Nutrient-dense Foods: The Best Fuel for Teen Athletes

  • author name Janelle Glick, MA, RD, LDN

Every athlete knows proper fueling is crucial to good performance. But teen athletes have special challenges, as they balance the demands of school, work and practice with a growing body, active social life, and often less than stellar eating habits. Here are some tips for proper nutrition for sports performance.

Proper nutrition for sports performance doesn't need to involve special products, supplements or rigorous charting and counting of calories and nutrient levels. If teen (or tween) athletes already eat a variety of nutrient-dense foods, they most likely get all the good nutrition to support their needs.

Nutrient-Dense Foods

The key is eating nutrient-dense foods, meaning foods that have a lot of vitamins and minerals per calorie. Many of the processed foods we consume on a regular basis are loaded with sugar, making them very high in calories but low in nutrients.

Teen athletes need more calories to meet the demands of exercise, but nor in the form of packaged and processed foods. Whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, protein, and dairy should always come first. Read on for some ideas for nutrient-dense foods to include in your teen’s diet.

  • Eggs: Eggs are a well-liked protein source and loaded with the nutrients teens need, including iron, B vitamins, and folate (just be sure to eat the yolks, too). Eggs are a great portable snack when hard-boiled. A breakfast that includes eggs is likely to have more staying power than one that simply contains carbohydrates.
  • Beef: Many people are concerned about consuming beef regularly, but it is one of the best sources of iron. And teen athletes—especially girls—can often be deficient.

Beef is also high in zinc--a nutrient critical for a healthy immune system and tissue growth and maintenance. Grass-fed beef is best and contains the highest levels of important Omega-3 fats and other nutrients, but it can be pricey.

Grass-fed ground beef is often the least expensive option and can be used to make all sorts of teen-friendly fare. Try some burgers, adding some chopped and sautéed veggies like mushrooms, peppers and onions to boost the veggie content of the meal. Or cook up some ground beef with chili powder and cumin and make taco salads topped with your favorite taco fixings. A taco salad makes a healthy lunch item packed in an insulated lunch bag.

  • Yogurt: Growing bones need calcium, and yogurt is a great source. Greek yogurt provides more protein than regular. Whole milk yogurt from local grass-fed cows is what I prefer, but you can also choose organic varieties from the grocery store. Avoid those loaded with added sugar, instead packing some frozen berries topped with plain yogurt in your child’s lunch. The frozen fruit will be thawed by the time they eat and will flavor the yogurt naturally.

  • Intact grains: Grains can be a good source of carbohydrates for energy, but often the wrong forms are consumed. Instead of highly processed grains, choose those closest to their natural form.

Plain, cooked oatmeal makes a great choice for breakfast, especially when topped with nuts, seeds and/or nut butter and sweetened naturally with fruit and cinnamon.

If you have a vegetarian in the house, quinoa is an excellent grain option that is high in protein and contains all of the essential amino acids.

  • Dark leafy greens: Dark greens like kale and spinach are powerhouses of the nutrition world. They might not top of your teen’s favorite foods list, but the good news is that they can easily become more palatable. Baby kale and spinach can be blended into a smoothie with frozen berries, and kale chips make a surprisingly tasty alternative to regular potato chips.

Maintain Energy and Hydration Throughout the Day

Encourage your teen to eat enough, and drink plenty of water throughout the day in order to maintain energy and hydration. Since many teens have lunch fairly early and then practice right after school, it may be helpful to pack a pre-workout snack. Fresh fruit (like a banana) and some nuts are easy options.

For a fun treat, try this recipe for Energy Bites:

Bowl of energy bites


1 cup oats

2/3 cup crisp brown rice cereal**

1/2 cup natural peanut butter

1/2 cup flaxseed (ground) or hemp hearts

1/2 cup mini chocolate chips

1/3 cup honey

1 tablespoon chia seeds

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

cocoa powder (optional to prevent sticking)


Mix all ingredients, except cocoa powder, together in a bowl. Cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. Remove from refrigerator and roll into 1 inch balls. Coating your hands with cocoa powder makes this process a lot easier and adds a little chocolate flavor to them! You may need to dust hands with cocoa frequently to cut back on sticking.

**Erewhon brand makes a crisp brown rice cereal and it can be found in the natural foods section or gluten-free section of the grocery store.

Special Concerns

If your teen is struggling with their nutrition or has special dietary restrictions or concerns, it may be helpful to see a registered dietitian who specializes in sports nutrition.

author name

Janelle Glick, MA, RD, LDN

Janelle Glick, MA, RD, LDN, is a wellness dietitian with Lancaster General Health Corporate Wellness.

Education: Janelle Glick holds a B.S. in Nutrition and Dietetics from Messiah College and a M.A. in Nutrition Education from Immaculata University. Her special areas of interest include weight management and health coaching.

Call: 717-544-3527

About LG Health Hub

The LG Health Hub features breaking medical news and straightforward advice to help individuals of all ages make healthy choices and reach their wellness goals. The blog puts articles by trusted Lancaster General Health clinical experts, good 'n healthy recipes, videos, patient stories, and health risk assessments at your fingertips.


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