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Eat Right to Play Hard

Contributors: Dayle Hayes, MS, RD and Sarah Klemm, RDN, CD, LDN

Published: September 29, 2021

Reviewed: November 12, 2021

eat right to play hard

Active kids need "high-octane" fuel. In addition to calories for daily activities, health, brainpower and growth, child athletes need energy for sports. To give their performance a boost, feed these young athletes power foods packed with nutrients.

Power Them Up with Nutrient-Dense Foods

Kids need extra energy for practice and sporting events. Fuel up young athletes with high-energy carbohydrates from whole grains, fruits, vegetables and dairy foods. Including fruits and vegetables with meals and snacks can also help kids stay hydrated.

  • Serve a champion's breakfast. Offer whole-grain cereals or serve muffins made with whole grains and fruit, including bananas, blueberries and raisins. Create a quick yogurt parfait with layers of low-fat vanilla yogurt; fresh, frozen or canned fruit; and crunchy whole-grain cereal.
  • Pack breakfast to go. When morning practices or road trips make sit-down breakfasts difficult, pack a bag with whole-grain bagels, bananas, apples, string cheese, yogurt cups, 100-percent juice boxes and low-fat milk for eating on the run.
  • Pack a super-snack bag. Traveling athletes need smart fuel. Fill an insulated bag with high-energy snacks. Use frozen juice boxes, water bottles or reusable gel packs to keep items cold. Prepare your child for pre- and post-game snack attacks with crackers and cheese, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, trail mix, containers of cut fruit and sliced vegetables with dip.

Hydrate them with Healthy Fluids

Like athletes of any age, children need plenty of refreshing fluids to stay well-hydrated. Fluids are critical to prevent overheating and to remove the wastes produced by active muscles. Being even slightly dehydrated can dramatically affect performance.

  • Teach children to monitor fluid intake with a quick urine check. Regular trips to the bathroom with basically clear, nearly odorless urine indicates good hydration. Not having to urinate or producing dark-yellow, strong-smelling urine means it's time to drink more.
  • Make sure supply keeps up with demand. Fluid needs will depend on a child’s age and sex and are influenced by other factors, including their activity. Heat and humidity can also affect how much fluid the body needs. In addition to the amount of fluid that is recommended throughout the day for normal activities, young athletes will need to stay well hydrated before, during, and after training or participating in sporting events. One easy trick is to give kids a personalized water bottle to carry in the car, on the bus, at school and on the field.
  • Choose beverages wisely. Water is always a great, low-cost choice. For activities lasting less than an hour, water will usually provide optimal hydration. For longer activities sports drinks can help increase their fluid intake and replenish important nutrients that are lost through sweating.

If you have specific concerns about your child's intake, consult a registered dietitian nutritionist who specializes in sports nutrition. If your child is on a team, talk to the coach and arrange for an RDN to make a presentation to all the players and their parents. Sometimes, there also is an RDN on staff with the school district. To find a dietitian in your area, search the Academy's Find a Nutrition Expert database.

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