during a long event. Greek yogurt, protein powder, cottage cheese, lean meat, and eggs are examples of higher protein choices. The closer the snack is to the exercise bout, the less protein it should contain due to proteins’ slower digestion rate.
  • Low-fat foods are best, as too much dietary fat immediately before exercise can cause discomfort.  French fries, chips, breaded chicken or fish, hot dogs, cheese, and chocolate bars are higher-fat choices that may cause discomfort during exercise.

Snacks for 90 minutes before exercise

A snack balanced with higher fibre, carbohydrates, protein, and fat is appropriate for up to 90 minutes out, as the digestive tract has more time to process a heavier snack. Consider these snacks that are rich in carbohydrates and moderate in protein and fat:

  • Small protein wrap with almond butter and a banana.
  • 1 can flavored tuna with rice crackers and individually portioned hummus.
  • ¾ cup plain or vanilla Greek yogurt topped with fresh or frozen berries and Kashi Go Lean cereal. Consider a sprinkle of hemp hearts or slivered almonds for extra energy and healthy fats!
  • Smoothie with ½ scoop whey protein powder or Greek yogurt, milk, a frozen banana, and peanut butter.
Greek yogurt and berry parfait

Snacks for 60 minutes before exercise

For snacks consumed 60 minutes prior to exercise, consider opting for a carbohydrate-based option with a small amount of healthy fat or protein. A lighter meal will provide energy without sitting heavily in the stomach. Some snack options include:

  • Apple with Mini Babybel
  • Pear with Piller’s Turkey Bites
  • Rice crackers with 1-2 hard-boiled eggs
  • Kodiak Cakes Protein-Packed Muffin
  • Clif Builder Bar

Snacks for 30 minutes (or less) before exercise

If an athlete has 30 minutes or less before the event, consider a carb-based or calorie-dense snack. A large snack will take up too much room in the stomach and digest slowly, causing cramping or an upset stomach. Some travel-friendly, carb-based options include:

  • Fresh fruit
  • Gogo Squeeze Fruit Sauce
  • Larabar
  • Homemade Lara Bites (click here for the recipe!)
  • Fig Newton Cookies

Snacking Tips for Athletes

1. Fill your plate with nutrient-dense foods

If you’re in the diet mentality each day, or constantly thinking of sports performance, it will feel like a battle to avoid the “bad foods.” Flip this mentality. When filling up your plate this holiday season, think about adding nutrient-dense foods rather than subtracting treats or desserts.

Tip #1: Enjoy a whack load of veggies and fruit and don’t stress about the rest. When you load up on veggies and fruit, there is less room and desire for foods that don’t support athletic endeavours or energy levels.

Here are some ways to enjoy fruit and vegetables this holiday season:

  • Fill half your plate with fruits and veggies.
  • Make a vegetable-based appetizer, such as raw veggies served with a homemade dip (see this recipe!).
  • Bring fresh fruit as a dessert option.
Holiday fruit platter

2. Savour your favorite foods

Take some time to reflect on which treats are truly special to you and your family. It is common to have food FOMO (“fear of missing out”) with endless temptations available. Consider the quote by Evelyn Tribole when choosing your favorite treats: “If you don’t love it, don’t eat it. If you do love it, savor it.” This is a quote that can help teach you discipline by encouraging treat consumption in a positive way.

Chances are that very few people’s favorites are the Pot of Gold chocolates, the generic donuts from Dunkin Donuts, or the store-bought cupcakes. These treats can be purchased and enjoyed at any time.

Tip #2: Only eat your holiday favorites that are special to the season. It might be the homemade butter tart your Grandma makes, the stuffing that you only have at Christmas dinner, or a buttery shortbread cookie while decorating the Christmas tree. When you choose to indulge in that special holiday treat, you will relish the taste that you only get to experience once a year without feeling guilty!

3. Avoid mindless snacking

Whether it be a couple of bites while preparing a special holiday dish in the kitchen with your parents or snacking on the leftovers while cleaning, these mindless snacking habits can add a substantial amount of unneeded calories and sugar. As mindless munching often leads to overeating, take your time when eating and remember to savour your food.

Tip #3: Make it a rule that you will sit down whenever you are eating. By sitting down, you avoid distractions and can truly savour your food. As such, you will feel satisfied and avoid overeating or excess consumption of treats. Not only will it result in more mindful eating, but it will also create quality moments with your family this holiday season.

Wrapping Up

Eating snacks that are focused on carbohydrates with healthy sources of fat and protein will not only provide a balanced nutrition profile for sustained energy in sports, but these snacks will also provide the nutrients needed for optimal health, development, and growth. 

FAQ — Healthy Snacks for Young Athletes

Healthy snacking ensures young athletes have proper fuel to play at their peak ability and helps avoid mood swings, which can lead to unpredictable performances during games.

Fresh fruit, CLIF Builder Bars, apple with Mini Babybel, orange slices, smoothie with protein powder, or a small protein wrap with almond butter and banana.

Avoid greasy foods like burgers, tacos, or pizza and avoid sugary foods like cupcakes or cookies. Not only are these foods harder to digest, they will cause athletes to feel tired and sluggish during a game.

It is important to fuel up before a game, as snacks will give athletes the added energy they need. If your child has a tendency to not be hungry right before a game, offer a snack option to them 1.5-2 hours before.

Cheese strings, jerky, trail mix, yogurt cups, apple sauce, or granola bars.

It is recommended to eat three snacks per day (alongside the consumption of three proper meals throughout the day).

Headaches, dizziness, extreme hunger and mood swings often come with under eating. When athletes aren’t feeling their best, they won’t be able to perform their best. Additionally, athletes that aren’t properly fueled are at a higher risk for injury.


Elanne is SkillShark’s marketing aficionado who is equal parts passionate about sports, marketing and sports marketing. She can usually be found with a golf ball or three in her purse, and her favorite way to spend downtime is out on the course with friends and family.