What Young Athletes Should Be Eating on Game Day

Game day nutrition is particularly important for young athletes who are growing, maturing, and have high energy demands. Making sure they make smart, nutritious choices will ensure they have adequate fuel to make it through the big game and beyond.

When to eat:

Planning when to eat is almost as important as deciding what to eat. Our bodies generally require 2-3 hours to digest a normal size meal. A small snack such as a protein bar or granola bar only requires 30-minutes to an hour. It’s a good idea to eat a decent-sized breakfast or lunch, but don’t overeat just before game time. Make sure you know what time game warm-ups start so you can work backwards to plan your eating schedule in advance. Grabbing a protein bar or energy bar just before warm-ups is a good idea, especially if it’s been several hours since your last meal. Keep your snacks light and healthy.

In addition, if you’re playing in a tournament and need to eat between games, you might rethink eating a huge meal, particularly if there is only a small break before your next game.

What to eat:

Healthy carbs like whole grain bread, pasta, cereal, or crackers are a good source of energy. A little bit of protein with every meal helps support growth and builds and repairs young muscles. Eggs on whole wheat toast with a side of bacon are a great start to the day, followed by a lunchtime sandwich with low-sodium deli meat and some fresh veggies and yogurt.

Fatty foods such as pizza with extra cheese and greasy fries can leave athletes feeling overfull and sluggish—not a great recipe for success on the playing field. Fatty foods also take longer to digest, so keep that in mind when planning when to eat.

Hydration is also key. Athletes should start to hydrate early on game day, drinking plenty of water or clear fluids without lots of sugar. In the 2-3 hour window before game time, kids should take extra sips to ensure they are fully hydrated. During the game, rehydrating with at least a ½ cup of water every 15 minutes is ideal to replenish fluids after sweat loss. Dehydration can put athletes on the sidelines, so be particularly mindful of rehydrating when the weather is hot and your player is sweating a lot.

Food Safety:

If it’s hot out or you’re traveling to and from the game without access to refrigeration, be extra vigilant about food safety. Pack a cooler with enough freezer packs to store perishable foods and drinks at the right temperature to prevent spoilage. Cheese sticks, yogurt, eggs, and salads with mayo all require cold storage. Stomach cramps and nausea from eating spoiled food won’t help with your child’s sports performance.

Post-Game Recovery:

Experts suggest 8 oz. of low-fat chocolate milk to be the perfect recovery beverage after an intense workout. Chocolate milk has all of the nutrients the body needs for recovery. The sugar and carbs in chocolate milk replace the glycogen that was burned as energy during the game and provide a good instant source of energy. The protein, calcium, and vitamin D in the milk help burn fat and build muscle; water rehydrates; and even the youngest athletes like the taste so they will reliably drink up.

Sports drinks like Gatorade and Powerade are great for hydration and electrolyte replenishment, but don’t do much for building muscle or glycogen repair.

With a little planning ahead and some smart choices, your young athlete should have the energy he or she needs to go for the win!

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