Nutrition for the Young Athlete

Paleo? High fat? High carbs? Atkins? Jenny Craig? 5:2? Grapefruit? No doubt you’ve heard about some of these diets and while some at least make a bit of sense, the chances are their conflicting solutions to your nutritional requirements will probably confuse you.

So what should you adhere to for your young, athletic offspring?

After fifteen years working, training and travelling with young athletes, I have put together some guidelines (heuristics, if you will) regarding their nutrition.

Protein and 3 Colours at Every Meal

There seems to be a trend that vegetables with the same colours have similar nutrients.

Therefore, if we have three different ‘colours’ of veggies we are probably getting a good range of different nutrients.

So the idea is to have some eggs, chicken, fish or red meat, etc. and three different coloured veggies at every meal.

There is a modification to this guideline. For those you are struggling with the thought of three veggies at breakfast we can change it to:

1 Colour at Breakfast, 2 Colours at Lunch and 3 Colours at Dinner.

PS Remember, corn is not a vegetable, it’s a grain.

Eat within 30 Minutes of Training

There are three reasons for this ‘rule’.

The first reason is that straight after exercise our body is craving food, especially the muscles we have just been working.

By providing some carbohydrates and protein immediately after training the body can start the healing, recovery and replenishment processes straight away.

This is particularly important if the young athlete is training more than once a day, or is at a training camp.

MORE: Online & Distance Programs now Available

The second reason is that this rule ensures the coach can often monitor what they’re shoving down their gullets.

I’d never punish an athlete for making the incorrect choice but would help them make better future decisions.

The third reason I get my athletes to eat within this window of time is it helps prevent them from making poor choices later on.

We all know that feeling when we are starving and our brain convinces us we ‘need’ that Mars Bar…

By eating straight after training, they’re minimising their chances of making bad choices.

Some ideas for post-training snacks:

  • Biltong and a piece of fruit
  • ‘Trail mix’
  • Small yoghurt (check the sugar content)
  • Tuna and crackers
  • Cheese and crackers

Always be Prepared

Regardless of the sport, the chances are high that wherever young athletes train and compete there will be copious amounts of junk food available.

It becomes all too easy to take the easy option.

Being prepared means that you have some esky/cool bag filled with

  • Some quality protein (e.g. hard boiled eggs or macadamia nuts)
  • Some ‘colour’ (e.g. carrot sticks or sliced capsicums/red peppers)
  • Fluids (read: water)

If you really want to ‘be prepared’ make sure you cook extras at dinner times that can be stored for the following day’s training.


Nutrition is a key part of performance and it is imperative that even, no, especially young athletes are educated on this from early on.

Include them in the planning of meals, give them part of the shopping list to collect, and educate them on how to prepare and cook food.

In fact, why not give them one night a week where they prepare the family dinner?

Grant Jenkins is an Accredited Exercise Physiologist and a Level 3 Strength & Conditioning Coach. For more information please contact him here or follow him on TwitterInstagram or Facebook.

About Grant