5 nutrition tips for growing young athletes

“Food is essential to life. Therefore, make it good.”

- Truett Cathy, founder of Chick-Fil-A


Program design when it comes to nutrition isn’t the same as dieting. We simply want to put our kids in a position to be successful. I know if you’re a coach, you don’t have control over what your athletes eat, but you are still a trusted voice in their life. If you’re a parent, hopefully, this shines a light on a path that works for your children.

Let’s get into the five things that should guide a nutritional program.


I have always advocated for kids to eat frequently. Plan across the week. Plan seven breakfasts, seven lunches and seven dinners. Plan for snacks between each meal (including dinner and the next day’s breakfast), so three snacks a day. Kids should aim to eat six times a day. That way, if you miss one, you’re not drastically deprived of nutrients. School and sport schedules will dictate the timing more often than not.

This may be easier said than done because when kids are in school, it takes diligence. It’s doable. Shakes and bars or a piece of fruit are convenient options that fill in gaps when time is an issue. Just find what works and adapt and adjust accordingly.

Practically speaking, this starts at the grocery store. For main meals, whole foods are preferable. Organic is up to you, but whole foods are a great place to start. Learn how to read nutrition labels for processed foods. Ingredient labels are written with the order of ingredients listed from the most to the least. If the first ingredient is water, then you get a lot of water; sugar first, a lot of sugar and so on. Read the label and keep the sugar content as low as possible. Kids will benefit from a balanced distribution of macronutrients; protein, fats and carbohydrates.

As for how much of which macros, everybody is unique. If you’re a parent, consult with a registered dietitian if you think that’s in the best interest of your child. Some schools and organizations have nutritionists on staff. Take advantage of those resources if available.

Now is a good time to mention that there is so much content out there about ketogenic diets and intermittent fasting that it gets lost in translation that it’s not suitable for children. This goes for many fad diets that may be suitable for adults but need context.

#2 - Over half your body weight is water. Keep it that way.

Hydration is everything. If you’re dehydrated, the science is clear that output diminishes. This is even with minor dehydration. Obviously, I encourage you to be vigilant against putting your athletes at risk for severe dehydration, especially in the southern heat. Better safe than sorry.

Hydration is also one of those things that is relentless. It’s a daily demand that can’t be ignored. Now is always the time to drink water.

As for water alternatives, the market has plenty of options. I’m all for electrolytes, but not all sports drinks are created equal. As always, check the label. Be careful of sugar, caffeine and even sodium consumption. Caffeine is a diuretic, so it can just as quickly work against you if you’re not careful.

#3 - Your all-of-the-time habits trump your some-of-the-time habits.

Be patient. Longevity is the goal. Holidays, parties and special occasions should be enjoyed. Let kids be kids. Let them eat cake.

Kids don’t have cheat meals. Be careful not to project your restrictions onto them. Some kids have the metabolism of a hummingbird. We all remember what it was like when we were young, and we all know it doesn’t last forever. For those that may struggle with their weight in their adolescence, be encouraging. They have to learn to make the right decisions where they have control. They may not do the shopping, but there are plenty of occasions for them to decide what they eat or drink.

The thing you want to watch out for is when kids are saying they’re full and skipping their veggies only to eat double the dessert. Or, when soda and candy is becoming a daily snack alternative. It’s not about getting your kids to the pros. It’s about healthy habits that ideally they can take beyond their athletic career.

#4 - This is about health and well-being, not a cosmetics program.

Kids must understand everybody has different body types. They will all hit puberty at different stages. Comparison isn’t productive. Even twins can have different developmental progressions.

One of the shortcomings of social media is that young athletes have an abundance of negative influences when it comes to image. Even the positive influences still must be taken in context. For example, an adult influencer who doesn’t train for sports may be endorsing a supplement that isn’t formulated for persons under the age of 18 but is perfectly safe for an adult.

The most important thing you can do is educate them and teach them. You want your kids to have a healthy view of food and training. Help them understand that they reap what they sow and that discipline with both diet and exercise will have its reward long after their competitive days are over.

#5 - Don’t quit.

The pandemic definitely affected everybody’s routines. We’ve learned our lessons and hopefully came out of it stronger. Healthy nutrition has so many benefits, you can feel the difference when you’re on track. Athletes will notice the difference when they are competing on the right fuel as opposed to being hungry or thirsty or lethargic from the wrong fuel.

Our kids need our support. Let’s stay the course on teaching the value of a good nutritional program, advocating for healthy choices, and enabling them to make those choices where possible.

Pre-game nutrition may be the higher priority for a coach, and that’s okay. Focus on what you can control. Middle school athletes will pose different challenges than high school athletes who will be different than collegiate athletes.

At the end of the day, it’s still about education and encouragement. Remind them that every day brings new opportunities. Nutrition is a work in progress, and every individual must eventually take ownership of what they consume. Caring and trying is better than not caring and not trying. Don’t quit!


Information you already know about eating and nutrition is valuable. Continue to educate yourself. Making informed choices is the name of the game.

As with any program, allow for objections. Some kids may have allergies. No worries. Accommodate these needs. Some kids may just be picky. Workaround it if possible.

As long as kids are getting enough nutrients and calories, they will have the energy.

As for competitive athletes who are looking to bulk up or build muscle, it reminds me of a story: somebody once asked Arnold Schwarzeneggar, “How many grams of protein should I consume?”

“All of them,” he said.


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