Healthy Food Choices for Both Athlete and Spectator

Whether it’s a youth, college or professional sporting event, we all deep down know the food served at most concession stands don’t get high marks from a nutrition standpoint. But when you know you’re going to be spending a good deal of time there, it’s easy to feel like the deck is stacked against you. Do you eat a big meal before the event? Can you bring healthy snacks in? What about fueling up your young athlete? Each are valid questions, which is why we turned to Brittney Bearden, a registered dietitian and sports nutrition manager at Texas Health Sports Medicine, to get tips on how to navigate sporting event concession stands.

Bearden agrees that the majority of concession stand food doesn’t promote health for the spectator or the athlete. It’s a bit of an irony that sporting events have some of the least healthy food items available, which is why she suggests planning ahead in order to keep splurging at the concession stand more of a choice than a necessity.

“When possible, eat meals before or after the event to avoid relying on concession stand food for a meal,” she says. “If you want to grab a snack from the concession stand, look for things like peanuts, trail mix, granola bars, pickles, popcorn without the butter, Chex mix or fruit.”

If a game is scheduled during dinner, making a pre-game snack such as a sandwich with lean meats and grapes can help provide the appropriate nutrition for your athlete and will also help satiate your hunger as well. To help your athlete refuel after a game, opt for a meal that features whole grains and protein, whether you’re eating at home or at a restaurant.

But what do you do if you find yourself at a tournament that could last all day? How can you keep your athlete fueled up properly between games and ward off any hunger pangs on your end? Bearden suggests first looking up or calling to see if you can bring food into the event. If you can, pack items such as Greek yogurt, homemade energy bites, turkey sandwiches, PB&J sandwiches, fruit, chocolate milk and low-fat string cheese in a cooler. If you don’t want to worry about keeping a cooler at a food-safe temperature all day, Bearden suggests packing applesauce, dried fruit, nuts, dry whole-grain cereal, beef jerky, individual packets of peanut butter, bagels and whole-grain crackers which don’t need to be kept cold.

If you can’t bring food in and avoiding the concession stand isn’t an option, Bearden says there are some things to keep in mind when trying to find healthy options for both you and your young athlete.

“Look for grilled meats over fried, and see if fruit cups, whole fruit or vegetable packets are available. Healthier snacks include packaged pretzels, granola bars and peanut butter crackers,” she says. “But remember, it doesn’t have to be an ‘all or nothing’ situation. If there’s absolutely nothing healthy available, order an entrée and move on with life. Instead of ordering an entrée, a side item, a high-sugar beverage and candy or dessert, just go with an entrée with water to drink.”

Making healthy beverage choices is important for both spectator and athlete. It’s no secret that kids gravitate towards sugary sports drinks, and it can be easy to justify drinking one if you’ve already bought a case for the team. But Bearden reiterates that sports drinks are made for sports, just as the name implies.

“They are designed to supply fluid, carbohydrates and electrolytes — all of which are lost during physical activity,” she says. “Sports drinks should be used when physical activity lasts longer than an hour, or when playing in a hot and humid environment. Outside of those circumstances, it’s wise to stick with water.”

Parents and coaches can impart a big influence on a young athlete’s beliefs and behaviors, which makes modeling a healthy lifestyle as well as creating a healthy environment at home on the field extra important. A healthy environment includes the emotional side of food and body image. That’s why it’s important for parents and coaches to convey positive messages around how food should be viewed as a fuel source and to nourish the body, as opposed to it being a punishment or reward, or as “good” and “bad” food.

It can be easy to look at sporting events or tournaments as special events, which can also make it easy to adopt a “special treat” mentality when it comes to letting yourself or your family eat junk food you may not normally eat. If this is truly a special, infrequent event, Bearden says it’s ok to let yourself enjoy not-so-healthy foods in moderation. But if you find yourself at a game often, it’s important to create healthy habits for both you and your athlete.

“Young athletes often compete in numerous tournaments throughout the year so it’s important for them to develop healthy habits if they’re looking to eat for performance,” she explains. “An athlete’s diet directly impacts their energy level, hydration status and recovery, so choosing qualify fuel most of the time should be a consistent priority.

As a parent of a young athlete, aim for progress and consistency, not perfection. No one’s diet is perfect, so don’t give up if a few meals come from concession stands. Learning to plan, prepare and pack food can go a long way with nutrition and athletic performance.”

 Need more guidance? The sports dietitians at Texas Health Sports Medicine and Texas Health meet with athletes and individuals of all ages and activity levels to help them maximize their health and/or athletic performance through proper nutrition.

Visit or to learn more about the nutrition services available at a Texas Health facility near you and to schedule an individualized nutrition consult.

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