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The Dos and Don’ts of Meal Planning for Athletes

Jenna Braddock
by Jenna Braddock
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The Dos and Don’ts of Meal Planning for Athletes

Many athletes approach their training with fierce commitment and laser focus. So often, however, these same athletes fail to recognize that without a solid foundation of nutrition and rest, they’re not going to get to where they want to go. Taking on the responsibility of training for a sport or event must be combined with eating and resting for performance as well. Failure to take care of your nutrition and rest will eventually catch up to you, and your performance will suffer.

Since athletes have specific performance goals (increasing endurance versus increasing strength, for example), meal planning is vital to adequately support progress toward those goals. Getting stronger doesn’t just happen; neither will getting the fuel your body needs. An athlete must value their fueling strategy just as they do their training strategy.

[Note: For the purposes of this discussion, I consider an “athlete” someone who trains 4–5-plus days a week with specific performance goals for an event or competition.]

THE FIRST MISTAKE

The biggest mistake made by athletes of all ages is eating randomly through the day. They just let eating happen based on what’s going on and where they find themself. This is problematic for a couple of reasons.

First, it almost guarantees an athlete won’t meet — or conversely, will highly exceed — their calorie needs. It’s like throwing darts; maybe you’ll get the amount of fuel your body needs, maybe you won’t. Optimal performance is rarely achieved by chance in any area of training.

Second, it leaves you a victim to your schedule. If you take on the responsibility of training, you take on the responsibility of eating to support it. You can get away with a day or two of not planning, but it eventually catches up with you. Many athletes are impacted by undo fatigue, lack of desired changes to body composition, repetitive injury and getting sick — and oftentimes these issues are somewhat connected to inadequate nutrition.

EATING RHYTHM

You know that phrase “eat 5–6 small meals a day?” Well, I kind of hate that phrase. I don’t dislike the message it’s trying to convey, but rather, I dislike the pressure it seems to put on someone to cook all the time and eat out of containers. Yikes! In my opinion, a better approach is to plan your day as a rhythm of eating; creating a personalized pattern that works for your schedule and goals. As long as your total nutrition needs are met and you are properly fueled for the next activity, it doesn’t really matter what you call an eating episode.

To plan your eating rhythm, think about your schedule, maybe even write it out. Then identify open times in your day where eating is possible. Lastly, determine if the sustenance should look more like a meal or snack.

EATING QUALITY

The next thing to consider in the meal-planning process is meeting nutrient needs specific to your training, goals and sports performance. Endurance athletes, given their high-calorie output, should plan to eat a substantial amount of carbohydrates at meals and snacks, as research has shown this can improve endurance and performance. Power and strength athletes may focus on getting solid protein sources at meals and snacks to provide the body with the amino acid building blocks to promote muscle growth.

Consuming healthy fat from avocado, nuts, seeds and olives helps provide concentrated calories, which is especially helpful for athletes with high-calories needs. These sources of fat also help fight inflammation in the body, which is a side effect of intense training. All athletes should eat more fruits and vegetables during meals and snacks. High training volume can increase the amount of oxidative stress in the body and therefore more antioxidants, which can be found in fruits and vegetables, are needed.

MEAL PREP FOR NUTRITION SUCCESS

Prepping food ahead of time can make healthy eating a lot easier. While we all know meal prep is a great tool, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Here are some dos and don’ts of meal prep to help athletes spend their time and money wisely.

DOs:

  • Do follow a simple formula for creating meals. Carbs, protein, fruits and vegetables are staples, but these can be adjusted in quantity based on the athlete’s needs and goals.
  • Do plan to cook maybe one new recipe a week, especially if you are trying to increase your cooking ability. More than that can be overwhelming and make success more difficult. It’s fine to progress slowly with cooking.
  • Do take advantage of the frozen food section to stock up on fruits, vegetables, proteins, grains and even prepared meals. These items last long and make cooking a breeze. Plus, you only have to cook the amount you need so less is wasted.
  • Do take advantage of a slow cooker or Instant Pot to cook while you’re busy doing other things. A personal favorite for athletes (or anyone) is this Slow-Cooker “Roasted” Chicken. Eat for one meal and turn it into these All-Natural Easy Chicken Enchiladas later in the week to avoid chicken burn-out.
  • Do make recipes you can freeze for future meals. For example, if you’re having tacos, cook a double batch of the meat and freeze it for a quick reheat meal. Other recipes that freeze well include this Healthy Mexican Lasagna or Vegetarian Rice & Bean Casserole.
  • Do take advantage of convenience produce items (ones that take little-to-no prep) like bagged salads, cherry tomatoes or pre-cut veggies. These make quick snacks or easy sides.
  • Do experiment. As you try different things in your meal-planning journey, think of your eating as an experiment. Rarely, if ever, does someone nail an eating plan the first time. It takes practice and a spirit of experimentation.

DON’Ts:

  • Don’t expect to eat the same thing every day, i.e., chicken and broccoli. Not only will you get sick of your food a couple of days into the week, but you’re likely not getting all the nutrients your body needs.
  • Don’t buy half the produce section of the grocery store without having a plan on how to use it. This can lead to a huge amount of food waste.
  • Don’t buy ingredients for something that sounds good but you don’t know how to make. Instead, pick out a recipe you’re comfortable with before going to the store.
  • Don’t neglect planning to eat out. If eating at restaurants from time to time is part of your lifestyle, simply plan for it to the best of your ability. Make eating out intentional; not random.

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About the Author

Jenna Braddock
Jenna Braddock

Jenna is a registered dietitian nutritionist and certified specialist in sports nutrition. She is a mom to two little boys and wife to a football coach. She shares real-life strategies for better health and doable, delicious recipes on her site Make Healthy Easy. She is active on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest

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