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Group of young children holding each other and smiling with orange slices in their mouths

Healthy Snacks for Student-Athletes

Staying on top of athletics and academics as a student-athlete is both time-consuming and calorie-consuming. It takes a lot of fuel to keep active teens going, and it’s important to incorporate healthy snacks between meals to keep minds and muscles in top shape.

But vending machines, away games and concession stands can make healthy snacking a challenge. OhioHealth sports dietitian Dawn Holmes, MS, RD, CSSD shares how important healthy snacking is for student-athletes, and how to do it right wherever you are.

Teenager eating a snack

Calories around the clock

“In terms of calories, female student-athletes should be getting about 2,300 to 2,500 a day, and males about 3,000 to 3,500, even up to 4,000 if they’re playing a high-contact sport like football,” says Holmes.

But trying to squeeze those calories into three meals leaves large gaps in the day where students don’t have the energy they need. It’s better to spread your calories throughout the day.

That’s where snacks come in, says Holmes. “High school student-athletes should be eating about every three hours during the day, with snacks between meals, and one before bed as well. This helps fuel their muscles and their minds. We shouldn’t forget the student part of student-athletes, and the thinking required in school and in the game.”

Slices of apple with nut butter on them next to a bowl of nut butter

Pair it with protein

Holmes says when she works with student-athletes, she emphasizes the need to get energy from carbohydrates consistently throughout the day – fruits and veggies, breads and pasta, and dairy products.

“They should be getting carbohydrates every time they’re eating, and ideally pairing it with protein, especially with snacks,” she says. “Carbohydrates provide quick-release energy, and the protein not only works to repair and rebuild muscle, but it also takes longer to digest, making you feel satisfied longer.”

For evening snacks, Holmes says dairy is a good choice. “The casein protein in dairy aids muscle growth and recovery while you sleep. Try cottage cheese and fruit, cereal and milk, granola and yogurt, or cheese and crackers.”

She says many people are wary of eating at night because they’re worried about gaining weight. “That’s a myth. Your body is always in need of calories. If you eat them before bed, you’ll use them, though you may not want to eat within an hour of lying down to avoid digestive issues.”

Middle school sports team standing around coach while eating orange slices for a snack

Pregame power-up

When it comes to optimizing athletic performance, Holmes says timing your snacks is important. “Have a small snack half an hour before practice to train your gut for a game situation. Choose something that fits in your hand, like a piece of fresh fruit, a cheese stick, a serving of peanut butter or some graham crackers.”

She also suggests being mindful about how you use sports drinks. “They are great right before, during and after practice or a game, but unless you’re an athlete trying to gain weight, sports drinks can add a lot of extra calories to your diet. Stick to water or milk the rest of the day.”

Soccer team sitting in trunk of SUV drinking water and resting

Snacking right on the road

When you’re traveling for an away game or out of town for a tournament, making healthy food choices can be challenging, but Holmes says you can still make the best of the situation. “If you’re grabbing something at a concession stand or gas station, keep in mind that pairing good carbohydrates with protein is the best choice for your hunger and your performance. Avoid candy bars as a first option if you can. Go for hot dogs or sandwiches, soft pretzels or regular pretzels, granola bars, trail mix, beef jerky, 100 percent juice or chocolate milk.”

She says if you like protein bars as a snack, look for bars with 12 to 15 grams of protein, but double the amount of carbohydrate. And if you have to grab candy a bar, look for something with peanuts in it, rather than fruity candy that’s almost entirely sugar. Avoid higher-fat foods like chips, which take longer to digest and may not sit well on your stomach.

Holmes also recommends avoiding energy drinks, that are high in caffeine and sugar, especially if you’re competing for a long time. “Energy drinks with caffeine can dehydrate you, causing muscle cramps that take you out of the game.”

Add grub to your gear

Of all these tips, Holmes says the best snacking advice is to plan ahead. “When you’re traveling for your sport, you pack all the gear you need to perform at your best. Start making healthy snacks part of your gear, too.

For more suggestions on healthy snacking for student-athletes, download our guide .