With a new school year, student athletes are returning to the gym, cross-country course or football field. And long days of practice and homework can leave them running on empty if they don’t fuel up with nutritious snacks and beverages.

Instead of sports drinks and protein bars, students can get the nutrition they need to optimize their performance in class and on the field with nature’s original protein drink: milk.

Young athletes need the protein, carbohydrates and essential vitamins delivered in milk to help fuel their active lifestyles while their bodies are still growing, says Alyson Fendrick, a registered dietitian and health and wellness program manager for the Midwest Dairy Council in Iowa.

And research has shown that choc­olate milk, in particular, is a better rehydration choice for athletes than sports drinks. Chocolate milk provides the best mix of carbs, proteins and electrolytes to replenish the body after strenuous workouts.

“It’s really important that kids get the proper nutrients, like those found in milk, that help support their bone health and muscle growth, as well as hydration. Hydration is often highly looked over when it comes to student athletes,” Fendrick says.

“(Kids) always tend to go toward sports drinks. But milk contains protein, and most sports drinks don’t contain any protein at all. It’s hugely important to make sure they are rebuilding the muscle they are breaking down in exercise.”
To keep young athletes fueled for their favorite sports, Fendrick recommends that they eat a healthy snack, such as milk and a banana, with a mix of carbs and protein about one to two hours before a game or practice.

On long days, when kids are playing back-to-back games or weekend-long practices, Fendrick says parents and coaches should bring nutritious snacks to keep everyone’s energy up. Grapes and string cheese, granola bars and milk, or cheese and crackers are all good choices, she says.

Student athletes should also con­­sume protein-rich foods like chocolate milk after a hard workout or game to help repair muscles, Fendrick says.

“The best thing about chocolate milk is it adds that equal balance of carbohydrates and protein, which are important after working out because we need carbohydrates for energy,” Fendrick says.

Parents can keep fridges stocked with grab-and-go dairy snacks like string cheese or cheese cubes and squeezable yogurt tubes for busy mornings or evenings. Cottage cheese and Greek yogurt, in particular, are high-protein choices for easy snacking.

“We know kids are more likely to pick that healthier option if it is eye-level and visible, instead of keeping it in a drawer,” Fendrick says. “So make sure (the healthy snacks) are visible, make sure it’s easy, make sure it’s already pre-prepped and portioned in individual packages.”

And for meals at home, Fendrick says remember to follow the MyPlate nutrition guidelines: fill one-half your plate with fruits and vegetables; one-quarter of the plate with protein; one-quarter of the plate with grains, preferably whole grains; and one serving of milk or dairy.

Kids and adults need three servings of dairy each day to get the recommended intake of Vitamin D, calcium and other nutrients in milk, Fendrick says.

Healthy snack ideas

For nutritious and easy breakfast, lunch and snack ideas, visit the Midwest Dairy Council's website at https://www.midwestdairy.com/recipes/.