You know you won't perform your best on an empty tank. But eat too much, too close to game time, and your pre-game meal may wind up on your shoes (or in a nearby trash can). Your best bet is to eat a pre-game snack about half an hour before you step onto the court or field to top off your energy stores, helping you power past opponents in the closing minutes.
A good pre-game snack will give you easily digested carbohydrates (simple sugars, not complex carbs or fiber), and perhaps a little protein and fat. Ideally, your snack will be portable and capable of staying good for hours inside a backpack or locker, since not every student-athlete has access to a refrigerator.
STACK connected with dietitians who work with the Houston Texans, New Orleans Pelicans, New Orleans Saints, Boston Cannons—and others—for their suggestions on simple pre-game snacks that meet those requirements.
1. Peanut Butter and Honey Sandwiches
It's a simple twist on a modern favorite that will stay fresh in your bag all day long. "I'm a big fan of peanut butter and honey sandwiches on whole grain bread," says Tavis Piattoly, MS, RD, who works with the New Orleans Saints and New Orleans Pelicans. "The combination of healthy fat and protein, along with the fiber from the whole grain bread, provides the athlete with the optimal combination of nutrients to keep [him or her] fueled for a longer workout. Athletes are usually coming off a three- to five-hour fast right before practice and will need calories to get through a longer practice."
2. Homemade Trail Mix
Nuts, like almonds, peanuts and cashews, provide protein and healthy fats. Mix them with a source of simple carbs, like dried fruit, granola or even bits of pretzels, and you've got the ideal combo. "The athlete has the opportunity to be creative here by mixing and matching their favorite ingredients," says Piattoly. "I usually recommend a combination of almonds, cashews, pumpkin seeds and walnuts (good fat and protein), mixed with dried cranberries and raisins along with fresh granola." Piattoly's other suggested ingredients include dark chocolate, cocoa nibs, whole grain cereal, peanut butter chips, chocolate chips, sunflower seeds and light popcorn.
3. Sports Nutrition Bar
Sports nutrition bars are great because they take the thinking and the prep time out of the equation and give you a portable, non-spoiling meal specifically designed to fuel you for sport. The only drawbacks? They can be expensive, and some have tastes or textures that are less-than-awesome. But with dozens of brands and flavors to choose from, you can experiment and find what works best for you. "Traditional sports bars meet the nutritional need that athletes have before practice," says Roberta Anding, MS, RD, who works with the Houston Texans.
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4. Piece of Fruit with Beef Jerky
Jerky is high in protein and sodium, which can keep you from cramping if you're sweating buckets, and the fruit will be rich in carbs, the fuel that powers you through workouts. "A banana is great," says Erica Giovinazzo, MS, RD, who coaches at CrossFit Brick in New York City. "Take an orange, apple [or a] cup of grapes and a bag of jerky with you for that carb and protein mix."
5. Coconut Water and Protein Powder
Toss a bottle of coconut water and a zip-lock baggie with a scoop or two of your favorite protein powder in your gym bag before you leave for school, then down it an hour before practice starts. "This is a great go-to for pre-workout because it's easily digested and increases your hydration," Giovinazzo says. "Coconut water is also high in potassium, which is important for muscle contractions."
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6. Sports Drinks
Since they don't take long to digest, sports drinks will be in and out of your stomach faster than the solid foods on this list.
Another easily packed snack, pretzels are high in carbohydrates as well as sodium, which you lose through sweat. If you're too low on sodium, you're more likely to cramp.
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8. Energy Chews
Gatorade and CLIF both make gummy-bear-like products loaded with simple carbs that can be broken down quickly to provide energy for your muscles. The Gatorade chews are high in vitamin B6, which helps convert carbs into energy.
Fruit appears on this list quite a few times with other foods, but Nicoletti says you can chomp down on fruit by itself when you're prepping for a workout. "If an athlete is heading right out to the field with little time between classes and practice or a game, I recommend a high carbohydrate snack with little or no fiber or fat," she says. "The purpose is only to top off physical energy and to fuel the brain for mental focus." Some great options include:
- Bananas. They're high in potassium, which can help prevent cramping. Just don't squash it with your math book.
- Apples. A small apple is high in sugar and packs a moderate amount of fiber—enough to make you feel satiated but not heavy.
- Melon/Cantaloupe Slices. If you can slice up a melon after class, the tougher skin will fare better in your knapsack than more delicate fruits.
- Grapes. Toss a handful in a sandwich baggy and pop them in your mouth until you're comfortably full on your way to practice. Like the other fruits on this list, grapes are high in simple sugars that'll give you a jolt off the line when your practice or game starts.