The Best Nutrition Tips for Young Athletes on Game Day

Young Athlete Nutrition Hydration

For young athletes, the food and nutrition that fuels their bodies on game day can truly make or break their performance. Proper nutrition is so important in many aspects and is the foundation upon which each athlete’s performance is built. We want to shed light on the significance of nutrition for young athletes and provide you with some practical game-day ideas to help keep your young athletes at their very best when it matters most before the big game.

How to Properly Fuel Young Athletes for Success

We believe that game day nutrition is almost as important as the training and practice that leads up to the game itself. Food is more than just sustenance and something that fills up a child’s belly before it’s time for them to perform. Food is the fuel that powers every sprint, jump, decision, and play. A balanced diet before and after a game fortifies the immune system, supports muscle repair post-exercise, and helps give your young athlete the proper boost they’ll need to perform at the level they aspire to.

Energy Production

Carbohydrates are the primary energy source for young athletes. They fuel the muscles and are important to account for when maintaining stamina and performance during the big game. Whole grains, fruits, and vegetables are excellent carbohydrate sources, providing the energy needed to excel in sports. That said, it is extremely important for young athletes to avoid bad carbs like cookies, sodas, and other sugary treats that can cause a rapid spike in glucose causing the classic ‘sugar crash’.

Muscle Recovery

Protein in all forms is essential for muscle repair and growth and can be a great area of focus when looking at a pre and post game meal. After intense physical activity like a game or multiple games in a row, muscles need protein to heal and strengthen themselves. Incorporating protein-rich foods like lean meats, poultry, fish, and light dairy into a young athlete’s diet is vital for recovery and ongoing muscle development.


Proper hydration defines the peak abilities of athletic performance, and without it, any and all nutrition benefits would go out the window. Water regulates body temperature and transports necessary nutrients your child’s body requires while engaging in strenuous activity. Young athletes should prioritize staying hydrated at least 24 hours before any exercise and especially continue to hydrate during intense training or on game days.

Nutrient Timing

The timing of nutrient intake can significantly influence performance. Eating the right foods at the right times ensures that young athletes have the necessary energy and resources when they need them most. Eating too early or long after strenuous exercise may not suffice when it comes to the needs of your athlete’s body. We recommend children eat around 45 minutes prior to the games and again consume healthy nutrition shortly after finishing to ensure the body has what it requires in order to continue operating at the level they’ll need.

Unique Nutritional Needs of Young Athletes

Young athletes have distinct and specific nutritional requirements in order to perform at the height of their mental and physical abilities on game day. Their bodies are still growing, necessitating a diet that supports healthy development while also promoting sustainable energy – because we know children definitely need more of that! As they get more mature into their competitions and sports of choice, their enhanced active lifestyles mean higher energy needs to support the movement and growth of muscles, and their involvement in sports increases the demand for specific nutrients like calcium, iron, and vitamins C & D.

Growth and Development

During growth phases, typically beginning around middle school, adequate nutrition starts to become significantly more important than ever before in their daily routines. Calcium and vitamin D are essential for strong bones, while a balanced intake of macronutrients (good carbohydrates, proteins, and fats) supports the overall development required to support the muscles they’re now building throughout practice and game days. This stage is key to building a foundation that’s primed for developing a sustainable athletic lifestyle without jeopardizing their potential or even their overall health.

Higher Energy Requirements

The active lifestyle of young athletes means they’ll also burn more calories than their less active peers. Parents, make a note of this, as the days of your children begging for a snack simply because they’re bored are long gone and replaced with a completely new era of true hunger to fuel their mental and muscular needs. A diet rich in complex carbohydrates, lean proteins, and healthy fats provides the energy needed to sustain their activity levels – and it’s not uncommon for young athletes to basically stay hungry all day long. So long as you have the right snacks to fuel them, you’ll be doing them and their bodies a favor in the long run by avoiding the typical cravings for sugary foods.

Increased Nutrient Needs

Engaging in sports also puts an emphasis on the body’s demand for certain nutrients and vitamins – typically found in common athletic supplements. Iron, for instance, is crucial for oxygen transport in the blood and, when your young athletes approach teenage years, supplements like L-arginine can benefit their training regimes by enhancing the flow of oxygen through their cardiovascular system. Young athletes need to consume iron-rich foods to meet this increased demand and avoid deficiencies that could be detrimental to the lifestyle they aspire to achieve in sports.

Game Day Nutrition: Fueling for Performance

Game day nutrition is one of the most important aspects of being an athlete. It requires a holistic approach that starts with understanding what foods provide the best energy, how to hydrate properly, and what post-game nutrition options are out there to heal and grow the muscles so they can continue to be ready to perform as expected.

Pre-Game Nutrition

A pre-game meal should be rich in carbohydrates for energy, include moderate protein for muscle maintenance, and be low in fat to ease digestion. Timing is also extremely important and should almost be an exact routine as it’s based on digestion timelines. A substantial meal can and should be consumed 3-4 hours before the game, followed by a lighter snack 45 minutes to one hour before the start. This way you can assure your young athlete that they have the necessary nutrients and fuel that will last the entire game and allow them to operate at their fullest potential.

Hydration Strategies

Hydration shouldn’t be left until game day, either. It’s a continuous process that should arguably be a habit you focus on building to help these kids achieve the athletic abilities they desire. Young athletes should drink at least 60 ounces of water throughout the day, while especially focusing on the hours leading up to the game. During the game, small sips of water or a sports drink can help maintain hydration levels, but we recommend you help them stay away from the typical sugar-filled sports drinks and emphasize the importance of electrolytes. In addition, this can help them avoid the dyes in popular sports drinks that may have adverse effects on their mental performance.

Post-Game Recovery

After the game, the focus shifts to recovery and building the muscles that were broken down and exhausted. A meal that’s rich in protein promotes muscle repair, while good complex carbohydrates can help replenish depleted energy exerted and burnt off during the game. Hydration continues to be even more important after the game, ideally with water to help restore fluid balance and aid in the proper digestion of the nutrient intake from their meal. It’s common for protein shakes to be a go-to for parents in a pinch, however, we always recommend you go for the real thing when you have the opportunity to do so.

Dietary Challenges and Developing Sustainable Habits

Young athletes can face dietary challenges like balancing the ideal nutritional intake with school and social life or even managing dietary restrictions for some. The best way, just like a professional athlete would, is to plan out meals and snacks ahead of time based on their needs. Preparing meals and snacks in advance guarantees that nutrition doesn’t take a backseat during busy periods and continues to develop the habits required for success in a competitive environment. It also makes life easier for us parents, as we can hit the store with a specific list each week and follow the necessary plan that matches the training schedule of our young athletes without potentially breaking the cycle for the sake of a quick fix.

For those with dietary restrictions, we highly recommend consulting a nutritionist. With how popular health and nutrition have become across the globe, you can easily access experts in person or online who can provide tailored advice to meet nutritional needs. If you’re on a budget, there are countless free articles and blogs out there that help assist parents with building the right program for their young athletes with specific things they need to avoid or look out for.


Nutrition is not to be taken lightly and is a fundamental element of a young athlete’s performance, whether it’s on game day or for fueling a rigorous training schedule. By understanding the role of nutrition and strategically planning meals and snacks, young athletes can confidently know they’re ready to perform at their best, both on and off the field, court, pool, or wherever their competitive aspirations may take them.

These posts are for informational purposes only and should not be considered as specific financial, legal or tax advice. Depending on your individual circumstances, the strategies discussed in this post may not be appropriate for your situation. Always consult your legal or tax professionals for specific information regarding your individual situation. In providing such information, Great American does not warrant that all potential hazards or conditions have been evaluated or can be controlled. The liability of Great American Insurance Company is limited to the terms, limits and conditions of the insurance policies underwritten. ©2024 Great American Insurance Company. All Rights Reserved. Great American Insurance Group’s member companies are subsidiaries of American Financial Group, Inc. (AFG). AFG is a holding company whose common stock is listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Policies are underwritten by Great American Insurance Company, an authorized insurer in all 50 states and the DC. Please see Great American Insurance Company’s Legal Disclosures/Terms and Conditions here.

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