Lunch for Athletes-Making Healthy Choices
Since lunch might be the pre game meal before an afternoon training or a game you’ll want to pack healthy lunch for athletes.
Generally you’ll want to ensure that what you pack is balanced, nutrient dense, high fiber and has the carbs you need to build your energy stores.
Why do you need to pack a healthy lunch? What foods should you pack?
What are some options when you get bored with the same food every day?
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Why should athletes eat lunch?
Athletes should eat lunch to ensure they’ve got well-balanced sources of energy and nutrients to keep their brains focused and bodies fueled throughout the day and to prepare them for their activity.
Additionally, as an athlete, you need to make sure you’re getting enough calories for the day, and packing healthy lunches helps keep you on track.
Grabbing a healthy snack during school may not be as easy as reaching into the fridge or pantry at home. So, you’ll want to ensure that you’re packing healthy lunches for your athlete with foods you know they’ll enjoy eating.
Generally, healthy lunches for athletes should have high fiber, nutrient dense foods, and be moderate protein and low fat.
Key nutrients for healthy lunches
Many youth athletes are not meeting the recommended intake for some key nutrients including vitamin D, calcium, dietary fiber and potassium as defined by the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
They are also not eating enough whole grains, fruits, vegetables and dairy foods (1).
In fact, a study looked at the nutrient differences between lunches from home and the National School Lunch Program, and found that lunches packed at home have fewer fruits and vegetables, less fiber, but more total calories (2).
What is a good lunch for an athlete?
A good lunch for an athlete includes high complex carbohydrates, lean protein, healthy fat and nutrient dense fruits and vegetables, for example, rice bowls with lean protein, sandwich wraps with plant based protein and grain salads with beans and roasted veggies.
Include a mix of foods from each food group to ensure that you have a well balanced lunch:
Carbohydrates (whole grain)
- Whole grain breads
- Pita bread
- English muffins
- Pasta salad
- Pitas bread
- Whole grain crackers
- Brown rice
- Chicken breast or low fat cuts of meat
- Nitrate free deli meats
- Hard boiled eggs
- Tofu, tempeh
- Salmon or tuna
- Bean/lentil dips
- Low fat greek yogurt
- Peanut butter or nut butters
- Cheese or string cheese
- Healthy oils (dressings)
Color – Fruits and vegetables
- Apple slices
- Applesauce or GoGo Squeez
- Raw vegetables-carrots, celery, pepper strips, cherry tomatoes
- Roasted vegetables – broccoli, brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes
Healthy meal ideas – lunch for athletes
Healthy meals for athletes, including lunches, should be carbohydrate rich and nutrient dense. Great lunch for athletes include:
- Whole wheat pasta salad with chicken and veggies, side of fruit
- Pita with hummus, cucumber, feta, lean protein
- Sandwich wrap stuffed with veggies, tempeh and edamame hummus
- Quinoa salad with chickpeas, roasted veggies, grilled chicken
- Whole grain crackers, sliced lunch meat, cheese, carrots, hummus, fruit
- Rice bowl with brown rice, tofu, roasted veggies, avocado and fruit
- Slice of quiche with roasted veggies and lean protein with side of fresh fruit
- Mixed fruit smoothie made with low fat greek yogurt and half a sandwich
- Tuna salad sandwich on whole wheat bread, lettuce, baked chips, fruit
Plan ahead for packing a lunch for athletes
- Make it healthy. A healthy lunch for athletes includes a good source of carbohydrates from whole grains, a quality protein, and a fruit and/or vegetable and dairy serving
- Pick pantry staples. Help pick out your favorite foods to pack in your healthy lunch boxes. This way you’re more likely to pack foods you’ll actually eat. Stocking up the pantry makes it easier for packing lunches in the morning or the nigh before (3).
- Pack ahead. Pack as much of the lunch as you can the night before. This helps alleviate the morning stress of figuring out what to put in lunches while you’re also making breakfast, packing your gear bag and getting out the door to school.
- Make extras. Make enough food for dinner that you’ll have leftovers to pack in lunch boxes. A healthy lunch box meal doesn’t have to be a sandwich. Leftover pasta salad or a chicken breast with rice also fit the bill.
How to pack healthy lunch boxes
- Easy to carry containers. For all athletes, fun container options like bento boxes make the food presentation more pleasing and enjoyable.
- Keep foods cold. You can also buy lunch boxes with built in ice to keep the foods safe and cold. And this expand your options for what you can include when packing lunch boxes.
- Serve bite-size portions. Cut up foods in pieces to make foods easier to eat when time is tight. Also, include dipping options like hummus, low fat greek yogurt, nut butters and ranch dressing.
Athletes need healthy lunches to ensure they stay well fueled throughout the day and will be ready for an afternoon or evening game or training.
Additionally, consider packing a water bottle so that you can stay hydrated throughout the day.
Also, if you have any after school sports or activities you might want to consider packing a few healthy snacks to help tide them over until dinner.
What is your favorite lunch?
Steph Magill, MS, RD, CD, FAND has over 20 years in public health and nutrition experience. As a performance nutritionist, Stephanie specializes in sports nutrition and provides simple and actionable information so that athletes can be well fueled for high performance on and off the field. Stephanie has a Master’s Degree in Nutrition and is a Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.