DancerLife: Food, Part 2-Make A Plan
(You can find Part 1 here.)
Last month, I attended a really great Zoom workshop with Becky Lindberg Schroeder on nutrition for dancers and realized that I’ve been doing a few really important things wrong. Part 1 of this series covers some of the important insights that came out of that workshop, but I’ll review them in brief so you don’t have to go back and read the whole thing if you’re not feeling it:
- Eat more
- Eat more often
- Eat a snack
- Eat some d%$#n carbs for breakfast
- MAKE A PLAN (but keep it flexible)
My blood sugar skews low, with overnight fasting levels around 70 (the “normal” fasting range is 80-100). This means that, for me, including a mix of faster-burning carbs and slower-burning carbs (along with some protein and fat) in the morning fuel mix is a really good idea.
I really liked Becky’s suggestion for planning: write out a basic picture of your daily schedule by hand, so you can see where you might need to add some fuel to the tank, then plan accordingly.
Step 1: Plan When To Eat
If you’re in a sedentary job, you can probably get away with eating three times a day or so. If you’re a dancer, though, there are sound arguments to be made in favor of eating every 3-4 hours: not huge meals every time, but just enough to keep the engine ticking over smoothly. (If you’re someone who straddles both worlds, with school during the day or a 9-5 desk job and a busy class/rehearsal schedule, a hybrid approach might work.)
My first step was to sketch out a loose version of my schedule and then plug in little notes to tell myself when to eat. I put boxes around them because I’m a pretty visual thinker and I find it helpful to make them stand out.
It’s worth mentioning that as dancers, we often have quite different schedules during regular rehearsal weeks and during Theater Weeks.
Since Theater Weeks comprise a whole different animal, and also because I’m not even sure what they’ll look like this year, I’ll give them their own post later on. For now, here’s a rough sketch of my typical schedule during a normal week:
Even though my days are still a little vague after 3:30 PM, since I don’t actually know for sure yet at what times I’ll be teaching, writing out my schedule helped me understand how long some of its blocks are.
Like, if I don’t eat a snack between breakfast (which I try to eat around 9 AM, but occasionally eat earlier) and lunch (which nominally happens a little after 1 PM, but sometimes gets bumped later), I’m pushing my luck in terms of keeping myself adequately fueled.
It makes more sense to actually eat a snack during the break between class and rehearsal. That way, I can keep my blood sugar a bit steadier, and won’t want to murder someone by the end of the first rehearsal block of the day. Or, well … I probably won’t want to murder someone. Or at any rate I won’t want to murder someone simply because my blood sugar is low.
Likewise, if I don’t eat something between the end of the second rehearsal block and the various things I do after rehearsal, I should really not be surprised if I can barely function when I’m done with my evening stuff.
Last year I was teaching until 8:15 PM some 40 minutes from my work-week home a couple nights a week.
And yet, for some reason, I suffered under the delusion that it was a good idea to wait until I got home to eat.
WHAT THE ACTUAL HECK, FRIENDOS.
Basically, that meant finishing rehearsal between 3 and 3:30 PM, driving to my teaching job, then teaching for like four hours, then driving home without passing out, then somehow eating something actually worthwhile, at like 9:30 at night, when I just wanted to lie down and read.
That, needless to say, was not a good plan. All too often, it devolved into, “I’m picking up a $5 Hot-N-Ready so I won’t wrap my car around a tree.”
My schedule this year will be a little different, but my typical day will still be pretty long. I’ll be doing strength training and taking evening class on days that I don’t teach, so most of the time my working day will end around 7 PM.
So, in terms of when to eat, my basic (flexible) plan includes breakfast around 9 AM, a snack around 11:30 AM, lunch around 1 PM, another snack somewhere between 3:30 PM and 4 PM, and possibly another around 7 PM, if my day’s going to run later than that. I’ll eat dinner either when I get home or on the way home.
Step 2: Plan What To Eat
Now that I’ve figured out when to eat, it makes sense to put some thought into what to eat–that is, the specifics.
Last year, I had decent success with breakfast smoothies that included some pasteurized egg whites for protein, but in retrospect they could’ve used more calories, really any fat, and probably also some toast or something to add some slower-burning carbs.
I also had reasonable success with PBJs made with natural chunky peanut butter on multigrain & flax toast, though one of those by itself isn’t quite enough. Two might work.
Greek yogurt with fruit and generic Grape Nuts was … somewhere in the middle. It might’ve worked better if I used full-fat yogurt, which would’ve raised the overall calorie count and helped breakfast burn off more slowly. Even then, though, it takes a LOT of that particular dish to equal the caloric burn of morning class alone, let alone morning class plus the first rehearsal block.
I did not have much success with the, “Oh crap, I spent too much time reading, guess I’ll shove an apple and a granola bar into my face” breakfast. The last 30-45 mins of the first rehearsal block were uniformly brutal on those days, especially if my snack selection was, “Oh, look, another apple.”
Don’t get me wrong–I love apples. Apples are a perfect, portable, essentially waste-free snack food. They just aren’t built to keep you afloat by themselves when you’re burning as much energy as ballet requires. Plus, eating one can take a while.
So breakfast for this coming season is probably not going to be just smoothies or just apples.
I didn’t help anything by shifting my lunch plan towards “even more yogurt,” or “heck it, I’ll just eat some granola bars” because I got tired of trying to scarf down entire huge salads in 30 minutes (and also of carrying huge salads around with me).
In retrospect, the best solution I found for lunch was chicken salad with almonds and cranberries that I got in little puck-sized packages from ALDI, and something along those lines is probably a solid option. The packaging was recyclable, so I wasn’t left with a lot of dishes I didn’t want to wash–but since the same stuff is available in a larger package (also recyclable), I might just get those. They can be kept cold in a lunch bag small enough to go inside my dance bag and combined with nonperishable wraps to make an easy-to-eat lunch with a decent nutritional profile.
I might also try bringing prepared smoothies as a side dish–I have neat little zipper pouches that let you make smoothies and freeze them in portable portions (that then double as ice blocks!), or maybe I’ll just pack them in freezable plastic screw-top jars, which are easier to clean (glass jars are out–I’m not careful enough with my lunch bag for that!).
Hummus, previously a frequent main dish for lunch, will stay on as a side dish. I’ll add some pretzels to go with it.
For snacks, apples, protein bars, granola bars, and trail mix will continue to play featured roles, and I’ll probably relax my admittedly-obsessive rules about sugar a bit, which will greatly expand the options.
I’ll also probably keep applesauce packets in the mix, especially for days when my blood sugar does tank (because I’m not a perfect planner, or even a good planner–I’m a barely-adequate planner, and I am guaranteed to get it wrong sometimes).
Becky Lindberg pointed out that protein bars, even the inexpensive ones, can be really useful for dancers: they’re concentrated sources of protein and calories, and easy to eat when you need to stay fueled up but don’t have time for a meal.
My gigantic salads will probably move to the dinner slot. They’re filling, easy to prepare, and easy to round out with the addition of some kind of protein and some slower-burning carbs.
If I’m going to be working later than 7 PM, I won’t make the mistake of thinking I can wait until I get home to eat. I’ll either figure out a fairly-substantial meal that keeps well all day and can be eaten in the car or accept that working late might sometimes mean hitting a drive-thru for dinner, which in turn means choosing something that’s inexpensive but nutritionally decent.
I’m lucky in that I don’t actually have to worry about salt intake–or, rather, I have to worry about it in the opposite of the usual way. I sweat like crazy and lose a lot of salt in my sweat, so the challenge for me is taking in enough salt (and electrolytes in general) to replace what I lose in class and rehearsal. That means quite a few of Subway’s options are possibilities, since you can trick them out with all the vegetables and keep things fairly healthful.
Step 3: When Your Body Says Eat, Maybe Listen?
Possibly the biggest mistake I made last year was just plain not eating enough.
I would find that I was hungry at 10 PM and dismiss it as boredom rather than hunger, when in fact, after reviewing my eating habits over the course of the season, I often had every right to be hungry.
A lot of the time, I just plain wasn’t eating enough. I was legitimately hungry at 10 PM. I probably wouldn’t have been if I’d eaten enough in the first place, but I plan to make a habit of accepting the reality that the physical demands of my schedule are such that sometimes a 10 PM snack is a good idea.
Anyway, that’s the outline of the plan. I’ll cover the details and the Theater Week version in coming posts, but for now, I’m going to go eat something!