I started meal planning and prepping in high school. I had begun to find myself giving the same effort as always but with less gains and improvements. I then experienced 2 individual events, one in my running and one in my skating. I first discovered that chicken fingers and fries from the school cafeteria was not the meal that was going to give me my best afternoon run or skate. Then I discovered that, on the flip side, not eating enough before events and not being prepared with snacks at away competitions would leave me tired and underfueled for practices and competitions. Both scenarios led to poor performances and, realizing this, I started to spend more time taking an interest in what I was putting onto my body and when.
I love working with athletes who have discovered this connection between food / nutrition and their sport and energy levels and are ready to take action. What I find they need the most is simply a starting point. Where to begin? How do you think about it? What is a framework for figuring this out?
Today I’m walking through some basic steps to meal planning and prepping for the young athlete. I’m focusing on lunch here but I can talk more about including breakfast and dinners if you guys want - just comment below! I hope you find this helpful. Please share with a friend or teammate who would also find this helpful!
6 STEPS TO SIMPLIFIED MEAL PLANNING FOR THE YOUNG ATHLETE
Look at Your School Schedule
Before you can plan anything you have to know what you are planning for! How many lunches will you need? How many breakfasts? Are you factoring dinner into the equation or just breakfast, lunch and snacks?? I like to use my personal calendar for this so that it is visible in my busy daily schedule.
2. Look at How Much Time You Have for Meals
How much time do you actually have for meals? Are you scarfing down breakfast as you run out the door in the morning? Do you eat breakfast at school after morning practice? Do you get a fast fifteen minutes for lunch that you squeeze in between last minute homework? Or do you have a full thirty minutes to an hour? ( IF your answer is none of the above, “I skip lunch”, then please resubmit your answer as either A or B, because, attention, you need all of your meals! Skipping a meal is not an option in the meal planning or prepping process! )
How much time you have for meals will also help you determine what you should plan for and bring. If you only have 15 minutes, bringing something that needs to be microwaved, is, realistically, probably not your best option. Write down lunch in your planner and how much time you think you will realistically have for it.
3. Know What Your Nutrition Needs Are
All athletes have different macro and micronutrient needs depending on their own unique body and the sport that they play. An endurance runner will have different needs than a volleyball player who will have different needs than a football player who will have different needs than a figure skater. I talk with lots of athletes who are working on increasing their calcium intake, protein intake and overall energy intake. If this is also you, then it’s something you need to be considering! Are you a vegetarian? If so, then it’s really important to make sure you are getting enough protein, iron, zinc and B12 from plant and dairy sources (if you include dairy).
4. List Foods You Like In Each Food Group
While the new MyPlate does a good job of showcasing and simplifying the foods groups and how to incorporate them into meals, it only shows 5 food groups, failing to showcase fat, which I believe is a very important part of a healthy young athlete’s nutrition plan. Now that you have in mind your time-frame and nutrition needs, take a look at the Six Food Groups and the foods that you most commonly include within these groups:
Meat or Meat Equivalent (for those that don’t eat meat)
I like to put these categories in columns like the picture below so that it leaves room to brainstorm all of the possible foods you can include in each category.
5. Choose at Least 3 Food Groups Per Meal
Now, think about what foods you want to include in your meals that week. Say you are planning lunch and you know that you are trying to get more calcium in your meals, you have cross country practice in 3 hours and you will have about 20 minutes for lunch today. That means you should probably bring something that can (A) be served cold, (B) contains calcium, (C) will offer a good portion of carbohydrate to fuel your run but (D) be lower in fat so that digesting the meal will not interfere with your run. For me, I might pick a MEAT (or “MEAT EQUIVALENT”), some GRAINS/STARCH and some DAIRY at a minimum (this could look like chicken, whole grain crackers & yogurt). Young athletes will most likely need much more food than this, but this is an example of the minimum from different categories.
6. Vary the Foods within Each of These Food Groups Weekly
To keep it easy, you could plan to stick with a meat, starch and dairy food in each of your lunches. However, try to choose two or three foods within each of those food groups to get a variety of nutrients throughout the week and to prevent getting bored. For example, I might focus on the following three food groups and then choose the following foods within each food group to mix and match for the week. I’ll also throw in a few foods from other groups to complement meals as needed. Something I might choose would be:
MEAT = chicken, beans, eggs
STARCH = whole grain bread, sweet potatoes, whole grain crackers
DAIRY = low-fat yogurt and cheese
FRUITS = apples, grapes, bananas
VEGGIES = spinach, cucumbers, bell peppers, mushrooms
What meals could I make from this? Examples might be:
A chicken sandwich on whole - wheat bread with spinach, cheese and mustard + an apple + a yogurt
A spinach salad topped with hard boiled eggs, garbanzo beans, cucumbers and bell peppers + an olive oil - based dressing + a low-fat yogurt (a Greek or high protein yogurt if I need more protein and it digests in time for my run) + a bunch of grapes
You can also keep it super basic and make what I like to call a “grab bag”. There is certainly nothing wrong with this! Bring a ziplock baggie of chicken + a baggie of grapes + whole grain crackers + a low-fat yogurt and whatever else you might need to keep you fueled!
Remember that my examples here are not personalized. You may need less or a lot more food than this. These examples are just to give you a basic visual.