Children's Hospital Colorado

Building a High Performance Lunch for Athletes

The athlete diet

Children’s Hospital Colorado sports dietitian Amanda Turner, RDN, CSSD teaches young athletes about the how to pack easy lunches that can power high performance and help them make it through the day. This is because athletes often have a higher metabolism, and they require the right amount of the right kind of foods. We list several of Amanda’s lunch ideas below; most should take you less than 15 minutes to make.

Performance nutrition tips for athletes

Before you start packing your lunch, it’s important to understand the different elements of a high-performance lunch, why certain foods matter and how much of them you should eat.

1. Pick a protein, carbohydrate and fat

These three main nutrients fuel your body during hard work.

  • Protein: Helps with muscle recovery and creating other building blocks
    • Meat and poultry; fish; eggs; low fat dairy products (cheese, yogurt, milk); soy (edamame, tofu, tempeh); beans and legumes
  • Carbohydrates: Reload your muscles to provide high-intensity energy stores
    • Grains (bread, pasta, muffins, crackers, rice); potatoes; fruit; beans and legumes; sweets and desserts
  • Fat: Keeps all your cells intact, helps regulate your body temperature and can keep inflammation away
    • Nuts and butters; avocado; oils; seeds (like sunflower seeds); spreads (mayo, butter, cream cheese); high fat dairy products

2. Add some color

Eating the colors of the rainbow is one of the best ways to get nutritional balance in your diet. The bigger the variety of colors from fruits and veggies, the better your nutrition will be. And when your nutrition is great, so is your speed, strength and power. If you want to eat to perform, it’s good to include a fruit and veggie at lunch every day.

3. Fuel with fluids

Did you know that water is an essential nutrient? It makes up 60 to 70% of our total body weight. That means if you weigh 100 pounds, 60 to 70 pounds of that is water. We lose water from our bodies when we sweat, use the bathroom and even just by breathing throughout the day. It’s important to replenish your fluids to be your best in your sport. Water, milk or 100% juice are the best choices for lunch. Soda and energy drinks don’t hydrate you well, and you should really only use sports drinks for training and competition — times when your exercise or activity will be incredibly intense, lasting more than one hour.

4. Adjust portions to your training

Throughout the year, the amount you practice probably changes. That means your food intake should probably change with it. When you are training more, let’s say two hours a day during basketball season, you need more food than you do in the off-season when you’re likely spending more time on the couch. Check out our Athlete Eats info below to see how your portions might change based on your training load. You can also download and print them for personal use.

Load your plates like this if you know your workout for the day will be easier than usual or if the sport you play generally requires less energy. If you’re an athlete who is trying to lose weight, you can slightly decrease the amount of whole grains you eat.

  • ¼ Whole grains (such as pasta, rice, potatoes, cereals, breads and legumes)
  • ¼ Lean protein (such as meat and poultry, fish, eggs, low-fat dairy, soy, beans and legumes)
  • ½ Fruits and veggies (such as raw or cooked veggies, fresh fruits, or veggie soups)
  • 1 teaspoon of fats (such as nuts and butters, avocado, oils, seeds, spreads like mayo or cream cheese, and high-fat dairy products)
  • Drinks: Water, milk or diluted juice
  • Flavor ideas: Salt and pepper, herbs, spices, vinegar, salsa, ketchup and mustard

Load your plates like this if you plan to train twice in one day and at least one of the workouts will be endurance or strength. If your exercise will be easier than this, adjust down to the light training meals. If your workout will be harder than this, adjust up to the intense training meals.

  • ¼ Lean protein (such as meat and poultry, fish, eggs, low-fat dairy, soy, beans and legumes)
  • Equal parts veggies (such as raw or cooked veggies or veggie soups) and whole grains (such as pasta, rice, potatoes, cereals, breads and legumes)
  • 1 tablespoon of fats (such as nuts and butters, avocado, oils, seeds, spreads like mayo or cream cheese, and high-fat dairy products)
  • Add in fruit on the side (such as fresh fruit, stewed or dried)
  • Drinks: Water, milk or diluted juice
  • Flavor ideas: Salt and pepper, herbs, spices, vinegar, salsa, ketchup and mustard

Load your plates like this if you plan to have at least two intense workouts for the day or if it’s the day of your game, race or competition.

  • ¼ Lean protein (such as meat and poultry, fish, eggs, low-fat dairy, soy, beans and legumes)
  • ¼ Veggies (such as raw or cooked veggies, or veggie soups)
  • ½ Fruit and whole grains (such as pasta, rice, potatoes, cereals, breads and legumes)
  • 2 tablespoons of fats (such as nuts and butters, avocado, oils, seeds, spreads like mayo or cream cheese, and high-fat dairy products)
  • Drinks: Water, milk or diluted juice
  • Flavor ideas: Salt and pepper, herbs, spices, vinegar, salsa, ketchup and mustard

5. Listen to your body

Finally, and most importantly, know that your body knows best. What should you do if you’ve been packing a lunch based on the Moderate Training Plate but you’re still hungry after lunch? The answer is simple: Pack more food. If your body tells you it’s hungry, feed it. If it tells you it’s full, stop and save the rest for later. Your body is the ultimate expert in how much food you need daily.

Lunch nutrition for athletes

Amanda’s quick and easy ideas on lunch for athletes include sandwiches, wraps, bowls and bento boxes. You’ll notice she recommends using whole grains and including a serving of fruits or veggies.

Sandwiches

  • Main: Peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole wheat bread with natural peanut butter
    Side: Greek yogurt and an apple
    Drink: Milk or water
  • Main: Turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread with cheese, mustard or mayo
    Side: Cherry tomatoes and pretzels
    Drink: Milk or water
  • Main: Tuna salad sandwich on whole wheat bread
    Side: Chips and mixed berries
    Drink: Milk or water

Wraps

  • Main: Chicken Caesar wrap with baked or rotisserie chicken (remove the skin), romaine lettuce, parmesan cheese and Caesar dressing mixed in a large whole wheat tortilla.
    Side: Canned peaches in juice
    Drink: Milk or water
  • Main: Hummus wrap with hummus, a handful of spinach, feta cheese and diced tomatoes in a large whole wheat tortilla
    Side: Greek yogurt and a pear
    Drink: Milk or water
  • Main: Peanut butter and banana wrap with natural peanut butter, a banana and a drizzle of honey wrapped in a large whole wheat tortilla
    Side: Sliced cucumber and whole grain crackers
    Drink: Milk or water

Bowls (allow for a few extra minutes of prep time)

  • Main: Southwest bowl with brown rice, canned black beans, canned or frozen yellow corn, canned or fresh diced tomatoes, avocado or guacamole, salsa and cheese to taste; meat protein optional; eat hot or cold
    Drink: Milk or water
  • Main: Buddha bowl with quinoa, diced carrots, diced cucumber, diced tomato, crunchy chickpeas and sunflower seeds with avocado on top; meat protein optional; eat hot or cold
    Drink: Milk or water
  • Main: Smoothie bowl with vanilla Greek yogurt, sliced strawberries, sliced banana, pepitas (pumpkin seeds) or almonds; top with granola
    Drink: Milk or water

Bento boxes

  • Main: Salmon and Bagel Box with smoked salmon on a bagel with cream cheese
    Side: Cherry tomatoes or an apple
    Drink: Milk or water
  • Main: Explorer Box with natural lean jerky (such as beef, turkey or chicken)
    Side: Whole grain goldfish and a nut or dried fruit trail mix
    Drink: Milk or water
  • Main: Sweet & Yummy Box with Greek yogurt, diced frozen pineapple, and a crunchy granola bar
    Side: String or sliced cheese
    Drink: Milk or water

Fuel your game

Amanda challenges you to start packing your lunch for the week. Or if you eat school lunches, throw some of the bento box items in your bag to round out your meal. This will help you feel satisfied and ready to perform your best later in the day at practices or games.

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