Finding the right balance of meals and snacks to get through a dancer's day can take a lot of trial and error. To give you ideas, Dance Magazine asked three professional dancers to share the meals that kept them moving throughout one rehearsal day this season. Registered dietitian Emily Cook Harrison, who runs Nutrition for Great Performances, weighed in with her advice on how they could optimize their fuel even further.
Jacqueline Callahan, Pennsylvania Ballet
Jacqueline Callahan prefers to snack during her hourly rehearsal breaks. Photo by Arian Molina Soca, courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet.
- green tea
- two runny eggs
- •smoothie with spinach, protein powder, cashews, banana and almond milk
"I like a high-protein breakfast. I want to go into class with the energy to really push myself."
Ballet class: 9:30–11 am
Rehearsal: 11 am–2 pm and 3–6 pm
- apple and banana
- Greek yogurt
- "Supreme Green" juice from Sip-N-Glo, a local juicery
- a bottle of water each hour
- Clif Bar
- nuts (pistachios, almonds)
"I don't like to eat a full meal in the middle of the day. Instead, I snack during our hourly five-minute rehearsal breaks, so I'm always prepared for what's next."
- chickpea pasta with red sauce, tomatoes, squash, zucchini and other vegetables
- tea before bed
"I eat a pretty big dinner, because I eat so lightly during the day. I've been a vegetarian (eating a little fish) for a couple years. I used to have bad eczema, and I heard that switching my diet would help; I haven't had any flare-ups since cutting out meat. I'm always careful to get enough protein, which is why I like chickpea pasta."
"I love Jacqueline's dinner. Chickpea and bean-flour pastas are full of key nutrients like protein, iron and zinc. Bonus points for so many veggies in the pasta! Being a vegetarian, Jacqueline is clearly working hard to get protein and a variety of food throughout the day.
"I would suggest adding another carbohydrate at breakfast, because carbs are the body's preferred source of energy—especially for what dancers do. Research shows that eating carbohydrates pre-exercise can actually help maintain or even build muscle.
"I would also recommend adding even a small lunch, in addition to the array of healthy snacks. Six hours of rehearsal can really drain the body's energy stores."
Quincy Ellis, Pilobolus
Quincy Ellis (lifted) with Jacob Michael Warren in Gnomen. Photo by Hibbard Nash Photography, courtesy Pilobolus
Workout with light weights
- black beans with onion and garlic
- roasted broccoli
- roasted chicken
- green apple
"My breakfasts usually include eggs, but right now I'm rehearsing in Connecticut, so I prepped food at home in New York that I wouldn't need to cook here. I do like to have chicken in the morning, to get protein early in the day."
Rehearsal: 9 am–2 pm
- roasted vegetables (squash, bell pepper, onion)
- tortilla chips
- roasted chicken
- roasted vegetables
Rehearsal: 3–5 pm
- hummus and pita
- gnocchi with vodka sauce, peas and mushrooms
- table bread
- white wine (2 glasses)
"The company went out to dinner at a local Italian restaurant. There was a time that I would have felt guilty for going off my diet, but I've learned that it isn't mentally healthy for me to be so strict. I don't like to think of certain foods as 'bad.' Also, working with Pilobolus is so athletic—there's so much partnering involved. I know from experience what will make me feel better and what won't, and I'll make choices knowing what the consequences might be."
"I agree with Quincy that he shouldn't feel guilty for going out occasionally. Dancers expend so much energy, and they deserve to enjoy a night out. This dinner with healthy carbohydrates could be good for replenishing his glycogen for the next day.
"Quincy is getting plenty of protein, and doing a great job with fruits and vegetables, which will help with muscle recovery. I might suggest adding a carbohydrate source in the morning. If that would make him feel too full, he could cut down on his chicken portion, and replace that with a carbohydrate serving like oats, sweet potatoes or whole-grain natural bread."
Patricia Zhou, L.A. Dance Project
Patricia Zhou saves her biggest meal for dinner. Photo by Jacob Jonas, Courtesy L.A. Dance Project
- plain yogurt
- paleo granola
- black coffee
"I usually make Bircher muesli using plain whole-fat yogurt, shredded apple, oats, raisins and a touch of cinnamon. I'll make a big batch that lasts through the week. But this morning I ran out, so I just had plain yogurt. For the granola, I like to avoid added refined sugars, and picking paleo-friendly foods is a good way to do that."
Class and rehearsal: 10 am–2:15 pm
"If I'm really peckish, I'll snack on nuts or popcorn in addition to the banana. As for water, we have a five-minute break every hour, and I try to drink a bottle each time."
- farro with homemade mango salsa (mango, corn, cilantro, onion, lime)
- half an avocado
Rehearsal: 3:15–6:15 pm
Yoga class: 7:30–9 pm
- butternut squash noodles with curly kale, feta cheese and two fried eggs
- Four Sigmatic mushroom hot cacao with reishi, at bedtime
"I save my biggest meal for dinner, and tend to have my main protein at night. I cook simply: I use olive oil or butter, and season with salt, pepper and crushed pepper flakes. The reishi mushrooms in the hot chocolate are supposed to help with calming down for a better sleep."
"Granola, yogurt and fruit can be a good start to a dancer's day. In general, I suggest choosing a granola or muesli that has a carbohydrate source (like oats), rather than just nuts and seeds. This may not be the case for Patricia, but sometimes paleo products can contribute to dancers' unfounded fears of carbohydrates. We have decades of research that demonstrates the performance-enhancing effects of whole grains, starchy vegetables and carbohydrates from fruit. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that at least 55 percent of total calories come from carbohydrates. So enjoy those oats and fruit!
"Overall, Patricia's meals are great, but I would suggest a wider variety of snacks. Dancers need adequate fuel to preserve muscle mass, prevent injury and help the brain remember choreography. A banana is a nice choice—potassium, vitamin C and phytonutrients are good for muscle recovery and soreness prevention—but she might benefit from having more than almonds before yoga. Maybe a half-sandwich of almond butter on millet/spelt bread?
"I am a big fan of all of the Four Sigmatic mushroom elixirs. The reishi one is good for calming the nervous system at night, and the ones that contain cordyceps mushrooms are good for an energy boost during the day."