21 Healthy Snacks for Athletes to Support Performance
Healthy snacks can be an important part of an athlete’s sports nutrition meal plan. Let’s take a look at how to build healthy snacks for athletes. Then we will explore 21 healthy snack ideas athletes can enjoy to support performance.
Healthy Snacks for Athletes
I encourage athletes to view snacks as an important opportunity to help meet their sports nutrition needs. Well-planned snacks can provide athletes with the energy needed for activities throughout the day. In addition, snacks can help fill nutrient gaps in an athlete’s diet.
Building Healthy Snacks for Athletes
Athletes should take time to plan healthy snacks in advance to ensure they have nutritious options available during the day.
When athletes are building snacks they should aim to pair carbohydrate-rich food items with foods that provide a lean source of protein. In addition, athletes should select snack foods that provide vitamins and minerals and that are low in saturated fat.
Adding Carbohydrates to Healthy Snacks for Athletes
Carbohydrates provide athletes with the energy needed to perform at their best. Similar to gas in a car’s gas tank, carbohydrates provide the fuel for the body to run on. Athletes can get carbohydrates in their diet from a variety of food groups, including:
- Grains: Bread, pasta, rice, cereal, oatmeal, crackers
- Fruit: Fresh, frozen, dried, canned in natural juices
- Starchy vegetables
- Dairy: Milk and yogurt
Adding Lean Protein to Healthy Snacks for Athletes
Consuming protein throughout the day with several meals and snacks is important for athletes (1). Protein provides the building blocks needed for athletes to build, repair, and maintain lean muscle mass. Including protein with snacks can help athletes with meeting their overall protein needs for the day.
Athletes can add lean protein to their snacks from a variety of food sources, such as:
- Greek yogurt
- Hard-boiled eggs
- Deli Meat: Turkey, ham, roast beef, chicken
- Cheese: String cheese, sliced cheese, cottage cheese
- Low-fat milk or high-protein milk
- Tuna or salmon (packed in water)
There are a variety of ways athletes following a plant-based diet can add protein to their snacks. Consider ideas such as:
- Nuts and nut butters
- Soy milk
- High-protein, plant-based yogurts
21 Healthy Snack Ideas for Athletes
Putting this together, let’s look at healthy snack combinations that athletes can enjoy to help meet their sports nutrition needs. Here are 21 of my favorite snack ideas for athletes.
- Greek yogurt with berries and granola
- Peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a banana
- Fruit smoothie
- Turkey and cheese wrap
- Hummus with pita chips
- Whole grain breakfast cereal with high-protein milk
- Cottage cheese with pineapple and chia seeds
- Trail mix (made with pretzels, dried fruit, nuts, seeds, whole grain breakfast cereal)
- Hard-boiled eggs and breakfast bars
- Tuna fish and whole grain crackers
- Jerky and crunchy granola bars
- String cheese and fig bars
- Kodiak Cakes® waffles with nut butter and sliced banana
- Black bean dip with baked tortilla chips
- Sliced deli ham, whole grain crackers, orange wedges
- Protein overnight oats (great to enjoy as a snack!)
- Cheese stick with pretzels
- Greek yogurt guacamole with pita chips (recipe from Oikos®)
- Nuts with fresh fruit (i.e., almonds with apple slices)
- Protein muffin and grapes
- Bagel with sliced avocado and turkey
Athletes with Nut Allergies
Athletes with nut allergies can substitute seeds in place of nuts. Also, athletes can consider trying SunButter® products. SunButter® spreads are made with sunflower seeds, thus they are nut allergen free.
Hydration with Snacks for Athletes
Hydration should be a daily priority for athletes. Dehydration can negatively impact health as well as sports performance. Including a beverage with a well-planned snack can help athletes with meeting their fluid needs.
Ideas for healthy beverages athletes can enjoy with their snacks include:
- Low-fat milk or high-protein milk
- Low-fat chocolate milk
- 100% fruit juice
- Sports drink (post-workout)
- Sparkling water
When Should Athletes Eat Snacks?
Now that you have a variety of snack and drink ideas, let’s take a look at ways athletes can add snacks to their days.
Nutritious Snacks During the Day
When visiting with athletes about sports nutrition, I commonly find that athletes will go for long periods of time during the day without eating. Packing healthy snacks can help athletes fill these gaps with nutritious options that can support their sports nutrition needs.
Here are some time periods when athletes can consider adding snacks to their day:
- Before a workout
- After a morning workout before heading to class or work
- Mid-morning snack (~2-3 hours after breakfast)
- Afternoon snack (~2-3 hours after lunch)
- Following an afternoon workout
- Evening snack
Snacks to Eat Before a Workout or Competition
When athletes have limited time prior to a workout or competition they should focus on eating carbohydrate-rich snacks to provide energy for the upcoming activity. Eating foods that are high in fat, fiber, and protein too close to the competition may cause GI distress during the activity (2).
Example snacks to eat before activity may include:
- Fresh fruit, dried fruit, applesauce squeeze
- Pretzels, pita chips, dry cereal, snack crackers
- Mini bagels
- Low-fat granola bar, fig bar
- Sports drink, chews, gels
Recovery Nutrition Snack Ideas After a Workout or Competition
Following a workout or competition, athletes should plan snacks that can help them meet their recovery nutrition needs. This includes snacks containing:
- Carbohydrates to refill energy stores used during the competition
- Protein to support building and repairing muscle mass
- Fluid and electrolytes to replace sweat losses
The healthy snack ideas discussed above are all great options for athletes to enjoy after a workout. Make sure to prioritize hydration with your post-activity snack to replace sweat losses.
Healthy Snack for Athletes Before Bed
I often recommend that athletes who desire to gain or maintain muscle mass aim to consume an evening snack that provides a good source of protein. Consuming protein before sleep can help promote muscle protein synthesis during the overnight recovery period (3). Athletes looking to gain weight may consider enjoying a high-calorie smoothie prior to bed.
Make Healthy Snacking Easy for Athletes
It can be helpful to take time on the weekend to meal prep snacks for the upcoming week. Easy meal prep steps for snacks may include:
- Chopping fresh fruit and vegetables
- Packing individual bags of pretzels, pita chips, dry cereal, or trail mix
- Make turkey and cheese or other deli sandwiches/wraps in advance
- Hard-boiling eggs
- Pre-making muffins using a high-protein baking mix. Kodiak Cakes® and Krusteaz® both have a variety of protein muffin mixes available.
Consider creating a snack basket in your refrigerator and pantry where healthy snacks are easily accessible and can be grabbed on the way out the door.
Healthy Snacks for Athletes to Support Performance
You are now set with ideas for building healthy snacks for athletes. As a reminder, well-planned snacks can help athletes with meeting their sports nutrition needs and support optimal performance.
For additional sports nutrition tips, check out my blog: 5 Hydration Tips for Athletes.
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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 has experience working with athletes at the high school, collegiate, and professional levels. She 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.