School cafeterias often conjure up less-than-appetizing images—mystery meats, mushy vegetables, and stale cheese sandwiches are just a few of the things that come to mind. And while this isn’t always the case, it can often be a challenge to follow a satisfying, dance-friendly diet if you’re buying your lunch at school. Dance Spirit asked Heidi Skolnik, MS, CDN, FACSM, and owner of Nutrition Conditioning, Inc., for her tips, tricks, and hacks for putting together a balanced lunch—no matter what your cafeteria offers.
Load Up on Veggies
Whether they’re raw or cooked, vegetables are always a good idea. “They provide you with lots of vitamins, minerals, and fiber,” says Skolnik. Luckily, lots of schools these days offer a salad bar, so be sure to fill your plate with raw veggies, like peppers, carrots, cucumbers, and leafy greens. For a healthy dose of fat, drizzle on some olive oil or a vinaigrette. Alternatively, you can grab a portion of whatever hot vegetable is being served—especially if it’s a steamed or baked option, like green beans or brussels sprouts.
“Protein is essential for so many functions—from muscle development, to bone health, to mood, to feeling full and energized,” Skolnik says. Lots of hot entrées are protein-packed—you just need to know what to look for. Chili (which is loaded with energy-boosting beans and cheese) or grilled chicken with lettuce and tomato on whole-grain bread (which checks off the protein, grain, and vegetable components of a meal) are both great options. Tuna fish and cottage cheese are also smart choices.
Get Your Grains
“Grains and starches are the fuel for your muscles,” Skolnik says. Whole grains are also a great source of fuel. Pick the pasta, rice, or bean option, or grab a baked potato. And don’t worry about carbs. “The more active you are, the more starch you need to keep your muscles going,” she says.
If you’re a light luncher, you can easily put together a lunch from the snack bar. Avoid anything fried (french fries, corn dogs, etc.), and instead grab a few pieces of fruit, a granola bar, and a bag of pretzels.
Keep Your Backpack Stocked
Even if you don’t have time to make your lunch at home, try to keep a few baggies of snacks and add-ons, like sunflower and pumpkin seeds, cheese sticks, peanut butter packets, and beef or chicken jerky, handy in your backpack. These serve as great sources of protein, and can make all the difference in your energy levels.
A version of this story appeared in the September 2018 issue of Dance Spirit with the title “The Cafeteria Conundrum.”
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