One of the best ways you can help dancers prepare for success during long days of classes or rehearsals is to make sure they are properly fueling their bodies. This is especially important when students are out of town at conventions or competitions and need to plan their meals and snacks ahead of time.
Consider having a conversation with students and their parents about the importance of having healthy snacks and meal options available. “Dancers can’t wait until they’re at the convention and then decide what they want to eat when they are hungry or have a 10-minute break,” says Emily Cook Harrison, a registered dietitian with the Centre for Dance Nutrition who works with dancers at Atlanta Ballet. “It’s all about planning ahead.”
Every dancer has different dietary needs and can find, through trial and error, which foods help them perform their best during full days of dance. But younger dancers will need your help to pick foods that provide energy and focus. DT spoke with three established pros who know what it’s like to be in motion from dawn ’til dusk. Here, they share what they eat before the workout begins, plus snacks that keep them going after lunch (without slowing them down) and their favorite recovery foods for after the dancing is done. Harrison comments on their choices.
Ida Saki, Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet
Breakfast: Saki starts her day with a focus on protein, because she found that cereal or a bagel didn’t stave off hunger long enough for the amount of athleticism required as a professional dancer. “I’m a big fan of having one egg, a whole bunch of egg whites, and cooking it all with a pan full of vegetables,” she says. “Or I’ll make a smoothie with kale or spinach or whatever vegetables are in the fridge with peanut butter, a banana or berries.” She also adds chia seeds or ground flaxseed to her smoothies, which can provide an energy boost.
Snacks: Saki loves to have almonds for an afternoon snack because they have protein and are easy to pack in her dance bag. She sometimes opts for a banana with peanut butter.
Recovery food: “I always like to have a ginormous salad with chicken and maybe a little bit of fruit, because it’s the easiest thing to make when you’re tired and hungry,” Saki says, adding that she listens to her body’s cravings. “If I’m really craving a burger, I get a burger.”
Advice she would give to her younger self: “Don’t grab the first thing you see. It really does affect your day,” she says. “Be curious about the food you eat and be aware of how much it affects your mood, your day and your dancing.”
What the dietitian says: “It sounds like she is getting plenty of protein, but don’t forget that carbohydrates are the preferred source of fuel for any athletic activity. Whole grains like quinoa, rice, millet, buckwheat and oats are powerhouses of low-glycemic carbs, B vitamins and minerals.”
Emily McTernan, The Beatles LOVE with Cirque du Soleil
Breakfast: McTernan’s breakfast always includes some kind of protein. “I feel it gives me the energy to get through a two-show day,” she says. “I really love multigrain toast with a bit of peanut butter and half a grapefruit, and if I have the time, I enjoy scrambled egg whites.”
Snacks: Avocado with a drizzle of salsa or a Greek yogurt with berries hit the mark before a show. Between shows, McTernan may snack on raw veggies—carrots and cucumbers, usually—although she also has almonds, an apple or dried cranberries.
Recovery food: McTernan’s go-to recovery meal is salmon and sautéed spinach. She also likes blueberries and red/yellow peppers and has found sour cherry juice helpful when she needs to combat soreness.
Advice she would give to her younger self: “As a teen I was so caught up with what others around me were doing and eating,” McTernan says. “Just because my friends were vegan, gluten-free or dairy-free didn’t mean I needed to be. I’ve learned as a professional dancer you have to make habits and eat the way your body needs you to. It’s all about moderation—if my body needs a lean piece of steak and dark chocolate, that’s what I’m going to eat.”
What the dietitian says: “Her breakfast is excellent, with a nice mix of protein, whole grains and fruit. She brings snacks of fruits and veggies with her for smart choices for energy foods during breaks.”
Breakfast: Klock has a green smoothie because it allows her to eat a lot of vegetables in the morning. “It’s surprising what tastes good,” she says. She often combines frozen mango, half a frozen banana, raw honey, kale and chia seeds or flaxseeds.
Snacks: “All snacks are not created equal. Quality is important,” Klock says. She likes raw cashews or almonds, and if she needs a burst of energy, she’ll have dried fruit. When the company is on tour, she might have a vegan energy bar called Heart Thrive, which she buys in bulk online.
Recovery food: Right after a show, Klock eats a banana. “My body needs that potassium right after working hard,” she says.
Advice she would give to her younger self: “There is a difference between feeding your body when it’s hungry and fueling yourself to perform well,” she says. “Eat real, nonprocessed food, instead of what is easiest. You might have to work a little harder, but it makes a difference.”
What the dietitian says: “She is getting lots of superfoods and excellent plant-based proteins. She’s right that our tastes change over time. When you feed yourself healthy food, your body learns to crave that instead of overly processed convenience junk.” DT
Pack-Ahead Snack Ideas
- For a burst of energy on the go, eat a handful of mini pretzels or whole-grain crackers, a small bag of grapes or carrot sticks, a banana or a box of raisins.
- For an easy lunch, make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole-grain bread. Peanut butter is a great source of healthy protein, and it doesn’t even need to be refrigerated.
- For a convenient recovery food between classes or performances, try a prepackaged 8-ounce serving of vanilla or chocolate soy milk or shelf-stable regular milk.
- The day before, make a green or fruit smoothie, put it into mini mason jars and then freeze it. Put one in a cooler the next day for breakfast on-the-go or lunch. Kids love it because it’s like eating a sorbet.
- If you shop for energy bars, keep in mind that many have as much sugar as a candy bar. Look for brands that have less than 7–15 grams of sugar and about 8 grams of protein.
Source: Emily Cook Harrison, a registered dietitian with the Centre for Dance Nutrition who works with dancers at Atlanta Ballet
Photos from top: by Sharen Bradford, Renata de Almeida, both courtesy of Cedar Lake; by Gordan Vukovic, courtesy of Cirque du Soleil; Quinn Wharton, courtesy of Hubbard Street