Last year, Roma was taking over 20 hours of dance classes a week and was rehearsing 4-5 hours per night for a musical and was always hungry (understandably so!). During the same semester she wrote a paper about nutrition for the dancer-as-athlete, so we had the perfect opportunity to figure out how many calories she really needed to eat (and when) to get through what was often a 12+ hour day on campus.
Based on the research she did, her calorie intake needed to be in the 2000-2400 calorie range but because she was dancing and active the entire time, she didn't want anything heavy in her stomach so she needed to eat a lot of small meals frequently rather than 3 big meals at standard times.
On a typical day, she left the house at 6:30 for an hour commute to start a day of dance and academic classes at 8am that went back-to-back until late afternoon. At that point she would have a 2-3 hour break before evening rehearsals which often ran until 11, so her food needed to be mostly portable or things she could get on or near campus with little effort.
I should mention the situation is a little complicated because she doesn't eat much meat or fast food so to "run through a drive through" is not a solution for us nor is packing her a sandwich (unless its cheese or PB&J). Many find this hard to believe, but she has never had a hamburger, chicken sandwich, corn dog, hot dog or any processed meat product - it's not that I opposed her eating them, she just never liked them and I didn't push it. She also doesn't drink cow's milk and soy milk is not available at school. Roma is not gluten free but does try to eat whole grains and avoid empty carbs as much as possible. She also tries to avoid foods that have high sugar (like fruit snacks) because of the blood sugar spike and crash they cause
After a few weeks of trail and error this became her "typical" meal plan to get through the day.
She starts the day with high-carb meal to get her fueled for the morning which she eats in the car on the way to school. Typically it is plain pasta with garlic, salt, butter and shaved parmesan. For variety sometimes it is quinoa with the shaved parmesan or brown rice with soy sauce and edamame. Occasionally she will take a smoothie made with fruit, coconut water, flax seed, and protein powder. Sometimes she will take granola and soy milk.
Snacks between classes and for breaks during rehearsal (these need to be small, nutrient dense, and easily digested) - she takes 3-4 snacks/day with her and we refer to them as "dancer snacks". What she takes varies depending on her mood.
- Yogurt (Go-gurt is still a favorite)
- Apple sauce
- Sliced apples (she has at least one whole apple/day and often has 2)
- Wheat thins with Laughing Cow cheese wedge
- Celery with a Jif PB portable cup
- Carrots with dip
- Banana or orange slices
- Cold edamame
- Fruit leather
- Granola bar or trail mix pouch
She also takes at least one coconut water, a small Gatorade, and a water bottle to stay hydrated. Like most teens, she will get a soda with lunch.
Lunch tends to be the biggest meal of the day and provides the bulk of her calories and she eats it late in the afternoon - it's after the rigorous activity of dance classes and early enough in the day that she has food to get through an evening rehearsal but the meal is not sitting heavy and making her sluggish. Some favorites are:
- Salad of mixed greens with additional veggies, pasta, cheese, and an oil/vinegar-style dressing
- Soup, bread, and salad
- Rice and orange chicken
- Pasta with sauce and veggies
- Sandwich with cheese and veggies
- Cheese pizza and salad
If she has rehearsal in the evening, she won't eat another big meal but will usually come home and have cereal (with soy milk) or something light before going to bed. It she doesn't have rehearsal, dinner is usually pasta and salad, or Asian food with rice (or quinoa) and salad.
It's was about a year ago that we worked this out and since then I've stopped worrying if she has enough to eat because she has figured out what to pack and when to eat to make it through the day. She has her food routines that vary based on the day and what her activities are.
I think it's a good life skill for her to have figured out her nutritional needs so early and to know that what she eats varies with the level of activity she is involved in that day. I hope it will help her avoid eating issues that tend to plague dancers since she has control over what she eats, and when, and it has not been forced on her in a way that has taught her to override her own instincts and hunger signals. What she eats is no longer something I worry about - I just have to keep the fridge and pantry stocked, and that is much easier IMO.