If you’re looking for ideas on what to pack your middle or high school athlete for lunch, check out these 7 school lunch options for student athletes.
Student athletes are busy. They leave the house early in the morning for school, and may not get home until late in the evening. That can make eating enough high-quality food to support growth, development and sports performance, a challenge.
To meet their higher energy needs, student athletes need a nutritious breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks throughout the day. I’ve shared a lot about breakfast in the past, including some healthy breakfast ideas fit for a champion and quick breakfast options to eat on the go. I’ve also shared some protein-packed, egg-free breakfast options. Today’s post, though, is all about school lunch options for student athletes.
Why A School Lunch Might Not Be Enough For Student Athletes
American schools that participate in the Federal School lunch program are required to offer a nutritious lunch for school students. When putting the menu together, schools follow federal guidelines meant to provide a minimum standard of healthful food. For example, a school lunch must include whole grains, fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products.
Though schools follow guidelines, the lunch they provide is not individualized to the specific calorie needs of each student. Instead, the school lunch must meet the set minimum and maximum calories for the age group being served. That means, a 16 year old, 5’2”, 115 pound female dancer is offered the same school lunch as a 16 year old, 6’2”, 170 pound male football player, even though their caloric requirements are much different.
Most schools offer additional food for purchase, but even students who have the money to buy ala carte items may not be getting what they need. I’ve worked with high school athletes that would need to buy two or three school lunches to get enough food to feel full and satisfied.
My point in mentioning that isn’t to discredit the lunch provided by the school. The guidelines satisfy the needs of the majority of students, and doubling the portions could lead to an overconsumption by many students. My point is, the lunch provided by the school is not individualized to meet the specific needs of athletes. If you want something that meets your specific needs, you’ll need to buy more food, or pack your own lunch.
What Should Student Athletes Pack For Lunch?
The best way for student athletes to meet their daily nutrient needs is to eat a variety of different foods, from the different food groups. When considering school lunch options for student athletes, make sure that the meal includes all three macronutrients – carbohydrate-rich foods, high-quality protein and some dietary fat.
Because carbohydrate is the preferred fuel source for the brain and working muscles, student athletes need to include a variety of carbohydrate-rich foods at lunch. Examples include breads, cereals, crackers, pasta, rice, noodles, pretzels and other grain-based foods. Fruits, vegetables, beans and other legumes are also great sources of carbohydrate, as are dairy foods like milk and yogurt.
In addition to the nutrient-rich carbohydrates I just mentioned, treats and simple sugars are also sources of carbohydrates. While these foods don’t contribute many, if any, vitamins and minerals, they still provide energy to the body. Most student athletes have carbohydrate needs well over what they can comfortably obtain from whole foods, so including a treat or sugary sweet with lunch actually helps them meet their daily needs. Sweets and treats should never be eaten in place of nutrient-rich carbohydrates, but including one with lunch is perfectly fine. Examples include a piece of chocolate, fruit snacks, fruit leather or “roll-ups” and drizzling honey on yogurt.
In addition to carbohydrates, student athletes also need high-quality protein to maintain and build body tissues. This is especially important for athletes training to increase muscle or lean mass. Protein-rich foods include beef, poultry, fish and other seafood, eggs, beans and lentils. Dairy foods like milk, cheese and yogurt are also great sources of high-quality protein, as well as soy-based foods like tofu.
Lastly, a nutritious school lunch should include some dietary fats. Not only is fat an important fuel source for young athletes, it’s also necessary to absorb certain nutrients, protect vital organs and help insulate the body. Including foods rich in dietary fat with lunch increases the chance student athletes get the essential fatty acidstheir body’s needs, and it helps them to feel full and satisfied between meals. Fats are found naturally in protein-rich foods like beef, eggs, fatty fish and full-fat dairy. They are also found in nuts, seeds, avocados, dressings, butter and oils.
Lunch Ideas For Athletes
One way to assure student athletes get enough food to meet their individual needs is to plan and pack their own meals. That includes packing a nutritious lunch that they can take to school. Below, I share seven school lunch options for student athletes so that you can see what and how much food is reasonable to pack. Though my photos use some brand name products, I’m not suggesting that you have to use that particular brand. I just used items that I commonly see on the food journals of my own clients.
Under each lunch idea, I list how many servings of carbohydrate, protein and fat each meal contains. Those servings are based on the meal planning system that I use with my clients. While the servings are appropriate for many high-school athletes, those with higher energy will need more and should increase the portion size of each food item, or add additional items, to meet their individual needs.
Peanut Butter & Jelly Sandwich with Sides
Make a nut butter & jelly sandwich made with 2 slices of bread or a large roll, 2 tablespoons peanut butter and 1 tablespoon of jelly. Pack it with 1 hard-boiled egg, 1 string cheese, 8-13 strawberries and 1 ounce of pretzels or different crunchy snack. (Meal Planning Servings = 5 CHO + 3 PRO + 6 FATS)
Ham & Cheese Sandwich with Sides
Layer 2-3 ounces of ham, 1 ounce of sliced cheese and some vegetables between 2 pieces of whole grain bread for a nutritious ham and cheese sandwich. Pack it with a variety of raw vegetables like carrots sticks, sliced peppers, cherry tomatoes or other favorite vegetable, 1 tablespoon Ranch dressing, 1 orange, 1 pack fruit snacks and 1 ounce snack chips, veggie straws or Cheese-it crackers. (Meal Planning Servings = 5 CHO + 3-4 PRO + 6 FATS)
Turkey & Cheese Sliders with Sides
Make a few sliders by putting 3 ounces turkey breast, 1 ounce cheese and 1 tablespoon of mayonnaise on 2 small slider buns. Pack those with 1 serving goldfish crackers (~55 baked crackers), 12 grapes and 1 fruit roll-up. (Meal Planning Servings = 5 CHO + 4 PRO + 4 FATS)
Pack a Nutritious Salad with Sides
Pack a salad made with 2-3 cups lettuce with a variety of raw vegetables like tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, etc., ½ cup cold starchy carb like corn, beans or lentils, 1 hard-boiled egg, 1 ounce shredded cheese, 2 tablespoons dried cranberries or other dried fruit, 8 large square croutons and 2 tablespoons dressing. Eat the salad with 1 ounce of tortilla chips with salsa and 1 ready-to-drink yogurt or smoothie drink. (Meal Planning Servings = 5.5 CHO + 3 PRO + 6 FATS)
Tuna Salad on Crackers with Sides
Pack 3 ounces of mayonnaise-based tuna salad or chicken salad in a container along with ~10 crackers of your choice. (Try my simple tuna salad recipe.) Have it with a banana, 3 cups of popcorn and a package of fruit snacks. (Meal Planning Servings = 5.5 CHO + 3 PRO + 5 FATS)
Greek Yogurt Bowl with Toppings & Sides
Greek Yogurt Bowl made with 1 cup flavored Greek yogurt, ¾ cup blueberries, ½ cup granola, ¼ cup almonds or sunflower seeds and a tablespoon of honey. (Or try one of my other Greek yogurt bowl recipes.) Have it with a granola bar or equivalent. (Meal Planning Servings = 5 CHO + 3 PRO + 4 FATS)
Roast Beef & Cheese Wrap with Sides
Wrap 3 ounces of roast beef, 1 ounce of cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers or other veggies and 1 tablespoon mayonnaise or mustard in a flour tortilla. Pack it with a Pudding or Jell-O Snack Cup, 12 grapes and 1.5 ounces of snack chips or veggie straws. (5.5 CHO + 4 PRO + 5-6 FATS)
What are some of your favorite items to pack for school lunch?