Ever felt a pang of unexpected hunger the moment before you entered stage right? Or been a few minutes into class before realizing the dinner you ate an hour ago has left you overstuffed and lethargic?
Figuring out when to eat and hydrate can feel more elusive than getting a full scholarship to your dream summer program. But it's totally possible to crack the code. We enlisted registered dietitian nutritionist Rachel Fine and registered dietitian and certified personal trainer Nora Minno to help you figure out the timing of your dancer meal plan.
Fine and Minno agree that dancers' tendency is to under-fuel rather than over-fuel. "You need to plan ahead to get your body the right nutrients for energy and peak performance," Minno says. "If you eat too little, you might not have the calories you need." Aim for a full meal rich in complex carbohydrates (aka vegetables and whole grains), protein, and a little bit of fat three to four hours before hitting the studio.
As you get closer to start time, simplify—as in, focus on simple carbohydrates, like fruit and refined grains. "Simpler carbohydrates digest faster and provide you with quick energy," Fine says. "Pair them with protein to help the effect last." Steer clear of creamy, fried, greasy, or otherwise high-fat foods in the two hours leading up to class. These, along with fiber-rich complex carbs, can weigh you down if consumed right before you set foot in the studio.
Throughout the day, have at least a little something every two to four hours—but avoid eating or chugging water within the hour before dance time.
One word: HYDRATE. "You're sweating throughout class because you're working hard, so sip water regularly to replenish any fluids you might be losing," says Minno. She suggests about six ounces of water for every 15 to 30 minutes of activity. Fine recommends buying a one-liter water bottle and aiming to fill it two or three times daily.
Pack your dance bag with snacks you can easily nosh between class and rehearsal, in case you feel foggy or need a pick-me-up. Fine suggests fruit-and-nut bars, or pretzels and a cheese stick (which have the added benefit of replacing sodium lost through sweat).
The goal for any post-dance snack or meal is to help your body recover without preventing it from resting properly. Steer clear of things that are harder to digest, like spicy or high-fat foods, since they might keep you awake later. But don't skip food entirely. "Dancers' muscles constantly undergo wear and tear, so it's important to provide nutrients that support the body's rebuilding of muscles," Fine says. Simple foods with a bit of protein, like Greek yogurt, are good options.
Allow your body at least an hour to digest your dinner (and your post-dance hydration!) before you hit the sack. "Make sure your body has time to fulfill those processes of digestion," Minno says. "If you go to bed right away, you might have interrupted sleep because of getting up to go to the bathroom."
A Sample Meal Plan
We had our two nutrition experts combine forces to come up with a sample menu for a typical day in the life of a growing dancer. But, advises Minno, use it as a guideline, not a rule: "Though there are general nutritional rules of thumb, what works for you might not work for your partner or classmate. Focus on what makes you feel fueled and energized."
Wake up, 6 am. Start your hydration routine right away.
Breakfast, 6:15 am. Protein, complex carbs, and fat will keep you full until lunchtime. Think Greek yogurt and a slice of whole-grain toast with PB and banana. If you're not really a breakfast person, you can stick to a smaller snack, like fruit and nut butter—but plan a bigger lunch.
Academic classes, 7:30 to 11:30 am. Keep a water bottle in your backpack so staying hydrated is easy.
Lunch, 11:30 am to 12 pm. This is a good time to focus on vegetables, since you have several hours to digest the fiber before class. Pack a sandwich (on whole-grain bread, with protein like grilled chicken) plus a variety of your favorite raw or cooked veggies. Don't forget water!
More academics, 12 to 2 pm. Since you don't want to load up on water right before dance, keep sipping through the afternoon.
"Early dinner" at home, 2:45 pm. You have about two hours before class—time to fuel up, but not so much that you're uncomfortably full. Good options include a rice bowl with veggies and protein, or a turkey sandwich on whole wheat with apple slices on the side. 17 to 20 ounces of water, too!
Technique class, 4:30 to 6 pm. You'll want to drink about 18 ounces of water during class.
Rehearsal, 6 to 9 pm. Pack a snack made up of simple carbs (dried fruit or a granola bar are good options) in case you have a minute between class and rehearsal. Make sure you're getting in about 36 ounces of water over the course of rehearsal.
Bedtime snack at home, 9:30 pm. Eat something easy to digest that won't keep you up: Greek yogurt with berries, or hummus with veggies and crackers. And don't forget to hydrate!