(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!
Full disclosure: this isn’t exactly a recipe? Because, like, it’s not that precise, really, and honestly, you could figure it out just fine without me.
But, anyway. Here it is.
Ingredients (I said it wasn’t that precise ^-^)
- Two large-ish portobello mushroom caps
- A bunch of soy sauce
- Some cooking sherry, or white wine, or vinegar, or something along those lines
- Olive oil
- Shredded cheese (optional)
Directions (umm, yeah … so these aren’t gonna be precise either)
- Rinse/wash the mushrooms as needed.
- Stick the mushrooms gills-up in a container, ideally with a lid, that’ll let them sit side-by-side. Probably pop the stems off if you’re using them as burgers.
- Pour in kind of a lot of soy sauce and about the same amount of cooking sherry (or whatever).
- Put the lid on the container and shake it up to mix everything and get the sauce into the gills.
- Stick the whole shebang into the fridge. Marinade for a couple of hours or go all out and just plain forget to cook it for a day and a half.
- Heat up your grill pan (mediumish heat) or any pan with a heavy bottom (also mediumish heat) or your Foreman-type grill. Brush on a little olive oil. Toss in some salt and pepper, to taste.
- Stick the marinated mushrooms in there, gills up. Cover and let cook for a bit so the mushrooms can get nice and soft.
- Add some cheese to the inside of the cup of the mushroom if you want. Cover again so the cheese can get nice and bubbly.
- I totally failed to time these, so just … cook for a while. I probably did mine for about 15 minutes or so, and they were nice and soft-chewy.
Serve however you like: on buns, not on buns, on toast, on tortillas, sliced over a salad … with pickles, lettuce, tomatoes, catsup, and mustard, or whatever else works for you … naked except for a single grilled cherry tomato. You do you.
I served mine on one-sided toast with a romaine leaf, pickles, mustard, and (for me) catsup.
I seriously did completely forget to cook these for at least 36 hours, and they turned out beautifully. Denis actually ate his, and there wasn’t any meat involved, like, at all (though there was cheese, and he does love cheese).
Sadly, I failed to take even one picture of any stage of this process. I guess I’ll just have to order more portobello caps with next week’s groceries so I can do that part. Sometimes you just have to take one for the team ^-^
Upfront disclaimer/disclosure thing: I am definitely not a nutritionist, as you’ll probably realize if you read the rest of this post, which is mostly about stupid food-related mistakes I made last season. This post is not intended to diagnose or treat any medical condition, nor should it be taken as advice, unless the advice is: If you have questions about feeding yourself as a dancer, maybe go ask someone who really knows their stuff.
I’ve written about food before. Probably a lot. I like food, though I struggle with food sometimes. I also generally quite like eating.
- Except, apparently, when I don’t. I’ve recently experienced a baffling lack of interest in food itself: I’ve been in this place in which I would be perfectly content to live on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, or really whatever requires the least thought or effort, day in and day out.
On the whole, I’ve felt like I’ve had a pretty good grasp of basic nutritional science (hard to get through a Bachelor’s of Science degree that includes Anatomy & Physiology without understanding at least a bit).
I’m sufficiently equipped that I mostly manage to steer clear of trends based on junk science or poor data and to regard with equanimity the ones that might, in terms of their originators’ ideas about science, be based on shaky logic, but which still work well for people in practice because they’re motivating in whatever way and manage to get the various nutrients in.
What I haven’t had, as I discovered over the 2019-2020 ballet season, was the slightest shade of an idea as to how to actually feed myself for performance while dancing 30 hours per week, teaching about six hours per week, and driving an extra 80-90 minutes per day 2-3 days per week between those two gigs.
This was especially difficult on days when I left my teaching job at 8:30 PM and didn’t arrive home until after 9, chronically underfed (though I usually didn’t realize that) and with little time to eat, shower, prepare food for the next day, and wind down before I had to be asleep.
To a great extent, this was my own darned fault.
I extrapolated as follows:
- P1: I have a fairly sound working knowledge of basic nutritional science.
- P2: An awful lot of the nutritional advice I know how to find runs contrary to basic nutritional science.
- P3: I am broke and can’t afford to go see a nutritionist.
- Therefore, I should just stick with what I’m doing.
Or, well, something like that.
Yes, y’all, I am an idiot. Sometimes, anyway. Even often.
I think I also wasn’t sure who to ask: like, let’s be frank. Dancers are mostly paid what is known, in the technical language of economics, as “bupkis.” Or possibly “peanuts.” (In fact, since I have volunteered at events where one of the perks was free access to peanut-based trail mix, I can literally say that I’ve worked for peanuts. Hmmmm.)
Regardless, dancers be broke, and qualified nutritionists who have adequate knowledge of the nutritional requirements of full-time ballet dancers be … not cheap. (Nor should they be. They train for years to master their specialty, just like we do.)
So you had better believe that when I learned that LouBallet’s MindBodyBalance program was hosting a Zoom-based nutrition workshop with an actual qualified person who actually understood things about how to feed dancers, I jumped right on that enroll button.
Anyway, today, Becky Lindberg Schroeder of Lindberg Elite Nutrition (she’s also on Insta!) gave us a really solid talk, with time for discussion, about how to feed ourselves for performance as dancers.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I realized I’d been going about things … well, not all wrong, but wrong enough.
The two most important things I’ve been doing were basically:
- Not eating enough
- Not eating often enough.
Somehow, I felt like I shouldn’t be eating during the 5-minute break between class and the beginning of rehearsal. I would usually surreptitiously scarf an apple, but I felt like I shouldn’t.
Honestly, I think I just noticed that few of my fellow dancers shoved a snack into their faces during that interval. Outside the studio, I’m fairly resistant to peer pressure, but life inside the ballet studio is different, especially as an apprentice who doesn’t feel super confident about his place in the company.
Now that I’m writing that “out loud,” of course, it seems kind of dumb.
You can’t stuff yourself with a huge breakfast before class if you want to get through class without, at best, being miserable or, at worst, puking … but if you eat a lighter breakfast at 8:30, by the time class is over at 11:30, it seems entirely reasonable to assume that you’re going need to top up your fuel tank.
If you try to hold out until lunch break at 1, you’re likely to be hangry before you get there. (Regarding which: yes. On days that I’ve failed to eat any kind of snack at all, I’ve usually been deeply hangry before lunch break rolled around.)
Becky’s suggestion that we eat every 3-4 hours made that all make sense. In fact, it makes so much sense that I’m now wondering how I failed to grasp it before. Then again, that’s why she’s a high-performance nutritionist, and I’m not.
Perhaps even more importantly, I don’t think I really understood the effects of chronically low blood sugar on both performance and body composition.
Becky showed us a diagram illustrating the point that the range in which the human body works best falls between 80 and 100. My fasting blood sugar is rarely higher than 70 (I forget what the units in question are right now, sorry). I’m impressed if it’s 72; the one time in my life it was as high as (GASP!) 74, I wondered if I’d randomly awakened and eaten something in the middle of the night and forgotten about it.
Anyway, <70 is low. The typical response that garners during a medical exam is basically, “Cool, no need to worry about diabetes!”
But it turns out that when your blood sugar level is low, your body really does burn muscle and hold onto fat. I kind of knew that: we’ve all heard of “starvation mode.” What I didn’t know was that your body doesn’t wait around for a couple of weeks before heading down that road.
So, in short, I probably wasn’t doing myself any favors by avoiding carbs in the morning.
This certainly explains why I’ve felt better on the rare morning that I impulsively threw a donut into the mix because I happened to stop for gas, or had to use ACTUAL SUGAR in my coffee because I ran out of stevia, or whatever.
If you’re starting with basically an empty tank, putting anything in it is going to help. It’s not like you’re body’s going to ignore fuel simply because it’s not Eleventy Octane Super Premium Ultra Plus, Now With Scrubbing Bubbles.
Your body, at that point, just wants ANYTHING. And if you don’t give it something, it’s going to assume that it should hold on to its emergency stores and tap the muscles instead.
That might also explain why basically surrendering to chronic disorganization, purchasing an immersion blender, and just making huge smoothies with some protein stuff (usually pasteurized eggs) and a handful of trail mix (peanuts and almonds … protein and fat in one happy little package) for breakfast and packing more of said trail mix to eat with lunch correlated with an unexpected drop in my body fat percentage.
Obviously, without a controlled experiment, causality is danged hard to determine–but in retrospect, it seems like maybe one way of accidentally starving myself was worse than the other. The one that gave me some carbs, protein, and fat, while still not ideal, was probably less bad.
I also made the mistake of thinking that my other frequent snack choice–inexpensive protein bars, because broke–was somehow … not good enough. Again, that seems silly now. The protein bars in question may be fairly processed (though they’re still mostly made of things that are recognizeable as food, albeit in small chunks), but they do the job of being quick and easy to eat when “quick and easy” are probably the most important criteria. You might have the best apple in the world, but if that’s all you’ve got, and you can’t finish it in 5 minutes, it’s not going to do the job.
Anyway, the most important takeaway for me was that I need to eat more, and to eat more often, than I did last season. Well, that, and to not eschew nutrition in bar form, because that’s often going to be my best bet.
My breakfasts, snacks, and lunches were uniformly underpowered last year (I’m not going to say “too small”), while my dinners were … spotty. I didn’t have time for a full meal between rehearsal and teaching, so by the time my classes let out, I was both incredibly hangry and in no position to drive for 40-50 minutes without eating.
Since I would, inevitably, have also run through the woefully-inadequate supply of food I had packed for the day, I typically resorted to drive-through dining, but usually (in an effort to reduce the artery-clogging effects of fast food) I’d get the smallest meal I could find.
Then I’d be mad at myself when I was starving at 10 PM, or wonder why I was so hungry at 1 AM that I woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep without eating something.
You guys. In retrospect, I’m really trying to figure out … like … how I didn’t figure it out -.-
Part of the problem was my tool set. Basically, I was whacking away with a hammer, mentally screaming, “Why is it so hard to saw through this log???!!!!” I kept focusing on how to eat better at dinner time, when I would’ve done better to just eat a little more and a little better across the whole day.
Anyway, one of Becky’s smart, actionable suggestions was to literally write out your daily schedule (not too obsessively: sometimes lunch break is at 12:53; sometimes we get really into rehearsal and at 1:30 Mr D looks up and goes “OMG, sorry, you guys! I haven’t given you a lunch break!”) and figure out how to feed yourself around it.
Which … oh, my G-d. That’s brilliant.
Becky’s presentation also introduced Team USA’s Athlete Plates–three useful visual guides to adjusting nutrition for the demands of your day. They’re less about telling you specifically what to eat than suggesting how to proportion your meals to keep yourself well-fueled. This is exactly the kind of information delivery I’ve been yearning for: visual, so you can use it at a glance, but with lots of deeper information readily available.
- You can find PDF guides to the Athlete Plates, along with lots of other great information about nutrition for athletes, on Team USA’s Nutrition page.
In short, I came away from this workshop with a much better sense of how I, a broke-ass dancer with ADHD and time-management challenges, can make a plan to keep myself well-fueled that actually fits into my life.
So that’ll be Part 2 of this post … because right now it’s dinner time, and I’m hungry.
Four of these run less than $4 at Aldi.
Coupled with a tortilla or flatbread, one of them makes a nice utensil-free main course at lunch. You can dump the chicken salad straight onto the tortilla and then use the edge of the tortilla to scoop out any that doesn’t dump.
I would say my goal is to eat a healthy, balanced lunch, but really right now it’s just to shove enough food in my face so I don’t eat everything that holds still long enough when I get home (I’m not currently feeling epic salads, for some reason).
So there you go. These and a pack of Aldi’s flatbreads gets you a decent main course for less than $2/lunch. Add Greek yogurt (low sugar for me; too much and I’ll be cranky an hour later) and maybe some store-brand Grape Nuts and you’ve got a decent, inexpensive meal to get you through the afternoon.
… I suspect you may have reached Maximum Irony when you first offered up what sounds like a great recipe for nut-free fruitcake…
… and then suggested TOPPING IT WITH ROWS OF NUTS*.
*I realize that this is, in fact, a totally valid configuration for people who aren't allergic to nuts and maybe just want their fruitcake to really, really feature the nuts.