As a dancer, dietitian, and Mom, I spend a large amount of time in the kitchen. Whether it’s trialing new flavors or experimenting with recipes, I’ve come to embrace cooking as a joyful activity. But it wasn’t always so seamless.
I’ve previously discussed the challenges that I’ve faced as a dancer who struggled with disordered eating. During this time, “clean” eating goals translated into rigid food rules that made cooking increasingly cumbersome and stressful. An obsession with ingredients and the desire to “healthify” every recipe— to ensure the meal fits into the parameters of what I thought was “healthy.” It wasn’t until I began to heal my relationship with food that I realized how much my time spent cooking was actually derailing my recovery.
If you’re a dancer who has or is currently struggling with disordered eating, or perhaps you’re attempting to abide by strict “clean” eating rules, then cooking can easily become a daunting task. In this blog post, we will explore the reasons why cooking can be an unexpected challenge for dancers, and how to rekindle this activity in a way that feels joyful and supportive.
Cooking and disordered eating
Whether or not a diagnosed eating disorder exists, there’s an emotional toll that persists for dancers around food. For many, nutrition information can be a leading factor that imposes guilt and anxiety at mealtimes. Rather than being a tool to help your performance, cooking becomes a trigger of anxieties about calorie counts, portion sizes, and nutritional content. Some of the most common reasons why dancers might struggle in the kitchen include:
- A fear of weight gain.
- An obsession with “healthy” and “clean” foods.
- A desire for control over what and how much is eaten.
- A lack of culinary skills (mainly for younger dancers)
- Fears about making mistakes or an overall sense of inadequacy.
However, not all dancers will perceive these attributes as struggles. In fact, the desire to control your food often offers a degree of comfort, allowing you to take the wheel on what feels like health- and performance-promoting behaviors. But even in these instances, your time in the kitchen can become consuming, preventing you from dining out or experiencing food outside your immediate control.
A dancer’s relationship with cooking is unique
For every dancer who feels supported by meal prep and cooking, there’s a dancer who might be feeling the daunting anxieties of it. For every dancer who prefers the ease of eating out, there’s a dancer who fears not knowing every ingredient in their meal. For every dancer who feels most nourished by prepping their own meals, there’s a dancer who will be more nourished by not prepping their own meal. Regardless of where you stand, you can regain confidence in the kitchen by shifting your perspective about the role of cooking in your life.
5 Steps To Regain Confidence In The Kitchen
#1: Make it manageable
Learning how to meal prep and cook is a basic necessity that will support dancers for the long haul. It’s about survival— offering a practical and functional tool to support your body’s baseline nourishment. At this moment, the goal is to reduce mealtime frustration as much as possible. Start with simple, manageable recipes and gradually expand their culinary repertoire. These recipes can start with ingredients that require little prep work— pre-packaged or frozen meals are an example. From there, accessible additions like frozen fruits and veggies, and pre-cooked ingredients (chicken strips, rice) can be added. Stocking your fridge and pantry with versatile ingredients like canned beans, chicken (or veggie) stock, oil/butter, seasonings (salt, pepper, and seasoning mixes), along with starches like pasta, rice, bread, and potatoes will help to prevent instances of scarcity when it comes time to cook. For dancers with a limited budget, here’s a list of tricks to consider when stocking your kitchen with supplies.
#2: Identify personal mealtime pleasure
Once you’ve formulated a manageable prep plan, consider how to incorporate pleasure and satisfaction. For some dancers, recreating dishes from nostalgic eating experiences is a great start. Is there a dish you enjoyed prior to your experience with disordered eating Bookmarking a few easy recipes will also help to avoid anxiety around deciding what to eat. Remember, you’ll still want to actively ease mealtime frustration and therefore, it’s still encouraged that you’re choosing relatively simple recipes.
might bring on additional challenges, but it’s a strategic task as you work to rebuild your relationship with cooking. Mindful eating patterns can help in the process.
#3: Check in with lurking food rules
Regarding pleasure, cooking can offer a therapeutic and creative outlet. Ultimately, cooking allows you to take charge of your fuel plan (without obsessing), experiment with nourishing ingredients (without obsessing), and even build an appreciation for the sensory aspects of food. But for many dancers, the most challenging task is recreating dishes without the feeling of needing to “healthify” them.
Skimping on ingredients like fats (butter, oil) and salt is common, along with needing to avoid “white” flour and sugar. I’ve previously debunked myths surrounding most of these foods (see below for a list)— dismantling the misconceptions around these foods will greatly help to broaden your recipe repertoire. To learn more about satisfaction and the role it can serve you as a dancer, read this.
#4: Set yourself up for success
Maintaining an adequate meal plan should coincide with your time spent in the kitchen. If you’re cooking on an empty stomach, you’ll be more likely to experience a cycle of feeling out of control around food (inability to honor fullness and a likelihood of entering an “all-or-nothing” mindset for that meal. In the work I do with dancers, achieving the point of nourishment means relying on flexible meal planning to prevent instances of extreme hunger. For dancers who struggle with busy schedules, relying on a handful of convenient snacks like bars, trail mix, and fruit will be incredibly helpful during the cooking process.
#5: Seek support
Healing your relationship with both food and cooking is a challenging journey, and it can be even more daunting if you feel isolated. Building a supportive community of friends, family, or fellow dancers who understand your struggles can make the process more manageable. Encouragement and shared cooking experiences can boost confidence and motivation. Dancers can organize cooking gatherings, exchange recipes, and share their successes and challenges, creating a network of support and understanding. In fact, my annual ambassador program is meant for exactly this— reducing the stigma around eating and empowering dancers to embrace food as a supportive tool that goes beyond its functional benefit for performance.