In an “ideal” world, we, as parents, manage to plan meals, then prep and set perfectly portioned plates for all family members at dinnertime each weeknight. But whose reality is that? Instead, we’re constantly tackling the after-work shuffle and post-school hustle that typically entails car pools, (more) driving to the dance studio or other practices, and throwing some packaged snacks into bags to hold everyone over until later that evening.
And while there may be lots of articles about dancer nutrition—the best foods for dancers, recipes for dancers by dancers, and the diet trends to incorporate or ignore, who is actually preparing the meals?
Here are some nutritionist and parent-approved tips and tricks for feeding your dancers on the go.
Sandwiches rule: “First and foremost, we need to dispel the myth that there are perfect foods or correct ways dancers need to eat,” says Val Schonberg, a registered, licensed dietitian who specializes in sports dietetics. A former dance mom who juggled her daughter’s evening classes and rehearsals with her son’s soccer schedule, Schonberg stresses that it doesn’t have to be complicated.
Enter, the simple sandwich. “Throw together some deli meat, a few spinach leaves and a slice of tomato and cheese with mayo or hummus on bread or in a wrap,” she says. “Even white bread is fine. White foods are so demonized in our society, yet those items are really important for athletes because they’re easily digested and quick energy sources to fuel activity.”
Registered dietitian and frequent Dance Magazine contributor Rachel Fine also loves sandwiches for on-the-go meals. “The goal is to incorporate three macronutrients—protein, carbohydrates and fat—and a sandwich or wrap makes it so easy to get those ingredients together.”
For easy-to-make alternatives, Schonberg recommends chicken salad and a chicken and rice soup packed in a thermos (recipes follow). Fine recommends legume-based pastas, like chickpea pasta, for some extra protein.
Snacks are necessary: For those long stretches of class and rehearsals, it’s important for dancers to eat as much as they can tolerate. “In addition to that sandwich, I would pack a baggie of crackers or chips, sliced and spiced apples, and maybe even yogurt or some string cheese,” says Schonberg. “My daughter would munch on it all throughout the night, and it all ends up being quite balanced.” Schonberg also recommends Cutie oranges—quick to peel and a great source of vitamin C—or a frozen juice box that’s 100 percent apple juice that’ll thaw into a slushy consistency by the evening.
Watch the fiber: While digestion and food toleration are unique to every individual, items that are super-high in fiber—like raw veggies, for instance—may cause some dancers discomfort in between classes, says Fine. “Restrictive food rules can lead to pretty disordered eating behaviors, so I would never use the word ‘avoid,’” she cautions. “But it’s key to make sure there isn’t discomfort.”
Schonberg advises parents to throw out any food rules they think they’ve heard and let dancers test what their stomachs tolerate. Some dancers may say they can’t eat anything before activity, “But what have they actually tried?” she asks. “It’s about learning what you tolerate through trial and error. Maybe that’s a banana or some toast with a little peanut butter, or it could also be some Greek yogurt.”
Embrace the late-night dinner: The “Don’t eat a meal after a certain time” rule is also just a myth. “There’s no research to back up that eating later in the evening isn’t healthy,” says Fine. “Instead, dancers should take advantage of having a bigger dinner when they’re back at home for their recovery.”
Schonberg agrees: “Our dancers are logging in a lot of hours. Focusing on recovery nutrition ensures they’re ready for their next day.” Depending on a dancer’s hunger level and when they last had a full meal—perhaps an 11:15 am school lunch—a dancer might choose anything between yogurt with berries and nuts to a full bowl of reheated chili (recipe follows). “As much as we want to have those idealistic family meals, it’s much more important for our dancers to eat full meals whenever they can.”
Easy Chicken Salad
1 lb cooked chicken breast, diced or shredded
1/2 cup light mayonnaise or plain Greek yogurt (or a 1:1 blend of both)
1/2 cup diced celery
1 tbsp lemon juice, to taste
1/2 tsp celery seed
salt and pepper, to taste
1/4 cup chopped walnuts (optional)
In a large bowl, combine all ingredients and mix well. Serve on whole-grain bread, wrap in a tortilla, or eat alongside crackers.
1 1/2 lbs ground beef or turkey
1 1/2 cups chopped onion
1 cup chopped green bell pepper
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 to 3 cans (15 oz each) kidney beans, rinsed and drained (Schonberg uses 1 can only for family preferences)
2 cans (15 oz each) tomato sauce
1 can (about 14 oz) diced tomatoes, undrained
2 to 3 tsps chili powder, to taste
1 to 2 tsps dry hot mustard
1/2 tsp dried basil
1/2 tsp black pepper
Cook and stir ground beef or turkey, onion, bell pepper and garlic in a large skillet until meat is browned and onion is tender. Drain and discard fat. Transfer mixture to a slow cooker. Add beans, tomato sauce, tomatoes with juice, chili powder, mustard, basil and black pepper; mix well. Cover and cook on high for 4 to 5 hours, or on low for 8 to 10 hours.
Chicken and Rice Soup (derived from Well Plated by Erin)
2 tsps olive oil
4 medium carrots, peeled and diced (about 2 1/2 cups)
3 medium celery stalks, diced (about 2/3 cup)
1/2 cup diced yellow onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
1 cup uncooked brown rice, rinsed and drained
1 1/2 lbs boneless, skinless chicken breasts or thighs
6 to 8 cups chicken stock, divided
1 bay leaf
6 sprigs fresh thyme
2 tbsps lemon juice, to taste
Lightly coat a 5-quart slow cooker with nonstick spray. Heat the olive oil in a large pan over medium heat. Add the carrots, celery and onion and cook until the vegetables begin to soften, about 8 to 10 minutes. Stir in the garlic, salt and pepper. Then transfer the mixture to the slow cooker.
Add the rice to the slow cooker. Arrange the chicken breasts on top, then pour in 6 cups of the chicken stock. Add the bay leaf and thyme. Cover and cook on low for 5 to 6 hours (or on high for 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 hours) until the rice is tender and the chicken is cooked through. The chicken is done when it registers 165°F at its thickest part. Pro tip: Check the chicken early—if it’s finished cooking before the rice, remove the chicken (to prevent it from overcooking and becoming dry) and re-cover the slow cooker until the rice is tender.
Remove and discard the bay leaf and thyme stems. Place the chicken on a cutting board and shred. When the rice is done, return the chicken to the slow cooker. Stir in the lemon juice. Add additional stock for a thinner soup consistency. Season to taste.