With busy practice and competition schedules it can be helpful for athletes to have a variety of ideas for easy dinners to prepare during the week. Let’s take a look at 11 ideas for healthy dinners that athletes can enjoy on busy weeknights.
Planning Easy Dinners for Athletes
When planning dinners for athletes, it does not have to be a complicated meal to meet an athlete’s sports nutrition needs. By keeping a few key items available in your pantry and freezer you can be prepared to fix nutritious dinners during the week.
Healthy dinners for athletes should include the following key nutrients:
- Good source of carbohydrates
- Moderate amount of lean protein
- Healthy, unsaturated fats
You can learn more about the basics for building a healthy meal for athletes in my blog article: 5 Keys to Building the Ideal Athletes Meal Plan.
Dinners for Athletes: Healthy Sides
In addition to planning dinner entrees for the week, don’t forget to consider what side items will be enjoyed with the meal.
Ideas for healthy side items include:
- Whole Grains: Bread, rolls, rice, pasta, quinoa
- Fruits and Vegetables: Variety of colors
- Starchy Vegetables: Potatoes, sweet potatoes, winter squash, corn
- Beans, peas, legumes
- Greek yogurt, cottage cheese
Dinners for Athletes: Nutritious Beverages
Including nutritious drinks with meals can help athletes with meeting their hydration goals. Staying hydrated is important for an athlete’s health as well as sports performance.
Aside from water, low-fat milk and 100% fruit or vegetable juice are good options for athletes to drink with dinner. These beverages can help with hydration, as well as provide valuable vitamins and minerals that are important in an athlete’s diet.
Dinners for Athletes: 11 Easy Ideas
Now that you understand some basic concepts for planning healthy dinners for athletes, let’s explore 11 easy dinner ideas.
#1: Burrito Bowl
Burrito bowls have become a popular option at quick-service Mexican food restaurants. Athletes can easily enjoy building their own burrito bowls at home. Here are some ideas for building a healthy burrito bowl.
Burrito Bowl Base
Brown rice is a great high-carbohydrate choice for the base of your burrito bowl. For convenience, consider purchasing instant brown rice that cooks within minutes. You can also purchase brown rice in microwavable bags, which makes preparing your burrito bowl extra easy.
To further increase the carbohydrate, fiber, and protein content of your bowl, top your rice with black beans. If you like spice, consider mixing a can of diced tomatoes with green chilies into your black beans. This is an easy way to add some extra flavor to your beans and burrito bowl.
Burrito Bowl Protein
There are a variety of ways you can add protein to your burrito bowl. Taco meat made with ground beef or turkey is a quick and easy option. When purchasing ground beef or turkey, look for a variety that is 93% lean or leaner. Once the meat is done browning on the stove, don’t forget to drain off the grease before mixing in the taco seasoning.
Frozen, pre-cooked chicken or beef fajita meat is another great option for protein on your burrito bowl. Keeping frozen fajita meat on hand in the freezer can be a convenient option on a busy evening when time is limited.
If you follow a plant-based diet, consider using quinoa as the base for your burrito bowl. Quinoa is a complete protein, containing all 9 of the essential amino acids that our bodies cannot make. Thus, quinoa is a great plant-based option for athletes. Chipotle® has popularized the use of sofritas (basically tofu with spices) in burrito bowls, which is another great plant-based source of protein for your bowl.
Burrito Bowl Toppings
Select a variety of vegetable toppings to include on your burrito bowl, such as: chopped tomatoes, onions, lettuce, grilled bell peppers, sliced avocados, or guacamole. Other toppings you may enjoy on your burrito bowl include salsa, jalapenos, and 2% shredded cheese.
If you like sour cream, choose a low-fat variety that contains less saturated fat. You can also use plain, unflavored Greek yogurt as a substitute for sour cream in your bowl, which is an easy way to add protein and calcium to your meal.
Two items I encourage athletes to keep on hand in their pantry for a quick weeknight dinner are pasta and pasta sauce. When choosing a pasta sauce, select a marinara or tomato sauce. Tomato sauce is a healthier option, as it is lower in saturated fat than alfredo or cheese-based sauces.
When it comes to the pasta, consider purchasing a whole grain or chickpea pasta. Whole grain and chickpea pastas both provide fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Chickpea pasta has the added benefit of also being a great source of protein. A serving of Banza® chickpea pasta typically contains around 20 grams of protein, ~50% more protein than regular pasta.
Similar to burrito bowls, if you plan to top your pasta with a meat sauce, choose ground beef or turkey that is 93% lean or leaner. Other protein options to add to your pasta include turkey meatballs, grilled chicken breasts, or shrimp.
Plant-Based Pasta: Dinners for Athletes
Athletes following a plant-based diet can make a nutrient-dense meal by topping chickpea pasta with marinara sauce and a variety of vegetables. Adding beans to your pasta sauce will further increase the protein, carbohydrate, and fiber content of your meal.
Maria Tointon, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, shares additional ideas for creating a plant-based pasta in her blog: 5 Easy Ways to Add Protein to Your Vegan Pasta.
#3: Meatball Sub
A meatball sub is an incredibly easy dinner that athletes can prepare in a matter of minutes. The basic ingredients needed for a meatball sub include:
- Frozen Italian style, fully-cooked turkey meatballs
- Whole wheat submarine rolls
- Marinara sauce (spaghetti sauce)
- Italian seasoning
- 2% shredded mozzarella cheese
To prepare the meatball subs, heat the turkey meatballs according to the package directions. Place several of the heated meatballs inside each of the submarine rolls. Top the meatballs with marinara sauce, shredded cheese, and Italian seasoning. Heat the subs in the oven for approximately 5 minutes until the cheese melts. This is definitely a simple dinner for athletes on a busy weeknight!
#4 Baked Potatoes
Potatoes and sweet potatoes are both great high-carbohydrate dinner options for athletes. If time is limited, potatoes can easily be prepared in the microwave. By choosing nutritious protein toppings, athletes can have a power-packed meal ready for dinner with minimal preparation required.
Baked potatoes are a great way to add carbohydrates, fiber, potassium, and Vitamin C, along with other vitamins and minerals to your meal1. In addition to carbohydrates and fiber, sweet potatoes are an excellent source of Vitamin A. Sweet potatoes also contain antioxidants and carotenoids (give sweet potatoes their orange color) making them a healthy choice for athletes.
Potato Topping Ideas
Canned chili can be a quick and easy topping for your baked potato. When selecting a chili, choose one that contains beans, which will increase the carbohydrate, fiber, and protein content of the chili. Consider trying Amy’s® Organic Black Bean Chili, for a vegan chili option. One can of this chili provides 64 grams of carbohydrates and 19 grams of protein, making it an excellent meal option for athletes. Try using this chili as a topping on a sweet potato for a savory, nutrient packed meal.
The pasta sauce with ground beef or turkey discussed previously is another great option for a topping on your baked potato. Athletes can also make a southwest flavored potato using salsa, grilled chicken, black beans, corn, 2% shredded cheese, and plain, unflavored Greek yogurt (in place of sour cream) as toppings.
#5 Chicken Quesadilla
A chicken quesadilla can make a quick and easy dinner for athletes following a busy day. At the store, purchase whole wheat tortillas to make your quesadillas. Consider storing your tortillas in the freezer to help maintain quality over a longer period of time.
Pre-cooked, frozen chicken fajita meat or leftover rotisserie chicken are both convenient options for making your quesadilla. In addition to chicken, consider adding diced tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, black beans, and sliced avocado as fillings in your quesadilla.
Once your quesadilla comes off the skillet, top it with salsa and guacamole for added nutrition. To further boost the carbohydrate content of your meal, enjoy the quesadilla with a side of rice and black beans.
If you are looking for a recipe idea, try the Chicken Avocado Quesadilla recipe from Katie Dodd, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist.
#6: Grain Bowl
Similar to burrito bowls, Mediterranean inspired grain bowls have also become popular recently. This is another easy meal you can prepare at home that is packed full of carbohydrates, fiber, and protein.
When building your bowl select your favorite whole grains, such as brown rice or quinoa. To save yourself time during the week, consider preparing a large batch of the rice or quinoa on the weekend.
Grain Bowl Toppings
Top your grains with a selection of healthy ingredients, such as: leafy greens, a variety of fresh or roasted vegetables, beans, olives, seeds, nuts, and sliced avocado. To boost the protein content of the grain bowl, add on chicken, tuna, salmon, or tofu.
Hummus is another nutritious topping you can add to your bowl. Hummus is made with chickpeas, and provides carbohydrates, fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals. You can also enjoy hummus with pita chips as a side dish with your meal.
Kiran Campbell, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, has a great recipe for a Mediterranean Quinoa Salad. You can use this quinoa salad as the base for your bowl and add on other vegetable and protein toppings you enjoy.
#7: Salmon Burger
Salmon is a great seafood option for athletes, as it contains healthy omega-3 fatty acids as well as protein. Thus, a salmon burger on a whole grain bun is a nutritious dinner choice for athletes.
Many grocery stores have freshly made salmon burgers available for purchase in the seafood department. You can also purchase frozen, pre-made salmon patties to keep available in your freezer. Trident Seafoods® makes an Alaska Salmon Burger that contains 20 grams of protein per patty. The burgers can be prepared on the grill, baked in the oven, or quickly heated in the microwave.
Aside from making a burger, you can use salmon patties to make fish tacos, as a topping on a salad, or for added protein in your grain bowl. If you want to prepare your own salmon burger, check out this recipe from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics for Salmon Sliders.
#8: Rotisserie Chicken
When looking for an easy dinner idea for athletes, don’t forget about the convenience of buying a rotisserie chicken. In addition to enjoying the chicken as an entrée with your dinner, there are numerous other ways you can use rotisserie chicken with your meals. Consider using rotisserie chicken as a source of protein in your burrito bowl, added as a topping on your pasta, to make a chicken and avocado wrap, or as a filling in your quesadilla.
A stir-fry is another nutritious, quick dinner idea for athletes. Many stores sell stir-fry vegetable kits in the produce section. The kits typically include pre-chopped vegetables and stir-fry sauce; thus, you only need to add your choice of protein to the meal. You can also purchase fresh vegetables to chop yourself or frozen stir-fry vegetables to use in your stir-fry during the week.
There are a variety of protein options you can include in your stir fry, including thinly sliced sirloin steak, chicken, pork tenderloin, or shrimp. Tofu is a great option to make a plant-based stir-fry bowl. Plan to serve your stir-fry over brown rice, quinoa, lo-mein, or rice noodles.
Check out this Easy Weeknight Stir-Fry recipe from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics for a quick evening meal.
#10: Breakfast for Dinner
Preparing breakfast for dinner is always a fun way to end the day. Here are several breakfast for dinner ideas that athletes can enjoy during the week.
Protein Overnight Oats
Overnight oats can be a great meal any time of day, not just at breakfast. On my blog, protein overnight oats, you can find a variety of ways to add protein to your oats to help meet your sports nutrition needs.
High-Protein Pancakes and Waffles
If you enjoy pancakes or waffles, try using a high-protein pancake and waffle mix, such as those made by Kodiak Cakes® and Krusteaz®. Kodiak Cakes® also makes frozen waffles and pancakes that contain ~10-14 grams of protein per serving. You can find these in the freezer section of your store for a quick and easy breakfast for dinner that is ready in minutes.
Making breakfast tacos for dinner can be an easy way to create an enjoyable meal that meets your sports nutrition needs. For the filling, scramble together eggs, ham, chicken, or turkey sausage, and a variety of chopped veggies. Then serve your taco in a whole wheat tortilla topped with salsa and sliced avocado.
Bagel Breakfast Sandwich
Enjoying a bagel breakfast sandwich at dinner can help athletes meet their carbohydrate and protein needs. Choose a whole grain bagel for making your breakfast sandwich. Then top the bagel with egg, sliced ham or turkey sausage, 2% cheese, spinach, tomato, and sliced avocado.
Plant-Based Breakfast Options
If you are looking for plant-based breakfast for dinner options for athletes, consider using vegan egg substitutes and baking mixes as well as plant-based milk and yogurt.
#11 Homemade Pizza
Making pizza at home can be an easy, healthy option for athletes. Choose a whole wheat pizza crust for the base of your pizza. Top the crust with a tomato or pesto sauce and 2% shredded mozzarella cheese. Rather than higher fat proteins, such as pepperoni and sausage, choose grilled chicken or ham. Then load up your pizza with a variety of vegetable toppings.
Ready to Prepare Dinners for Athletes
You are now set with a variety of ideas for planning healthy dinners for athletes. Remember to plan ahead and keep needed items on hand to prepare nutritious dinners during the week.
If you are looking for suggestions on post-game meals for athletes, check out my blog: How to Plan an Ideal Post-Game Meal.
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About the Author
Mandy is a Sports Dietitian Nutritionist in the San Antonio, TX area. She is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian, a Board-Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics, a Licensed Athletic Trainer, and is a Certified Exercise Physiologist through the American College of Sports Medicine. Mandy believes the key to reaching one’s full potential, both in everyday life and in sports performance, relies on a healthy nutritional foundation. Learn more about the work Mandy does here.
- FoodData Central. (2020). Usda.gov. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/170030/nutrients