How to Feed Your Young Athlete

It’s 8:00 AM. Your nine-year-old’s game is in one hour. You know he/she should eat something, but what? And how do you get him/her to eat?

During tournaments, kids sometimes play three intense games in a single day, especially at the end of the tournament, when there’s more on the line. A bad finish to a game can cost the entire tournament.

Little things matter.

Nutrition is a BIG thing. Many parents believe their kids can eat virtually anything without affecting their performance. As a coach, I can testify to just how wrong they are. A kid who fades out 40 minutes into practice will get 33% less coaching time, because they’re too tired to improve. A kid who’s too hyper at the start of practice will usually distract the coach, or earn a few laps, which detracts from his time to learn. Kids who don’t eat breakfast simply won’t play their best at the end of the game. An overstimulated kid will probably get a penalty or foul.

Fortunately, there’s an answer, and it’s not force-feeding your kid. Here’s an easy way to make sure they’re getting what they need (and will want to eat it).


You know protein builds muscles. But on game day, eating protein can help by slowing down the absorption of carbohydrates. Without fully explaining the Glycemic Index, here’s how carbs work: some break down slowly, giving you sustained energy; some break down quickly, giving you peaks and valleys. Protein slows that breakdown, helping with sustaining energy levels for longer. You need protein and/or fat with carbs on game day.


Your body primarily runs on carbohydrates during sport (though there’s some fat metabolism, too.) But just like gas in a racecar, you don’t want to run out. If you’re eating sugar, white flour or fruit without anything else, you’ll get a massive energy dump at first…and then nothing when you need it later. We can explain carbohydrate breakdown using a thermometer: let’s say you want to keep your house heated to 70 degrees. If you burn sugar, that thermometer will jump to 100, and then quickly drop to 50. If you burn grains (even “whole wheat”) you’ll pop up to 90, and then drop to 60 pretty quickly. But if you’re burning vegetables, you’ll go up to 80, then back to 65. And if you add protein or fat to the meal, you’ll hold 70 degrees for a long time. Eat vegetables, or combine protein and/or fat with your carbs to keep that energy level consistent.

What are some of the worst carbs to eat? Breakfast bars. Muffins. Bagels.


Fats don’t make you fat. Kids need fat in their diet (so do adults). Fats are a secondary energy source. When the carbs are gone, fats fuel the fire. Use nuts and seeds to provide healthy fats. Heck, eat bacon: I’d rather coach a kid who ate bacon for breakfast than one who had a bagel. 


Some parents and coaches believe that kids should “carb up” before a practice or game, and feed them a bagel or pasta. This isn’t true, will probably decrease performance, and should be stopped.

Feeding a kid a bunch of grain-based food immediately before practice will slow him down. Grains pull water out of the muscle and into the stomach, causing cramps, an “overfull” feeling, and sluggishness. Want to slow down a racehorse? Give him a pail of grain right before a race. Want to slow down your kid? Do the same.

If given a giant bowl of pasta the night before an early practice, your child’s stomach will be clear. But the insulin spike from the carb-heavy meal will leave them with a sugar crash in the morning; they’ll feel tired, crabby and sluggish until they eat more sugar, and then ride that roller-coaster all day.

Even most marathon runners, who need prolonged energy at low levels over several hours, are starting to trend away from this bad habit and instead opt for a combination of carbs, protein and fat the night before a race.


 Adults tend to choose foods based on taste, but research shows this isn’t true for kids. Kids make food choices based on, in this order: 

1. Novelty 

2. Texture 

3. Taste.

Novelty: This can range from appearance to activity surrounding the food to presentation. If you look at packaging on “kid food” as an adult, you’ll think the manufacturer went way overboard on bright colours and shooting stars. But they know better: to a kid, the shiniest box contains the best-tasting food. Luckily, we can use their knowledge for our own (less-evil) purposes.

Packaging food in a unique way, arranging it on the plate to make a picture, making it finger-edible, placing it in a different spot in the house…kids’ brains are wired to pay attention to novelty. These things all help. Filling a special “game-day” bowl with grapes, nuts and cheese to eat on the way to the field can help. A picnic on the floor while sorting equipment can also help. A final tip: turn off the tv while getting ready in the morning; no meal can compare to the shiny distractions on the screen. Letting kids choose their fruit in the grocery store can also help, because their sense of ownership will combine with the novelty factor.

Texture: in the morning, stick to crunchier, more texture-rich foods. While some kids will eat a banana (or yogurt) in the morning, cereal companies bank on how a food FEELS when it’s being eaten. It’s psychological, but few people wake up starving, and eating soggy cereal is unappealing anytime. What’s crunchy? Fruit. Nuts.

Taste: It has to taste good, but that doesn’t mean you need sugary cereal or fake yogurt in tubes. “Natural” sugars like syrup and honey aren’t better than table sugar, but fruit goes a long way.

Your kid doesn’t need a big breakfast, and it doesn’t have to be perfect every time. Some cut up fruit or raisins; a little handful of nuts; and a piece of cheese or stick of bacon will go a long way. But when a kid hops out of the back seat with an Egg McMuffin and a hot chocolate, her coach knows she’ll be hyper for the first ten minutes, then tired and cranky for the next 50.


We approach eating on a scale of “Good-Better-Best.”

Good: they ate something. This isn’t enough for athletes, but kids who are just lazing around the house can get by with cereal in the morning.

Better: they had some protein with their breakfast carbs. Cereal bars can even be okay if paired with an egg or bacon.

Best: they practiced solid nutrition for at least three days before a tournament. Treats once every three days or so (rather than 3x/day.) 

Need more help? We have brand-new fitness programs for kids and teens. To learn more:

  • Schedule a FREE virtual consult here.
  • Schedule a FREE team consult. Email to schedule. 



book a
free intro

Talk with a coach about your goals, get the plan to achieve them.