Nutrition tips for young athletes: what parents need to know

Learn which nutrients children athletes need for proper performance, recover, growth, and maturation.

Kids huddling before soccer match
Kids playing soccer

Feeding a picky eater is challenging; feeding an athlete can be even more challenging. While all kids need nutritious, balanced meals to support growth and development, those that engage in strenuous exercise or endurance sports often have greater nutritional needs required to support recovery and performance. Want to make sure your young athlete is getting the nutrition he or she needs? Read below for some tips on nutrition needs for young athletes and how to ensure they are being met.  

Nutritional requirements for young athletes

There is a lot more to eating for sports than carbing up on pastas or chugging sugary sports drinks. It is important to recognize the unique requirements your young athlete may have. Nutritional demands can vary depending on age, gender, the type and intensity of the training your child is engaging in. It is important that they are meeting their energy needs for both growth and physical activity by getting the appropriate amounts of carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins and minerals through their diet. 

Carbohydrates: Carbohydrates are the main source of fuel for athletes because of the energy they provide to the body, making up anywhere from 45-60% of total energy needs. Without proper carbohydrate intake, athletes may not have enough glycogen stored in muscles for energy and may experience premature fatigue, which not only compromises performance but also forces the body to rely on another source for fuel: protein (1). When making carb choices for your young athlete, you should focus on nutrient dense sources of carbohydrates such as fruit, vegetables, beans and whole grains and moderate simple and refined sugars. Whole grains provide essential vitamins, minerals and dietary fiber needed by the body. They are digested more slowly and supply a lower more steady release of energy into the bloodstream (2). This can help to sustain and maintain steady blood sugar levels throughout the day and during exercise which can improve performance. Good sources of whole grains include oats, brown rice, barley, whole wheat breads and pastas. Simple and refined sugars, such as white bread, white rice, candy, and table sugar, are digested quickly and send immediate bursts of energy into the bloodstream (2). This may be beneficial during long periods of intense exercise, but is not ideal in providing long-term fuel.

Protein: Protein is an essential part of an athlete’s diet because it helps to build, maintain and repair muscles. Majority of young athletes already get an adequate amount of protein by incorporating protein-rich foods such as lean meat, poultry, fish, dairy products, beans, nuts, and soy products into a balanced diet(3). 

Fat: A certain amount of fat is needed for your body to function properly. For athletes especially, their muscles use up the energy from carbs very quickly, and fat acts as a long-term energy source. On average, it is suggested that 20% to 30% of your daily calories should come from fat (1). However, not all fats are created equal. Young athletes should aim for a lower amount of unhealthy saturated and trans fat in their diet, and concentrate on eating healthier fats such as unsaturated fats, found in vegetable oils, avocado, fatty fish, and nuts and seeds. Although fat is needed for long-term energy, choosing when to eat fats is also important for athletes. Fatty foods can slow digestion and possibly lead to an upset stomach if eaten too close to training or sports, so it's a good idea to limit eating high fat foods a few hours before exercising.

Calcium and Iron: Vitamins and minerals are equally as important to young athletes, especially calcium and iron. Calcium is needed to support the growth of strong bones. Not getting enough calcium can lead to weaker bones and consequential put young athletes at increased risk for bone-related injuries such as stress fractures (1). Foods that are high in calcium include low-fat dairy products such as yogurt, milk and cheese, as well as leafy green vegetables such as kale broccoli. Iron is noted for its oxygen-carrying capacity, and it is also a major player in the energy metabolism of carbohydrate, protein, and fats (1). Young athletes who do not get enough iron in their diet may experience decreased performance and fatigue. However, supplements are not recommended because iron is toxic in high amounts. Instead, make sure to include iron-rich foods such as meats and cereals or grains that have been enriched with iron. Tip: pairing these foods with foods high in vitamin C like fruits and vegetables can help with iron absorption (1).

Ensuring that your child is eating a varied, balanced diet can help them meet these needs. The needs of various age groups are outlined below:

Age group 2-4 years old: While children this age may not be engaging in high intensity sports, it is still important for them to get the nutrition they need to support growth and their playful, active lifestyle. 

  • Moderately active males of this age group require approximately 1125-1250 kcals/day while females require about 1050-1150 kcals/day (4). Carbohydrates intake should range from 45% to 60% of total energy needs depending on how active they are. 
  • Keep total fat intake between 30 to 35% of calories (5). 
  • Children, both boys and girls, of this age group also need about 13 grams/day of protein (6), 7 mg/day iron (7) and 700 mg/day of calcium.

Age group 5-8 years old: As children get older and start to engage in more sports, there is more of a difference in requirements for males and females. 

  • Male, moderately active: 1475-1700 kcal/day (4)
  • Male, active: 1800-1950 kcal/day (4)
  • Female, moderately active: 1325-1550 kcal/day (4)
  • Female, active: 1650-1775 kcal/day (4)
  • Recommendations for 45-60% of calorie needs being from carbohydrate sources remains the same
  • Fat should make up only 25 to 35 % of calories (5) 
  • Protein needs are a bit greater, with recommended intake at 19 grams of protein every day (6)
  • Calcium intake should be 1000 mg/day 
  • iron intake is recommended at 10 mg for boys and girls (7)

Age group 9-12 years old: Requirements for energy, carbohydrates, protein, and vitamins and minerals become greater for this age group, as children are on the brink of adolescence and puberty. Listed below are the requirements for males and female athletes in this age group:

  • Male, moderately active: 1975-2350 kcal/day (4)
  • Male, active: 2275-2700 kcal/day (4)
  • Female, moderately active: 1850 - 2150 kcal/day (4)
  • Female, active: 2125 - 2475 kcal/day (4)
  • 3 to 5 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of bodyweight for very light intensity training (1).
  • 5 to 8 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of bodyweight for moderate or heavy training (1). 
  • Recommended intake of at least 34 grams of protein every day (6)
  • fat should make up only 25 to 35 % of calories (5) 
  • Calcium intake is recommended at 1300 mg/day
  • Iron intake is recommended at 8 mg/day of iron boys and girls (7)

Importance of hydration

While eating well is important, good hydration is equally as important. Young athletes can prevent dehydration by drinking plenty of fluids, as dehydration can zap strength, energy, and coordination (3). Hydration should occur before, during and after training. Experts recommend that young athletes drink water or other fluids before and every 15 to 20 minutes during physical activity (1). It is also important to hydrate afterward to replenish any water lost from sweating. Although there are many varieties of sports drinks available, plain water is the recommended go to. If your athlete is undergoing strenuous physical activity for more than 1 hour and needs additional energy and to replace electrolytes, sports drinks can be beneficial, however energy loss and electrolytes can be restored in a post-training meal.

Tips for eating before and after training

What your young athlete eats before and after training are essential for their performance and recovery. Below are some tips for pre and post workout nutrition:

Pre-workout fuel- 3 hours before:  About three hours before the event, your athlete should have a well-balanced meal that is rich in carbohydrates, moderate in protein, low in fats (so that it is properly digested and does not cause stomach upset) and includes fruits or vegetables. A suitable meal includes:

  • Scrambled eggs with toast, fruit such or berries and a glass of milk
  • Turkey and cheese on roll with a little mayo, and a side of cucumber slices or carrots
  • Pasta with tofu and tomato sauce

Pre-workout fuel- less than 3 hours before. If your athlete is eating less than 3 hours before an event or training, eating a smaller meal that includes fast and easy carbohydrate rich foods, such as:

  • Yogurt with granola
  • Fruit such as a banana
  • Fruit smoothie

Post-workout fuel: The hours after training are the most important to refuel your athlete. After the game or event, experts recommend eating within 30 minutes after intense activity and again 2 hours later (1). Within 30 minutes, athletes can refuel with snacks made up of simple carbohydrates that are easy to digest, and protein such as whole grain crackers and cheese, granola bars with yogurt, or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. For a larger meal, be sure to include all five food groups. Serve baked or broiled lean cuts of fish, poultry, meat or seafood, such as chicken breast, salmon or tuna. Include whole grains, for example, whole-wheat pasta with a tomato or low-fat cheese sauce or brown rice. Toss in vegetables or include a side green salad (8). 

It's important for athletes to eat well before and after training. While the suggestions above are well-balanced choices, it is important to also let your athletes choose the healthy foods they believe enhance their performance and don't cause an upset stomach, while making sure they are getting the proper amount of fuel.

Feeding your young athlete to both support their energy demands and recovery from sports as well as their needs for growth and maturation requires some knowledge and planning. It is important that your young athlete gets all of the nutrients they need through a balanced diet. Worried your athlete isn’t getting enough? Nutrition apps such as Lifesum offer great recipe ideas and tips. What tips and tricks do you use for your young athlete?

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All of the content and media on Lifesum is created and published for information purposes only. It is not intended to be used as a substitute for medical advice or treatment. Users should always consult with a doctor or other health care professional for medical advice. If you have or think you are at risk of developing an eating disorder, do not use the Lifesum app and seek immediate medical help.

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