I often stress the importance of making time in your schedule to sit back, relax, and enjoy the mindful experience of a meal. However, busy days are bound to fill our schedules, especially during the summer intensive season. It’s in these instances when meal planning becomes key to a dancer’s diet. Since intense dance schedules can leave hunger cues unnoticeable, planning meals and snacks is critical for preventing energy dips and appetite surges later in the day.
But how can dancers plan for an upcoming day of rehearsals or performances? Let’s break it down:
3-4 hours prior to dancing
With ample time to digest beforehand, an adequate meal can be the perfect opportunity for you to supply your body with the tools needed for optimal performance. About 3-4 hours prior to dancing, plan a meal that focuses on complex carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates, which are found in whole grains, legumes, and starchy vegetables like potatoes and squash, contain longer chains of sugar molecules. These foods take more time for the body to break down and use, which provides your body with a steady flow of energy.
If your classes begin in the afternoon, then build a lunch using a grain such as wild rice or quinoa, and pair with a protein like baked fish, chicken, or tofu. If your classes begin earlier in the day, then aim for a balanced breakfast using slow-cooked oats paired with bananas and a generous serving of nut- or seed- butter. Eggs served with a whole grain avocado toast is another great option! Adding a source of fat like avocadoes, nuts, seeds, or butter to your meal aids with vitamin absorption and increases your overall level of satisfaction.
If you have an early morning workout or class, but you’re not an early riser, then don’t stress about eating 3-4 hours in advance. Think of this fueling opportunity as snack time rather than as mealtime. You’ll also want to ease up on the complex carbohydrates since fiber can leave you feeling bloated while dancing. Simple carbohydrates, which are composed of easy-to-digest, basic sugars will be easier on your stomach since less time is available for digestion. Aim for naturally occurring sources found in fruit and milk products (like yogurt). Top Greek yogurt with a handful of berries and sprinkle with ground flax for a quick option.
1-2 hours prior to dancing
The closer you get to the time you’re going to be dancing, the more you’ll want to emphasize food sources of carbohydrates & protein while easing up on food sources high in fat and fiber. Too much fat and fiber before dancing can lead to gas & stomach upset. However, this is highly dependent on the dancer & how much each nutrient is normally consumed in their diet. For example, a dancer who usually eats a diet higher in fiber may not experience negative effects from incorporating a fibrous carbohydrate into their pre-dancing meal. But a dancer with a sensitive stomach or a condition like irritable bowel syndrome might need to tread with caution around such fibrous options like bran, nuts, raw veggies, and fruits with edible peels. On the other hand, some dancers may tolerate a balanced salad within a couple of hours before class. The same goes for artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols. Remember: the goal of your pre-workout meal or snack is to optimize your performance without causing stomach distress.
30 minutes or less prior to dancing
If you usually feel hungry, dizzy, or fatigued mid-class, then you’ll want to plan an easily-digestible option within the 30-60 minutes before and/or during your classes/rehearsals/performance. A homemade trail mix of dried fruit, nuts, and pretzels offers a balanced and convenient option. It’s also easy to grab while changing shoes or taking a quick break.
Some dancers find a smoothie to be a convenient option before class. However, you’ll want to allow yourself up to an hour beforehand to digest. Your pre-performance smoothie should include fruit, which will offer an accessible energy source. Mix in yogurt and/or a protein powder to help balance your blood sugar and prevent an energy crash.
As your dancing schedule builds, now is not the time to experiment with new foods and/or diet plans. Be wary of “quick-fix” plans that can leave you more prone to injury during a time when your body is likely to be dancing more intensely. Learn through trial-and-error. You’ll discover which foods work best for you personally. There is no one meal or snack that will work for everyone.
If you’re interested in hearing how a number of professional dancers fuel for performance, then subscribe to my new YouTube series Conversations with The Pros!