When you think of muscle growth and the nutrients required, protein is probably the first nutrient that comes to mind. But there’s more to growing strong muscles than simply eating a lot of protein. With young athletes in particular, there are a few important things to keep in mind if you’re trying to help them boost muscle mass or even simply maintain it.
Here, TrueSport Expert Kristen Ziesmer, a registered dietitian and board-certified specialist in sports dietetics, shares her favorite recipes that make it easy for your young athlete to get the nutrients they need to support muscle growth. But before we get into the simple recipes, there are a few important reminders parents should keep in mind when it comes to preparing meals for growing athletes:
- Protein is key to muscle growth. The protein intake range for teens is going to be about 1.35 to 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. So, a 120 pound athlete would need between 73 and 87 grams of protein per day, while a 150 pound athlete would need between 92 and 109 grams per day. A typical serving size—roughly a palm of a protein-dense food like tofu or chicken—provides around 20 grams.
- Complete proteins are critical. You likely know that protein is going to be critical for growing muscles, but did you know that some proteins, especially vegan or vegetarian ones, are incomplete? Your athlete needs the full range of amino acids that build a complete protein, and while most animal products (meat and eggs) are complete proteins, many vegan sources like beans and legumes need to be combined with another ingredient like brown rice to make up the full range of necessary amino acids—particularly leucine—for muscle growth.
- Athletes need carbohydrates to encourage muscle growth. “Carbohydrates help to build muscle and I don’t think a lot of people really realize that,” says Ziesmer. “In fact, 50 percent of an athlete’s diet should come from carbohydrates. But quality matters! Whole grains and fruits and vegetables and beans are ideal.” (With carbohydrates, a fist-sized amount is roughly a serving.)
- Vitamin D is a critical vitamin in building muscle mass, and Ziesmer notes that many people are surprisingly deficient in it, especially if you live in a northern climate or aren’t outside in the sun often (sports like swimming or wrestling tend to mean less time outside). She recommends getting vitamin D levels checked by a doctor before using supplements, but adding foods that are fortified with vitamin D (certain milks and yogurts, fatty fish) is a good idea regardless.
- Look for meals that allow athletes to dial in their own serving sizes. The meals we’ve listed below are ideal not just because of their ingredients, but because an athlete (or parent) can increase or decrease portion sizes depending on their activity levels. With that in mind, don’t assume your athlete should eat the same amount as you, Ziesmer cautions. She often sees athletes under-fueling because a parent is on a diet and serving the whole family portions that are too small or skipping critical macronutrients like fat or carbohydrates.
Here are three simple recipes that can be prepared quickly. Feel free to double up on ingredients to create leftovers for lunch or to freeze for busier weeks when it’s hard to make time to cook. These recipes should serve 4-6 people, depending on hunger levels. We’ve also tried to keep ingredients simple and relatively inexpensive: Canned and frozen vegetables are a busy chef’s best friend!
With all these options, allow your athlete to build their own rather than serving them. This lets your athlete add extra protein if they’re feeling hungry and affords them some independence. This is especially helpful for older athletes who will be dealing with the buffet line in college dining halls soon!
And of course, these recipes are just simple starting points for the culinarily-inclined. You can get creative by changing flavor profiles with new spices and sauces, trying new options for rice or grains, and mixing up the proteins. For example, a burrito bowl made with ground beef with salsa and guacamole over rice isn’t that different from making the same bowl with salmon instead of beef, but the flavor profile changes completely.
Three bean chili
- 1 can black beans
- 1 can white beans
- 1 can chickpeas
- 1 large can stewed, diced tomatoes
- 1 can of pureed tomatoes
- 1/2 cup chopped yellow onion (can purchase chopped onion frozen as well)
- 1/2 bag fresh or frozen spinach
- 1-2 cups of any favorite chopped vegetables your athlete prefers: Carrots, peppers, mushrooms, and broccoli are all great options and can be used fresh or frozen
- 5 tablespoons chili powder or chili seasoning
- 2 cups brown rice or quinoa
- Optional: Ground beef, shredded chicken, or vegan alternative
Toppings: Fresh chopped tomatoes, cilantro, sliced avocado or guacamole, cheddar cheese, plain Greek yogurt (a great protein-rich alternative to sour cream), tortilla chips
- If using beef or chicken, sauté in pan until done
- Combine all ingredients except rice and toppings into pot or slow cooker
- Simmer on low for at least an hour on the stove, but ideally for several hours in a slow cooker for optimal flavor. Stir occasionally.
- Make rice separately
- Allow athletes to build their own chili, with rice underneath and their desired toppings