nutrition for the young athlete

Navigating the Young Athlete's Early Morning & Evening Practices

One of the most common questions I get from parents and athletes is how to eat around early morning before-school practices and those tricky 6PM and 7PM games and practices. What should you eat before that won’t interfere with the athlete’s event? Should they eat something before? What about after? What do you do about these games and practices that are smack in the middle of meal time?

My answer to this question, whether it is breakfast or dinner is to divide the meal into Meal 1 and Meal 2 and include the more easily digested items in Meal 1 (think quality carbohydrates) and those less-easily digested items in Meal 2 (think more protein, fiber and healthy fats). In this post I’m going to try to simplify and break it down for you to get a better picture of what this would look like and why….

Meal #1 (the pre-event meal)

  • The focus of this Meal #1 is to provide energy to the athlete. To make sure energy stores are full and ready for play and practice. If an athlete heads out to practice with an empty tank or depleted energy stores (from running around at school all day and not having eaten since school lunch) they will not be able to play or practice at their best and could even run a higher risk of injury.

  • This meal should consist of quality carbohydrates because these are more easily digested in the body, which means they can act as a quicker source of energy that will not lead to digestive problems mid-event.

  • Examples of these quality carbohydrate meal components might be: pasta, rice, fruit, baked potatoes or sweet potatoes, whole or half of a PB&J or turkey sandwich, chicken noodle soup, crackers with some hummus or peanut butter (careful with too much of peanut butter or hummus because they do contain fat and, if eaten too close to events, could cause stomach problems during the event), dry cereal, waffle(s), slice or two of toast with jam, simple granola bar.

Meal #2 (the post-event meal)

  • The focus of Meal #2 is to replenish used up energy stores, to provide protein and other nutrients to the muscles so that they can repair and rebuild, to provide some healthy fats which can aid in recovery and decreased inflammation, and to overall satisfy and fill up the athlete.

  • This meal is especially important if the athlete has another game or practice the following morning or later that day.

  • Examples of these meal components might be:

    • Protein: chicken, turkey, lean ground beef, fish, beans, nuts, seeds, tofu, milk, yogurt, cheese

    • Healthy fats: salmon, tuna, avocado, flaxseed, chia seeds, nuts and seeds, nut and seed butters, olive oil (can be in salad dressings, etc.), tahini

    • Quality Carbohydrate: use the examples listed for Meal #1 ideas


Sometimes the athlete really cannot eat in the mornings before an early morning before-school practice (I see this a lot with runners, sometimes gymnasts, and I struggled with it as a figure skater growing up). In these cases it could be good to try:

  1. Have a liquid form of nutrition or something very basic for breakfast. Examples include: fruit juice, fresh or dried fruit, a shake, a little bit of a sports drink.

  2. If an early morning bite or drink is absolutely not doable, move over to focusing on dinner the night before. If dinner was early, incorporate a before-bed snack like a bowl of cereal, yogurt, granola bar with some peanut butter, something that can carry over so that the athlete’s fuel tank is not completely depleted when they wake up in the morning and head to practice.

  3. In these cases, make sure the athlete is getting something substantial as his or her post-event Breakfast #2. This could look like anything from a Greek yogurt with granola and a banana, to a granola bar, a milk carton and grapes, to 2 hard boiled eggs + fruit, to a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a carton of milk.

Those odd-hour events can be tricky, but with a plan and simple meal or food ideas, keeping your young athlete fueled can be done! As I sign off, I’m leaving you with one last list of ideas to take with you this month.

Happy Fueling!


Early Morning Practice Meal Ideas for the Young Athlete


  • Glass of juice

  • Medium banana or other fruit

  • Dry cereal (ex: Cheerios, Quaker Oatmeal Squares, Chex, etc.)

  • Dried fruit

  • Fruit smoothie (made with fruit and water or some juice)

  • Breakfast shake like Carnation Instant Breakfast (tolerance may depend on athlete and on sport being played)

  • Slice(s) of toast with jam or honey

  • Simple granola bar (ex: Quaker chewy or soft Nutrigrain) or fig bar (low in fiber & protein)

  • Low-fat yogurt


I LOVE these easy   Egg Cups  !

I LOVE these easy Egg Cups!

  • Hardboiled egg(s) + cheese stick + grapes

  • Peanut butter and jelly or honey sandwich

  • Greek yogurt + granola + sliced strawberries

  • Pre-made egg sandwich (egg(s) on a whole wheat English muffin with cheese) + fruit

  • Chocolate milk + whole grain granola bar

  • Turkey & cheese sandwich on whole wheat bread (remember that Breakfast doesn’t have to mean only breakfast foods!)

  • Peanut butter crackers + glass of white or chocolate milk

  • To-go oatmeal cup (just add milk or water) + banana

  • Cottage cheese + fresh fruit + whole grain crackers

  • Pre-baked egg cups + fruit or a granola bar or whole grain crackers

Evening Event Meal Ideas for the Young Athlete


  • Baked white or baked sweet potato

  • Pasta with marinara sauce

  • Turkey sandwich

  • Pasta salad

  • Bowl of cereal (just like breakfast doesn’t have to mean “breakfast food”, dinner doesn’t always have to mean “dinner food”!)

  • Mini pizzas (on flatbread or English muffins with marinara, a sprinkle of cheese and any veggie toppings your athlete would like)


I’m such of fan of this simple mayo-free   chicken salad!

I’m such of fan of this simple mayo-free chicken salad!

And these hearty flavor-packed 7-ingredient   tuna burgers!

And these hearty flavor-packed 7-ingredient tuna burgers!

  • Baked chicken + veggies + whole grain roll

  • Grilled salmon + salad + glass of milk

  • Spaghetti with meatballs

  • Tuna or chicken salad

  • Omelet with veggies and cheese + slice of whole wheat bread

  • Glass of milk / chocolate milk

  • Greek yogurt with fruit

  • Avocado toast topped with a scrambled egg(s)

  • Chicken sandwich + veggies

  • Lean ground hamburger + veggies

  • Tuna Burgers - just the patty or with the bun - whatever your athlete needs!

Jello Legs & Strategizing Pre-Event Snacks: Something I Learned the Hard Way

"Shoot!", I thought as I was about fifteen minutes from taking the ice for my warmup.  "I forgot my snack.  Oh well, too late now.  I'm sure I'll be fine.  I'm sure I don't actually need that banana.  I feel fine.  It's just like eight total minutes of skating."

An easy snack that I love pre or post exercise!   Sun Butter Banana Oat Bites   can also be found here

An easy snack that I love pre or post exercise! Sun Butter Banana Oat Bites can also be found here

Fast forward about twenty-five minutes later.  I made it through my warmup and, I'll say, it was decent.  I did not feel strong like I knew I could feel.  However, I just rationalized it as nerves that always vanish as soon as my music begins and carried on.  After a mediocre warmup I exited the ice and kept warm while talking with my coach. "I'm feeling stronger", I thought.  "I can do this."  I removed my skate guards and handed my sweater to my coach.  The announcer called my name and as the cold icy air pierced my skin, I lifted my head high, took a deep breath, and skated out to my beginning pose, trying to leave my hesitations in the warmup room.

At this point in my skating life, I felt like I at least had my early morning pre-performance eating strategy pretty much down.  I knew my go-to meal, timing and routine for these early morning competitors.  What I was still working on, however, was the timing for those awkward mid-day to late - afternoon performances.  This competition happened to be around 12:30 p.m., smack in the middle of the day and lunchtime. At that point breakfast had certainly worn off and the question was, do I eat lunch before or after my skate? I couldn't eat a huge lunch because then it might not digest in time.  But should I eat a little something before I compete or wait until after I finish?  With limited time to go, I brushed off the necessity of this pre-performance snack, telling myself it was simple superstition and went on with my warmup routine.

Now I was standing on the ice, focused on the task at hand, ready to go.  My music began and I pressed into my first strokes and leaned into those beginning edges.  Unfortunately that is as good as it got.  The program was rough, to say it kindly.  I remember literally talking to my legs while skating, saying "What are you doing?  Get it together!"  But it was useless.  My legs felt like jello and my body was shaky, making landing any jump next to impossible and causing spins to be far from tight and centered.  That was one of those performances that I was happy to end and as I put my skate guards back on and made my way to my family I realized how low my blood sugar was. I was hungry and a pre-performance snack would from then on be a pre-performance staple.

Athletes work hard every day so that they can perform their best when it counts and it is important not to let a lack of pre-performance nutrition be the reason those practices don’t pay off. It is important to determine what nutrition your body needs for an optimal performance and to determine not only what but also when the body needs it, then making it a necessity in your practice and performance day plan (remember, never perform on something you have not practiced on first!).. Now, if a meal was eaten an hour or two or three before the event, a snack may not be needed. However, in the instance like I have talked about here, where the last meal was far away, a snack is most-likely a benefit or necessity.

Remember that the closer you are to the event, the simpler your snack should be. That means the closer you get to the event the less protein, fiber, and fat a snack should contain as these components are all more difficult for the body to digest. Need some ideas? I’m leaving you with a few of my tried and true favorites below.

Happy fueling!


10 simple pre-event snacks for the young athlete

  • Fresh fruit (banana, grapes, orange slices, melon, etc. whatever is best tolerated by the athlete)

  • Dried fruit (raisins, cherries, apple, etc.)

  • Simple granola bar (low fiber, low fat, low protein - think "easy to digest", like a Quaker Chewy granola bar)

  • Pretzels

  • Crackers (salty crackers if you’re a heavy and / or salty sweater)

  • Jam sandwich

  • Slice of toast with honey

  • Dry cereal (My go-to’s are Cheerios & Quaker Oatmeal Squares)

  • Small fig bar ( I really like these)

  • Pre-event homemade trial mix (dry cereal + dried fruit)

Happy Fueling!



Are You Eating Enough?? How Getting Competitive Changed the Way I Ate

One of my favorite mid-day snacks or an easy part of breakfast is an 88-Acres bar with a nut or seed butter!

One of my favorite mid-day snacks or an easy part of breakfast is an 88-Acres bar with a nut or seed butter!

There is often times a misconception that athletes in aesthetic sports eat less or need to eat less to be "better".  Cue the ballerina, the gymnast, the figure skater, and the dancer, to name a few.  In sports with constricting and limited attire, where jumping, speed and agility are crucial, athletes may often restrict intake, skip meals, or fill standard size meals with only low-calorie items.  However, something the sports community is realizing is that a lower number on the scale and bony prominences are not a sign of success and certainly not a fast track to the gold.

I have read about this in numerous articles over the past few years but actually experienced this on my own in high school.  These articles that I read later were a scientific confirmation of what I already discovered based off of personal experience and performance.

Growing up as a figure skater, I would say that I got really "competitive" in the USFS (U.S. Figure Skating) realm somewhere around sophomore year of high school (although I was serious about it and competing from somewhere around the age of 8).  After years of falls and frustrations, summer training camps away, and six days a week at the rink, I finally landed a very difficult element for me, and one I needed to compete at the next level, my double axel.  Alongside this I was also running cross country with my high school.  Top six days a week of skating with cross country and you find quite a physical and mental demand.  This was the point when I realized that to really compete I needed speed, I needed strength and I needed massive amounts of focus.  I quickly realized that none of those could be obtained when under-fueled or under-nourished.  While I felt like I was a fairly healthy eater, I realized that maybe that wasn't enough.  My practices were longer and more intense and I was looking to improve, not to maintain. In the past I might have arrived to the rink slightly hungry but would wait it out until a break or dinner.  However, returning from skating camp the summer I landed my double axel and beginning the new school year, I noticed this usual eating pattern only leaving me exhausted and with a sometimes sloppy practice.  I had my jumps, I had my spins, now I wanted to increase my speed, making those jumps higher and those spins faster, and nailing my routines nine times out of ten.  I quickly realized that to meet these expectations I had to show up to the rink ready.  I don't mean just having the right outfit, gloves, music, etc.  I mean ready in its entirety - fueled, nourished and ready to give practice my all.

We all know what our "A" game is.  Well, my thoughts are that if we can't bring it to practice how are we ever going to improve upon it and advance?  Of course we always have our off-days. However, for the most part, we have got to practice at our best as much as we can so that with each practice and each performance we can improve upon the last, thereby improving our performance and outcomes when it really counts - in competition.

It was during this time when my skating got more serious and I started to consider myself a real competitor that I realized just being “healthy” wasn't always going to cut it.  I needed extra fuel and more nutrition.  This was the year I (A) started to bring my lunch to school, (B) ate more food and ate it more frequently (packed my lunch and always made sure to include an afternoon snack within about 1 hour of getting to the rink) and (C) saw the biggest improvement in my skating AND my running. I was faster and stronger which made for an exciting year in my sports, in my schoolwork and in my overall attitude.  Many people that I have spoken with or clients that I have worked with have seemed to share or understand this common belief that to be more competitive an aesthetic sport athlete needs lighter meals, which often materialize as more salads, more fruits, and sticking to only three meals a day.  However, the reality is that athletes, including aesthetic athletes, actually need MORE if they to improve (and prevent injury). That may mean more food at meals or more eating opportunities or more energy than fruits & vegetables can supply.

A note to the young athlete

To all of those aesthetic athletes out there afraid of "eating too much”, if you're feeling fatigued and your performances and practices have not been up to your normal standards, or worse, you are suffering from multiple or non-healing injuries, take a good look at your daily intake and find room for improvement or small dietary additions here and there.  While those salads, fruits, and scheduled meals are great, they can leave you lacking in the energy required for your sport.  It may be that you simply need an extra apple, some peanut butter with your banana, a bigger salad with some almonds or avocado added, an extra slice of whole-wheat toast in the morning, or a small whole grain granola bar before practice. On the other end of the spectrum, maybe you’re a multi-sport athlete. Maybe you play school and club soccer and decided to join the cross country or track team and you’re going through your growth spurt. Remember that with your increased practices, games and tournaments, especially during this growing period, comes the necessity of a little or a lot more food whether that’s more at lunch, actually eating breakfast (for many of you non-breakfast eaters out there) or adding in an afternoon or evening snack.  Remember that it doesn’t have to be complicated and that there is not one universal prescription for every athlete. Your extra nutrition needs depend on you as an individual and your sport.  However, if you're looking to improve, remember that with each day and with each practice you have to fuel up to power up.  Give your body enough nutrition (along with sleep and a few other factors), and watch it hand you more energy, better focus and improved performance in return.

to the parent, coach & support team of the young athlete

Stay tuned for more posts this month as I dive more into pre and post event meal and snack ideas!

Happy Fueling!