Best Pre-Game Meal Ideas for Athletes
Eating a well-planned pre-game meal can help ensure athletes are fueled to perform at their best in the upcoming competition. Equipping athletes with ideas of what to eat prior to a game can help set them up for sports nutrition success.
Timing of the Pre-Game Meal
Prior to looking at what to eat with your pre-game meal, let’s discuss the ideal timing for eating before competition. Eating too much food, too close to your event may result in an upset stomach during the game.
When is the Best Time to Eat Your Pre-Game Meal?
When possible, schedule your pre-game meal to be eaten 3-4 hours prior to the competition. This allows time for your body to digest and for you to go to the bathroom if needed before the start of the event.
As the start time of the competition gets closer, you can continue fueling with a pre-game snack. Consuming a high-carbohydrate snack in the hour before activity can help provide an extra boost of energy for the upcoming competition.
Pre-Game Meal Nutrient Needs
The foundation of an athlete’s pre-game meal should be carbohydrates. Carbohydrates provide athletes with the energy needed to perform at their best. Building a pre-game meal centered around carbohydrates can help ensure athletes are well fueled for the upcoming event.
What are Ways for Athletes to Get Carbohydrates with the Pre-Game Meal?
Athletes can add carbohydrates to their meal with foods from the following food groups:
- Fruit: Fresh, frozen, dried, canned (natural juices)
- Starchy Vegetables: Potatoes, corn, peas
- Grains: Bread, cereal, oatmeal, rice, pasta, quinoa
- Dairy: Milk, yogurt
If you are looking for gluten-free carbohydrates to enjoy as part of your pre-game meal, take time to read my blog: Gluten-Free Pre-Workout Meals and Snacks for Athletes.
Additional Nutrients with the Pre-Game Meal
In addition to carbohydrates, athletes can include a moderate amount of lean protein with their pre-game meals. Potential protein sources to enjoy with the pre-game meal include:
- Seafood and fish
- Chicken and turkey (without skin)
- Lean cuts of red meat and pork
- Deli meat
- Greek yogurt
- Cottage cheese
- Nuts and nut butters
When considering the preparation method of proteins to enjoy with your pre-meals, choose items that are grilled, baked, roasted, or steamed rather than deep fried. For additional plant-based options, check out my blog: How to Build an Ideal Vegan Pre-Workout Meal.
Foods to Limit Prior to Competition
In the hour or two prior to competition, athletes should limit foods that are high in fat, fiber, and/or protein. Consuming these foods too close to the start of activity may lead to GI distress during the competition1.
This includes foods such as:
- Fried or greasy foods
- Heavy cream, cheese, or buttery sauces
- Dessert foods (ice cream, brownies, fudge)
- Beans and legumes
- High-fiber vegetables (cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage)
- Whole grains (high-fiber)
Some individuals also feel better when they limit foods containing lactose (i.e. milk, yogurt) as well as spicy foods (hot sauce, jalapenos) prior to competition. Since every athlete is unique, it is important to find the foods that work best for you.
When planning your pre-game nutrition strategy, remember that as you get closer to the start time of the game, it is best to focus on carbohydrate-rich food choices. Carbohydrates will provide you with the energy needed to perform at your best.
Pre-Game Meal Ideas
Putting this all together, here are a variety of pre-game meal ideas for athletes.
- Scrambled eggs, pancakes, and fresh sliced fruit
- French toast, turkey sausage, banana
- Fruit smoothie, bagel with nut butter and honey
- Grilled chicken breast, roasted potato wedges, green beans, dinner rolls
- Pasta with marinara (tomato sauce), turkey meatballs, and vegetables, breadsticks
- Roasted salmon filet, baked sweet potato, fresh mixed berries, corn muffin
- Grilled pork loin chop, steamed rice, whole kernel corn, dinner rolls
- Turkey and ham sub sandwich, pretzels, apple slices
What About Pre-Game Hydration?
When you are planning your pre-game meal, don’t forget about the importance of hydration. Dehydration can negatively impact performance and increase your risk of heat illness. Therefore, starting the game in an optimally hydrated state is important.
Although hydration needs vary amongst individuals, there are some general pre-event guidelines athletes can follow. Approximately 4 hours prior to the event, it is recommended that athletes drink 5-7 mL of fluid per kg of body weight2. For a 180-pound athlete, this calculates to be ~14 – 19 fluid ounces. Thus, in general, consuming approximately 2 cups of fluid with your pre-game meal can assist you with meeting this goal.
In the hour leading up to the event, athletes should continue hydrating, aiming to drink around 8 oz of fluid during this time period. Consuming foods that contain sodium with the pre-game meal, such as deli meat, cheese, and soup, can help your body with retaining the fluid you drink prior to competition1.
What About Caffeine with the Pre-Game Meal?
Athletes commonly ask about consuming caffeine prior to competition in an effort to increase alertness, reduce feelings of perceived effort, or to assist with competing at a higher intensity. In the hour before exercise, typical caffeine recommendations are for athletes to consume 3-6 mg of caffeine per kg of body weight3.
Keep in mind that when it comes to caffeine, more is not better. Consuming too much caffeine before activity can lead to undesirable outcomes. Higher doses of caffeine (≥9 mg/kg body weight) increases the risk of side effects, such as jitters, anxiety, and nausea, and does not provide an increased performance benefit3.
While these are general guidelines, be aware that there are individual variations in how athletes metabolize and respond to caffeine intake4. Some athletes may find a benefit from a lower dose of caffeine or have undesired side effects from consuming even small amounts of caffeine before activity.
Pre-Game Meals at Restaurants
If you are traveling and need to eat your pre-game meal at a restaurant, you can follow the same guidelines shared above to create a great pre-event meal. Example meals may include:
- Mexican Food: Burrito bowl made with grilled chicken, rice, corn salsa, lettuce, tomatoes, and a tortilla on the side
- American Food (Burgers): Grilled chicken sandwich on a bun, apple slices, sports drink
- Steak House: Grilled salmon or chicken, baked potato, green beans, dinner roll
- Asian Food: Beef and broccoli or chicken with mixed vegetables, steamed white rice, and wonton soup
- Italian Food: Pasta with marinara (red sauce) grilled chicken or shrimp and Italian vegetables, pasta fagioli soup, and bread sticks
Practice Your Pre-Game Meal
Since athletes vary on foods they tolerate prior to activity, it is important to take time to figure out what foods work best. Practicing your pre-game fueling strategy in advance can help you have confidence during the competition that you are fueled to perform at your best.
Ready for Game Day
You are now set with a variety of ideas for building an ideal pre-game meal. Taking time to plan your meal in advance can help set you up for sports nutrition success on game day.
For additional sports nutrition tips for athletes, check out my recent blog: Healthy Bus Snacks 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 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.
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