What is the Best Lunch for Teen Athletes?

Teen athletes should be eating food regularly throughout the day to keep their energy levels up. Lunch is essential for teen athletes because it gives them that midday fuel boost once breakfast has worn off. 

A good lunch for a teen athlete is one that includes a combination of carbohydrates, protein, and fat along with a variety of vitamins and minerals from fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Portion sizes will vary person-to-person based on different energy needs. Some of the best lunches for teen athletes include veggie hummus wraps, rice and curry, a protein smoothie, pasta with meatballs, or a burrito with a salad.

Read on for more information about the important nutrients to include with lunch, as well as tips and ideas for packing lunches!

Why Should Teen Athletes Eat Lunch?

Athletes need to be properly fueled to prepare for their workouts. One of the best ways to stay consistently fueled is to eat regularly throughout the day. Additionally, many teens have practice or competitions after school, so eating a good lunch will provide them with energy for their workout without feeling like they have to eat a ton immediately before their workout.

Athletes also typically have high energy needs. If they are skipping meals, chances are, they are not getting enough calories or nutrients for their body to function at its best. 

Eating lunch will also help keep blood sugars stable, improve mood, increase energy, and increase your ability to concentrate.

What are Important Nutrients to Include at Lunch?

The first thing to think about when planning lunch is how you can include all three of the macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, and fat). 

Carbohydrates are your body’s preferred source of energy. This is especially important for athletes that have higher energy needs and need to perform at their best. Carbohydrates are found in starchy foods (like pasta, rice, bread, potatoes, corn, peas, tortillas, pretzels, crackers, etc.), as well as in fruits, vegetables, and dairy products.

Protein is the building block of the body. For teenage athletes consistently putting a lot of stress on their body, getting enough protein is a great way to promote recovery and reduce risk of injury. Protein helps to build and strengthen muscle which is also important to athletic performance. Foods that contain protein include greek yogurt, milk, cheese, eggs, meat, poultry, fish, nuts, seeds, etc.

Protein and fat both slow down the digestion of carbohydrates to prolong energy and help you feel full and satisfied. Healthy fats can help decrease inflammation and absorb important vitamins. Fat is found in a lot of the same foods that protein is in like dairy, meats, eggs, fish, nuts and seeds. Oils and avocados are other sources of healthy fats.

A good way of structuring lunch to include a balance of carbohydrates, protein, and fat, as well as other vitamins, minerals, and fiber that your body needs is by choosing a protein, a starch, and color (fruits and vegetables). Foods have different nutrient profiles and can therefore provide different nutrition. Try and have a variety of foods, and switch things up regularly! 

How Much Should Teen Athletes Eat for Lunch?

There is no “perfect” amount of food for a teenage athlete to eat at lunch. It will be different for every person based on your individual energy needs and your physical activity level on that particular day.

The best way for teen athletes to know how much they should eat at a particular meal is by practicing mindful eating techniques. This will help you be more in tune with your body so that you can listen to what it is telling you. 

Here are a few tips for becoming a more mindful eater!

  • Put away distractions at meals. Put your phone away and focus on the eating experience.
  • Choose to eat foods that you enjoy. There may be times where you don’t have much say in what you eat, but when you do, choose what tastes good to you!
  • Check in with your body regularly and be sure to give it what it needs.  
  • If you have a busy schedule and forget to eat, set alarm reminders on your phone every few hours to make sure it becomes more of a habit.
  • Do not go long periods without eating. Even if your body is not giving you strong hunger cues, your body still needs regular fuel at least every few hours.
  • Eat when you feel hungry. Do not ignore hunger cues or try to make them go away.
  • Take breaks as you eat to evaluate how the food is making you feel and where your hunger levels are at.
  • Do not restrict how much you can eat, or the certain kinds of foods you can eat. In order for your body to really tell you what it needs, you must give yourself full permission to eat.
  • Really experience your food. Pay attention to your 5 senses as you eat. How does it taste? What is the texture like on your tongue?
  • Remember that eating something is better than eating nothing! Do not feel like you have to eat “perfectly” all the time. There is no such thing!

Tips for Teen Athletes Packing Their Own Lunch

A lot of times, teens are out of the house during lunchtime. If this is you, here are some tips for packing your own lunch. Eating should not have to feel like a chore!

  • Do as much of the prep work the day before as possible. If you have to wake up even earlier in the morning to put a lunch together, it might just feel easier to skip lunch.
  • Have individually portioned foods available that are easy to grab. You can find pre-portioned versions of pretzels, fruit, vegetables, peanut butter, nuts, guacamole, cheese, and other things to make your life a bit easier!
  • If you have the option of heating up leftovers, go ahead and pack some away when you are cleaning up from dinner so you have it ready to go in the morning.
  • If you do have to do some preparation work for packing lunches, make extras and save them for later! Even foods like sandwiches can get stored in the freezer to be used another day.
  • Have ice packs ready to grab out of the freezer on days that you need them.
  • Include fun foods that you really enjoy with your lunch, like candy or chips! This will make packing a lunch a bit more enjoyable since you know it will be yummy!

Lunch Ideas for Teen Athletes

Lunch might get boring if you eat the same thing every day. If you are running out of ideas, try some of the ones below! 

On-the-Go Lunch Ideas

A lot of these on-the-go ideas might seem like snack foods. That is because many of them are! Lunch does not have to be a gourmet meal. Snack foods can work just fine for lunches if they are balanced and provide enough energy to meet your needs. The options are endless!.

  • Tuna and crackers with an apple and carrots with hummus
  • Fruit smoothie made with greek yogurt, with peanut butter crackers
  • Greek yogurt with granola and berries, with pita chips, celery and hummus
  • Deli meat, cheese, and crackers, with grapes and carrots with ranch
  • Protein bar, strawberries, bagel with cream cheese, and sugar snap peas
  • Leftovers with a clementine
  • Peanut butter and jelly sandwich with chips and salsa and a fruit cup (in lite syrup)
  • String cheese, pretzels, trail mix, and chocolate milk
  • Cottage cheese, pita chips, and a green smoothie
  • Ham and cheese sandwich with lettuce and tomato, applesauce, and a cookie
  • Canned soup in a thermos with a strawberry walnut salad

Lunch Ideas for Days You Have More Time

  • Grilled cheese sandwich with tomato soup and cantaloupe
  • Hot ham and cheese panini with peppers and a glass of orange juice
  • Quesadilla with cheese, chicken, and black beans, with a side of lettuce, sour cream, guacamole, and salsa; an apple
  • Individual pizza on whole wheat pita bread with pizza sauce, cheese, pepperoni, mushrooms, tomatoes, and olives, with a fruit salad
  • Rice bowl with chicken, black beans, cheese, red onion, avocado, and salsa, with a glass of 100% apple juice


Lunch is essential for teen athletes because it is so important for you to be eating regularly every few hours, at least.

If eating a healthy, balanced lunch has felt like a challenge, hopefully you now have some new ideas! Remember to make lunch and all meals a priority. Think about food as a way of training for your sport, because it really does make a huge difference!

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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