"Balance" is a frequent buzzword in meal planning. But when it comes to the best energy-boosting snacks to squeeze between Nutcracker acts, an expert's advice might surprise you. "This isn't the time for nutrition," says Heidi Skolnik, nutritionist for professional dancers and athletes from Broadway to the NBA. "This is about fueling. It's functional."
The Necessary Nutrient
One specific food group beats out protein, fats and even caffeine for quick-hit energy: carbs. Skolnik explains, "Your psychomotor skills (anything requiring coordination and thought) are particularly important for dancers, and they're enhanced when you take in as little as 15 to 30 grams of carbohydrates."
That doesn't mean opting for complex multigrains. "If you're doing a quick costume change and have to be onstage again in 10 minutes, that's not a time when you want high-fiber foods," says Tiffany Mendell, a dietitian nutritionist who coaches dancers in New York City.
Fiber can be temporarily bloating, and when you eat foods that take longer to digest, your blood is rushing to your gastrointestinal system instead of to your muscles—a recipe for cramps. Instead, reach for simple carbs, like a small banana, orange slices or dried fruit.
As with all performance preparation, it's best to test out your snack plan before opening night. Try out different quantities to see how much makes you feel energized but not weighed down onstage.
Danielle Downey, a 12-year veteran with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, says that food has a calming effect on her. "I get shaky if I don't eat enough," she says. "I don't want to go onstage feeling full and weighed down, but I almost would prefer that over an empty stomach."
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Danielle Downey and Cooper Verona
Rich Sofranko, Courtesy PBT
During vs. After
Stock up on snacks to keep in your dressing room so that you don't get caught hungry between acts. And after closing curtain, definitely don't ignore food groups including high-fiber vegetables, proteins and healthy fats. You need fully balanced meals every single day for recovery, especially during a long holiday run. Just save them for after the show, not between acts.
Mental Pick Me-Up
Downey performs as many as 25 Nutcrackers per holiday season. Sometimes, the holiday sweets from the communal backstage table are the mental boost she needs to get through the run.
"If you don't treat yourself, the magic of the holiday season just slips away because we are so busy performing," Downey says. While Mendell prefers snacks without added sugars and preservatives for performance time, Skolnik notes that the occasional cookie can be a strategic energy-boosting snack.
Time it Right
5- to 15-Minute Snacks
If you have to get back onstage right away, Skolnik recommends these simple carbs for a quick energy boost.
- A cup of cantaloupe, grapes or watermelon, or a small banana
- Coconut water or sports drink
- Applesauce or other fruit purée
- Dried fruit, like apricot halves or raisins
- Energy chews or a packet of energy gel (which also replenish electrolytes if you're sweating copiously)
- Half of a cooked, skinless sweet potato, diced
- A fig bar or fig cookie
20- to 30-Minute Snacks
When you have more time to digest backstage, Mendell suggests adding a small amount of protein and fat to sustain you longer.
- Whole fruit, like a banana, orange or apple, plus a handful of almonds
- Half of a peanut butter and strawberry sandwich
- Kid-sized Lärabar
- Red pepper slices with a hard-boiled egg or hummus