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Smart snacks: Making the right call for your young athlete

Smart snacks: Making the right call for your young athlete


By Jill Castle, MS, RDN, CDN

From homemade to whole natural foods, there are endless options for healthy snacks. You should know about good options for packaged snacks, whole-food snacks, and do-it-yourself snacks (homemade) so that you have a variety to choose from based on your available time and skills in the kitchen. Before we get into which foods are good snack options, let’s review how to combine nutrients to best suit your athlete’s needs.


The best snacks for athletes showcase a blend of macronutrients, especially carbs and protein. Making sure a source of protein is included automatically morphs a snack from a lackluster offering to a “power snack.” When you think about selecting foods to make a smart snack for your athlete, first think carb + protein or fat. Then think mini-meal. This approach to creating a snack helps keep your athletes’ appetite satisfied, better answers their nutrient needs, and supplies the nutrients they require to both prepare before and recover after exercise.


1.   Choose a carb. Select whole-grain crackers, cereal, bread, pretzels, bagel, English muffin, pasta, rice, waffle, pancake, dried fruit, 100% juice, raw veggies, or fresh fruit.

2.   Add protein. Choose milk, egg, yogurt, cheese, cottage cheese, deli meat, peanut butter, nuts (like almonds, peanuts, cashews or pistachios), seeds, hummus, or beans.

3.   Or add fat. Opt for olive oil, avocado, butter, olives, nuts, seeds, cheese, or whole milk (also contains protein). Remember that many foods such as cheese and yogurt, meats, and nuts have fat built into them.

4.   Put your mini-meal together. Once you decide on your food combination, check your portion sizes. Remember, some foods already have protein, carbs, and fat naturally built in, such as yogurt, other dairy products, and granola bars with added protein. Check out these healthy-snack examples: a milk-and-fruit blended smoothie; a hard-boiled egg and raw veggies; cheese and crackers; dry cereal and dried fruit; pretzels and hummus; yogurt and fruit; deli meat and bread; peanut butter and a banana.

Now that you know how to build a substantial, satisfying snack, let’s go through your options from the grocery store and some items you can make at home.


Before you pick up the cheesy square crackers, fishy shapes, or the chocolate-coated granola bar, you need to be aware of the pitfalls inherent with packaged snacks.

Understanding the Ingredient List. The ingredient list is your clue to what’s really inside that snack. Watch out for chemicals and unidentifiable ingredients. If you can’t pronounce it and you don’t know what it is, be skeptical. Mystery ingredients should alert you to additives, colors, artificial sweeteners, and other undesirable ingredients. Think twice before purchasing such items; a healthy athlete’s diet contains as few unknown ingredients as possible. Remember that the first item on the ingredient list is the product’s most prominent ingredient, and the others follow in the order of their prominence in the product. The first three ingredients should be wholesome items such as whole wheat, oats, or peanuts, rather than things you want to minimize in your athlete’s diet, such as sugar.

A Nutrition Checklist. Look at the proportion of nutrients in each serving your athlete will be eating from a particular snack. You can find this on the Nutrition Facts label. Keep the following in mind:

Calories. In general, snacks should contain 150 to 250 calories per serving. More than that and it’s not a “snack.”

Added sugar. Keep added sugar to less than 9 grams per serving. Added sugar is high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), maple syrup, table sugar, and more. Lactose or fructose, the natural sugars found in dairy products and fruit, do not qualify as “added.”

Total fat. Aim for less than 30% of calories per serving from total fat. Ideally, we should be eating products that have more mono- and polyunsaturated fats than saturated and trans-fats.

Fiber. Shoot for 5 grams of fiber or more per serving. Many snacks made from whole grains are good sources of fiber.

Sodium. Keep it as low as you can, targeting less than 240 milligrams per serving or 10% of the Daily Value (DV).

Daily Value. Aim for the fiber, calcium, iron, and vitamins A and C in the product to contribute 10% or more of the DV for each.

Good packaged snack options include granola bars with mostly whole ingredients and limited sugar (nix the candy-coated bars); granola bars with up to 10 grams of protein per serving; trail mixes that include nuts; raisins and other individually packaged dried fruit; whole-grain cereal boxes; boxed milk, chocolate milk, and soymilk; packaged whole-grain oatmeal (just add water or milk); whole-grain crackers with nut butter or cheese; and applesauce and other pureed fruits and vegetable blends.

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Eat Like a Champion: Performance Nutrition for Your Young Athlete by Jill Castle, MS, RDN, CDN. Kids have their own nutritional needs - especially athletic kids. Yet most young athletes aren't eating properly to compete. Eat Like a Champion will help their parents tailor diets for training, competition, and even off-season. Buy Eat Like a Champion on Amazon:

Eat Like a Champion: Performance Nutrition for Your Young Athlete by Jill Castle    

© 2015 Jill Castle    

All rights reserved.

Published by AMACOM Book

Division of American Management Association

1601 Broadway, New York, NY 10019

Snacks Protein Carbohydrates Calories

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