The Athletic Edge: How Proper Nutrition Can Be A Game Changer For Young Athletes

Think about all the money spent on gear, private coaching, expert trainers, etc. to give young athletes that competitive “edge” over others. Every parent that has a child with an athletic talent wants to utilize every resource possible to give their child the best chance at succeeding in their particular sport or activity. What most people don’t realize, however, is that the ultimate secret to athletic success is in the kitchen.

Dr. Jacqueline Winkelmann

Dr. Jacqueline Winkelmann

Properly fueling young athletes is the ultimate game changer and it’s much more complex than simply having a healthy snack before and after practice. To really make a difference in athletic performance, young athletes need to be very strategic about the things they eat and when they eat them in the days and weeks leading up to a big event.

For those of you with young athletes, get your notepad ready because award-winning, board-certified pediatrician and sports nutritionist Dr. Jacqueline Winkelmann, also known as “Dr. Jacq”, is here with invaluable information and tips on how to properly fuel your children to maximize their on-field performance.

What is the #1 thing all parents of young athletes need to know about sports nutrition?

Parents need to know that sports nutrition for YOUNG ATHLETES differs from adult sports nutrition. Young athletes are growing, developing AND playing sports, and they have unique nutritional needs. The foundation of sports nutrition is enough calories, whole foods, consistency, hydration, and rest!

How can proper nutrition be a game changer for young athletes?

Good nutrition will not make an average player great, but poor nutrition can make a great player average. Proper nutrition has also been shown to be crucial in injury prevention and recovery.

What can parents do to ensure their young athletes are properly fueled for their sport? Is it just about what they eat before and after a big event/game/workout or is it what they routinely eat all week?

Great question, and the concept of consistency is one that I address with my young athletes often. I tell them, repeatedly, that their training diet is more important than their pre-game meal. The foods they eat on a given day will actually fuel their training or games a day or 2 later, so it is important to be thinking about adequate nutrition throughout the week.

How many meals and snacks should young athletes eat each day and how should they be timed out?

Different athletes of different ages have different needs, but in general, young athletes should eat 3 meals and 3-4 snacks, with no more than 3-4 hours between meals and snacks.

What should each meal and snack consist of? Do you have examples of what they could eat for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks on a typical day?

This is a sample 2,200 calorie menu, and the important thing to note is how often young athletes should be eating- and NEVER skip breakfast! This sample is adequate for say a 10-11-year old young athlete with practice a couple of hours per day.

  • 7:30am Breakfast – Breakfast burrito (1 whole wheat tortilla, 1 scrambled egg, 1/3 cup black beans, 2 Tbsp. salsa

  • 9:00am Snack – 1 cup low fat yogurt, fruit, granola

  • 12:00pm Lunch – Turkey sandwich (whole wheat pita, 3 ounces sliced turkey, ¼ cup romaine lettuce, 2 slices tomato, 1 tsp mustard

  • 3:00pm Snack – 5 whole wheat crackers, 1/8 cup hummus, 8 baby carrots

  • 5:00pm Practice – water or sports drink

  • 7:00pm Post Practice Snack – Homemade muffins, water

  • 7:30pm Dinner- Whole grain pasta with meat sauce, salad or vegetable, water

  • 8:45pm Snack – whole grain cereal + milk

What should be eaten BEFORE a big game or event and when should they eat it?

Pre-practice or pre-game eating will “top off your tank,” so to speak. It’s important this meal or snack is made up of mostly carbohydrates, for energy, with a small amount of protein, for muscle building and recovery. What foods to eat will depend on how much time the athlete has before the practice or game. And TIMING is EVERYTHING! This is crucial concept in sports nutrition- WHEN you eat is just as important as WHAT you eat. In general, the last full meal should be 2-4 hours before practice/game, pasta with meat sauce, soup with vegetables, sandwich and carrots. A snack can be eaten 1-2 hours before – fruit, pretzels and a little cheese, crackers, toast with nut butter and banana slices or a bar (read labels!). Do NOT try new foods on competition day, and DON’T forget about fluids! Athletes should be drinking 16 ounces of water 2-4 hours BEFORE practice/game, then another 8 ounces about an hour before/game. Athletes should NOT eat or drink much the hour before a practice or game.

What should be eaten AFTER a game, practice, or workout and when should they eat it?

The post-practice/game snack, or “recovery fuel,” is crucial in rebuilding glycogen, our primary source of stored energy. The recovery snack should have a ratio of 3-4 carbs: 1 protein. Examples: carrot sticks, celery and hummus, trail mix (nuts and dried fruit), yogurt, fruit and granola, whole grain muffins with yogurt, turkey wraps. The post-practice/game snack should be eaten within 30-60 minutes after the event. A full meal can be eaten 1-2 hours later. And don’t forget to replenish fluid loss! At least 24 ounces of water or other fluids immediately after playing sports is needed.

What is the #1 thing that could negatively impact performance for young athletes?

The 2 biggest pitfalls in sports nutrition are inadequate hydration and poor timing of meals and snacks.

Hydration is also a key piece to performance. What are some of your hydration tips that can make a big difference?

First, fluid needs to be recognized as an integral part of an athlete’s nutrition plan. It’s like driving a car with gasoline and no oil- just doesn’t work. Well hydrated athletes feel better and perform better. As with food, consistency in drinking is as important as consistency with foods. Drink before, during, and after practices and games. Plain water is adequate for most athletes; a sports drink can be considered for older athletes exercising strenuously for over 60-90 minutes. Athletes can monitor their hydration status by monitoring their urine: it should be pale yellow when well hydrated. Here’s a link to my “A Snack with Doctor Jacq” Hydration video in case your readers are interested

What is the proper use of sports drinks?

Young athletes, for the most part, do not need sports drinks consistently. Sports drinks can be considered for older athletes sweating profusely and exercising strenuously for over 60-90 minutes. Sports drinks contain carbohydrates and electrolytes. Be picky with sports drinks and read labels! Avoid those with artificial colors, flavors and other preservatives.

Kids will be kids, and junk will be eaten. What is your recommendation to parents on how to handle junk food in young athletes?

Life is about balance, and it’s no exception for young athletes. I tell my athletes to make good choices most of the time, and then have those “celebratory meals,” and enjoy them. For example, they fuel their bodies appropriately during a tournament, but have a celebratory meal at the end of the tournament, and that’s OK. It’s important to make a nutrition commitment as a team.

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Good nutrition will not make an average player great, but poor nutrition can make a great player average.
— Dr. Jacqueline Winkelmann

Do you have any advice to get these young athletes to understand the importance of proper nutrition and implement the things that can make them better at their sport?

My personal philosophy is that proper nutrition is about more than playing sports. Sports is the platform I have chosen to get kids and teens to understand their relationship with food, how it makes them feel and how they perform. These are lessons they will take with them long after they’re done playing sports.

With that said, I tell them that just like making a commitment, as a team, to go to practice, give their 100%, show up for games and get enough rest, proper nutrition is part of the commitment of being an athlete. Nutrition can sabotage their efforts on the field, court or pool, and that’s not fair to their teammates or to themselves.  As they move into higher level of competition, everyone is working and training hard. It is those who pay attention to nutrition as fuel, proper hydration, and rest who will have that edge, perform better, especially during that second game, extra inning, or final championship after a long weekend of competition.

If you’re anything like me, you’re probably wishing you knew all this stuff back in your athletic days. If only…

Don’t let the same be said for your kids! Let this information be a great motivator to focus on proper nutrition and hopefully there will be winning results and healthier bodies because of it!

Thanks again to Dr. Jacq, who is crazy busy and in the middle of writing a book on sports nutrition, for taking the time to provide this incredible information to readers of The Mom Report!

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Jacqueline Winkelmann, MD, known as Doctor Jacq, is an award-winning, board-certified pediatrician and sports nutritionist with a passion for teaching young athletes, coaches and parents the do’s and don’ts of sports nutrition for athletes who are growing, developing, and playing sports. Doctor Jacq is the mother of two accomplished young athletes, so she understands the challenges of feeding a family with busy schedules. Her simplified, practical plan will help parents of athletes at all levels of play. If you have further questions or would like to have her come talk to your team you can contact her at, or on her website,

You can also find her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.