What Should a 16-Year Old Athlete Eat?

The foods you put in your body play a huge role in how you perform as an athlete. Athletes should understand what foods are best to eat at what times in order to maximize their energy levels, promote healing and recovery, and support a healthy body.

A 16-year old athlete should be getting a balanced diet full of variety. A healthy diet includes whole grains, dairy products, protein sources, fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats. Teens should be sure to get a balance of carbohydrates, protein, and fat each time they eat!

Read on for more information about what a 16-year old can eat to improve their athletic performance.

What is the Best Diet for a 16-Year Old Athlete?

Dieting usually refers to restricting food groups, or decreasing the amount of food someone is eating. Cutting out food groups or limiting calories could result in missing out on important essential nutrients that your body needs.

Teenagers might think that dieting is the only way to maintain a healthy weight, be healthy, and do their best in their sport. THIS IS NOT TRUE! In fact, dieting can lead to a decreased level of performance, as well as poor body image, disordered eating, and feelings of guilt and shame. 

There is a much easier way of maintaining a healthy weight, feeling good, and improving athletic performance! It involves having a basic understanding of nutrition and of what foods to eat at what time. However, unlike dieting, it requires that you listen to and trust your body to tell you what it needs. 

What Should a 16-Year Old Athlete Eat in a Day?

The USDA has published general recommendations for what foods a teenager should eat in a day. The chart below shows recommendations for each food group. Keep in mind that this is just an average for 16-year olds, but higher energy needs will require more food! 

Amount per dayExamples
Grains8 ouncesChoose nutrient-rich grain sources like whole grain bread, rice, pasta, quinoa, tortillas, oats, and crackers. Half of your daily grains should be whole grains.
Fruit2 cupsFocus mostly on whole fruits, instead of juice. Try and include a variety of colors and forms like dried, fresh, frozen, and canned!
Vegetables3 cupsAim to get lots of colors and variety. Steaming vegetables is one of the best ways to preserve nutrients in cooking.
Protein7 ouncesInclude a variety of protein sources in your meals and snacks like lean meat, poultry, fish, beans, nuts, nut butters, seeds, dairy, and eggs.
Dairy3 cupsDairy is a great source of calcium, which is essential for teenage athletes to be getting enough of! Yogurt, milk and cheese are all included in the dairy group. If you can’t eat dairy, or don’t get enough, check out this post for more ideas to still satisfy your nutrient needs! Dairy-Free Teens post 

Teenagers should also understand the three different macronutrients and what they do for the body. It is important to get a balance of these nutrients when you eat!


This is your body’s main source of energy! Carbohydrates are found in starchy foods (like pasta, bread, potatoes, corn, rice, etc.) as well as fruits, vegetables, and dairy products. 


So much of your body is made up of protein. It is often referred to as the building block of the body. Protein helps you feel satisfied and full and also helps repair and rebuild muscle and any damage to the body. Foods high in protein are meats, poultry, fish, nuts, seeds, milk, greek yogurt, and cheese.


This nutrient plays a similar role as protein in the body. It slows down digestion to sustain energy for longer and make you feel more full and satisfied. Healthy fats can also decrease inflammation in the body!

Teenage Sports Nutrition Basics

Now that you know the kinds of foods a teenager needs on a daily basis, let’s talk a bit more about sports nutrition and how to eat for exercise.

Before Exercise

The closer you get to exercise, the more you want to focus on carbohydrate-rich foods. Remember that carbohydrates provide your body with energy, but protein and fat slow down digestion.

When you are getting ready to exercise, you don’t necessarily want your digestion to be slowed down by a lot of fat and protein. Instead, you want your carbohydrates to be broken down quickly so that energy is available for you right away.

During Exercise

Not all athletes need food during exercise. Eating during exercise is typically recommended for athletes that are exercising for longer than an hour and a half, although other athletes could also benefit.

If you do need to refuel during exercise, stick to straight carbohydrates. Liquids tend to be easier on the stomach and digest very fast which is why sports drinks are such a popular workout drink!

After Exercise

This is where you can focus on getting a more balanced meal or snack. You will definitely want to include a good source of protein to aid in recovery. Carbohydrates should be replenished after exercise and healthy fats can help athletes meet their energy needs while also increasing satiety and promoting healing.

Athletes (and really everyone) should be eating regularly throughout the day to keep energy levels regulated. Athletes should also keep hydrated throughout the day. 

Healthy Breakfast Ideas for a 16-Year Old Athlete

After being asleep and going without food, your body really needs to be fueled before it can function appropriately during the day. This is why you have probably been told that breakfast is the most important meal of the day! 

If you are not hungry in the mornings, or feel sick when you do eat, start small and go from there. Liquids might be easier on the stomach and more appetizing than having to chew on something. A lot of times, your body will adjust to eating in the mornings once you do it regularly.

A good framework for making a healthy breakfast is choosing a protein, starch, and fruit. Try and include a variety to keep breakfast exciting!

  • Cereal and milk with a fried egg and an apple
  • Smoothie made with greek yogurt, frozen fruit, milk, and chia seeds
  • Protein pancakes with milk and a banana
  • Egg and cheese sandwich with strawberries
  • Oatmeal made with milk and peanut butter, with strawberries

Healthy Lunch Ideas for a 16-Year Old Athlete

A good framework for a healthy lunch includes a grain, protein, fruit, and vegetable. Lunch is a great time to include some fun foods too! Here are some lunch ideas that you might enjoy trying.

  • Sub sandwich with ham and cheese, apple, carrots and ranch dressing
  • Grilled cheese sandwich with milk, pineapple, and salad
  • Crackers, deli meat, cheese, grapes, peppers, potato chips
  • Quesadilla with cheese, beans, and chicken, with salsa and sour cream and a fruit smoothie
  • Peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a banana, celery and hummus, cookie

Healthy Dinner Ideas for a 16-Year Old Athlete

Dinner should typically be a balanced meal with a starch, a protein, and a vegetable. However, you may need to make some adjustments based on your exercise schedule.

If you eat dinner before a workout, for example, you may need to increase the carbohydrate portion and cut back on protein and fat. You could always get more protein and fat in a snack after your workout.

Here are some balanced healthy dinner ideas:

  • Pasta with meatballs and green beans
  • Teriyaki chicken with fried rice and broccoli
  • Stir fry with chicken, mushrooms, and peppers served over rice
  • Chicken noodle soup with a side salad
  • Fish, baked potato, asparagus
  • Pizza with a side salad
  • Chicken alfredo with brussel sprouts
  • Shrimp burrito bowls with black beans, corn, rice, lettuce, salsa, avocado, and cheese

Healthy Snack Ideas for a 16-Year Old Athlete

Snacking can be really helpful, especially for athletes with high energy needs. Especially for athletes with busy schedules, snacking is a great way to consume consistent fuel, even if they cannot get in a full meal. Try some of these balanced snack ideas!

  • Trail mix
  • Greek yogurt
  • Banana with almond butter
  • String cheese and strawberries
  • Smoothie with fruit, greek yogurt, and milk
  • Protein bar and crackers
  • Pretzels with peanut butter and milk
  • Dried fruit and nuts

These are a few high carbohydrate snacks that teens could eat right before practice or a game for a quick energy boost.

  • Fruit smoothie (without extra protein)
  • Applesauce
  • Toast with jam
  • Crackers
  • Dried fruit, whole fruit, 100% fruit juice
  • Fruit leathers, fruit snacks

Should Teenagers Take Supplements?

If teens are consuming a wide variety of nutrient dense foods in the recommended amounts, supplementation might not be necessary. However, some teenagers might benefit from taking a supplement if they are lacking something in their diet. 

Additionally, athletes tend to have higher nutrient needs than other teenagers because of all the stress that they are putting their body under. Supplementation might be helpful in reducing injury and promoting healing for some athletes.

Talk to your doctor to see if any supplements are needed. Only high-quality supplements should be used, and their use should be monitored by a doctor or dietitian. 

Even protein powder and protein drinks are considered supplements. Since the supplement industry is highly unregulated, dangerous substances have been found in some protein supplements. Ask your doctor before using protein supplementation and choose products that have been tested for safety and efficacy by a third party.


A 16-year old athlete can have a healthy eating pattern that is enjoyable and rewarding without the stress of dieting. Practice listening to your body and treating it with love and respect. Improved athletic performance comes as a result of being in tune with your body!


US Department of Agriculture. My Plate. Myplate.gov. Based on Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025.

Katherine Harmer, RDN

I'm a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with a love for coaching others to success in their health goals, especially teenage athletes. Tennis was my sport of choice in high school. Now I'm a little bit older, a little bit smarter, and a little bit worse at tennis.

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