It can be difficult to ensure that your young athlete is getting enough protein—especially when they are leaving early in the morning for practice before school and staying late for a second practice or other extracurricular activity. Processed, carb-based snacks can become an easy choice due to their shelf-stability and transportability. However, there are plenty of non-perishable whole food-based and protein-rich options available that, with a little prep work, can sustain your athlete throughout practices and classes.
TrueSport Expert Kristen Ziesmer, a registered dietitian and board-certified specialist in sports dietetics, shares a few of her favorite healthy, whole food options for protein on the go.
Peanut Butter or Almond Butter
Peanut butter is high in vitamins B and E and is rich in protein. Almond butter and peanut butter have a similar nutrition profile: two tablespoons net around eight grams of protein. Aim for 1.5 servings to get enough protein, but make sure your athlete tolerates nut butter well.
While it is ideal to serve this snack with an apple or banana, if your athlete is known for forgetting food, stick to shelf-stable additions like pretzels, banana chips, or crackers.
Check that your school allows students to bring in foods containing peanut butter—some will not due to allergies.
Build Your Own Trail Mix
Protein sources include any type of nuts. Take in a good variety for bonus micronutrients, such as almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, macadamia nuts, peanuts, pecans, pistachios, or walnuts. In addition to nuts, dried edamame, hemp hearts, roasted chickpeas, and wasabi peas can give added protein.
It might shock you how small a serving of nuts is! A food scale can show you how much an ounce is, and one ounce of nuts roughly contains 4-6 grams of protein. It’s good to aim for 15-20 grams of protein per meal/snack, so you will want to have several servings of nuts or legumes in your athlete’s snack bag.
Building your own trail mix with a mix of nuts and dried fruit allows you to tailor it to your athlete’s exact preferences, such as swapping raisins for dried cranberries or apple slices, sneaking in pretzels, banana chips, or chocolate chips for bonus simple carbohydrates, or even sprinkling the whole mix with salt and pepper or mixing it up by flavoring it with chili powder or cinnamon.
Check that your school allows students to bring in foods containing nuts—some will not due to allergies.
A sustainably sourced foil packet or can of tuna is a fantastically protein-rich snack that children can keep in their locker (unopened) for months. Paired with crackers or pretzels, it can be a tasty protein-rich snack, and unlike some other proteins that are high in fat and may sit heavy in an athlete’s stomach, tuna provides 27 grams of protein in a four-ounce serving with only 3.5 grams of fat.
Pro Tip: You may need to send flavor packets like salt and pepper, mustard, or hot sauce, plus a fork with this snack option.
Shelf-Stable Chocolate Milk
Non-perishable containers of milk are great for athletes who rarely have time to sit and eat a proper snack. It is easy to sip a carton of chocolate milk while walking to practice, and it contains carbohydrates along with around eight grams of protein in a single serving. Look for organic options that contain few added ingredients, and make sure your athlete has a few more snacks in addition to these containers, since they are light in protein and overall calories. A handful of trail mix along with a carton of milk would be optimal.
Whether your athlete prefers beef, fish, chicken, venison, or bison, jerky can be an often-overlooked, reliable source of protein. An ounce of beef jerky contains nine grams of protein, while bison jerky contains around 12 grams. Most jerkies will be high in protein and fat but will contain little to no carbohydrates, so pair the jerky with a carbohydrate-rich snack like pretzels or dried fruit. And while this might sound like an easy choice to grab at the gas station on the way to the game, quality matters too. Look for options that are sustainably sourced or grass-fed and ones that lack nitrates or nitrites.
While it’s easy to find processed and prepackaged snacks that are loaded with carbohydrates, it can be trickier to find shelf-stable protein sources. But it’s not impossible, and it doesn’t have to be expensive. Look for options like shelf-stable tuna, uncured jerky, non-perishable milk, and of course, trail mix or nut butters to make snacks that are protein packed. Make sure to balance each snack with some carbohydrates as well, especially for athletes who are doubling up on practices.