Athletes train their weaknesses until they become strengths. Speed, power, focus, and agility are all subject to improvement. What if I told you that despite that effort, you were missing a critical opportunity to improve a weakness, and that opportunity appeared three times a day and over 20 times per week?
Per usual, I’m talking about food. Specifically the three core meals we eat every day. Whether you’re a high school athlete or a weekend warrior, the meals you eat have more impact on your health and performance than you may realize.
Training gets all of the glory, but what’s on your plate three times a day is the unsung hero.
Many of us get into habits where we eat the same rotation of meals each week. It’s convenient and hey — we like what we like. But it’s worth taking an inventory of your most common meal choices to see if there are more nutrient-dense options that can better fuel you for the demands you put on your body.
Breakfast is usually a choice of convenience, with many people eating in a rush or on-the-go, and in some cases just skipping the meal altogether. Bagels, muffins, cereal, toast, bananas, juice, and coffee with creamer become the favored morning picks. Although convenient, these breakfast staples are carbohydrate and sugar heavy. Without the balance of protein and quality fats, you’ll experience an immediate blood sugar spike and a resulting crash, leaving you hungry and energy-strapped.
To start your day off on a better foot, try upgrading your breakfast to a more balanced combination of carbohydrates, protein, and quality fats. There are plenty of convenient options to mix and match, including:
- Protein: hardboiled eggs, breakfast sausage, sugar-free bacon, dinner leftovers like steak or pulled chicken
- Fats: avocado, grass-fed butter for cooking or spreading on sprouted whole grain bread, raw nuts, organic whole-milk cheese or yogurt
- Carbohydrates: sautéed veggies, spouted whole grain bread, sour dough bread, coconut cassava flour tortillas (a personal favorite of mine from Siete Foods), leftover dinner veggies, citrus fruits and berries
Busy professionals and students often find themselves getting takeout for lunch or eating at a cafeteria buffet. Whatever’s closest to work or school is best and those options can be incredibly limited, especially if you’re pressed for time. Deli meat subs and sandwiches, pizza slices, fried foods, and various condiments that pair up with these foods become the norm.
Your second meal of the day is key to maintaining focus, as well as your mental and physical performance, for the remainder of the day. Food quality is a challenge with convenient and often inexpensive takeout lunch options. Additives, white flour, sugar, damaging vegetable oils, and nutrient-poor ingredients can wreck your gut and set you up for brain fog and fatigue.
The best way to guarantee yourself a fulfilling and well-balanced lunch is to make it yourself with careful attention paid to the quality of the foods you choose. Bonus: it’s also more cost-effective that frequent takeout. Some ways you can make this happen:
- Lunch = dinner leftovers: When you cook dinner, make enough food for lunch leftovers the following day. Get yourself some Pyrex, and boom. You have lunch. Cook once, eat twice.
- Homemade salads and dressings: Restaurant salads can be deceivingly unhealthy, using poor quality and damaging vegetable oils in the dressings, fried add-ons like tortilla chips or sugar coated nuts, and conventionally sourced, additive-filled proteins. Try building your salads with:
- A bed of organic greens
- Seasonal fruit and vegetables (preferably organic)
- A quality protein source like grass-fed steak, pasture-raised chicken or hard boiled eggs, and wild caught tuna or salmon
- Crunchy add-ons like raw nuts and seeds
- A sprinkle of whole-milk dairy (feta and goat cheese add amazing flavor and texture to salads)
- A homemade salad dressing using extra virgin olive oil or avocado oil as the base, plus mustard, lemon, and salt and pepper is surprisingly tasty — or you can spring for a Primal Kitchen dressing or the Trader Joe’s Green Goddess dressing. They do not disappoint.
- Meal-prepped meats and veggies: Carving out just two hours at the beginning of your week for meal prep can set you up for success and save you time. Roasting a large pan of veggies like sweet potatoes, brussel sprouts, carrots, and cauliflower can load you up with veggies for multiple lunches and slow cooked meats yield a batch of protein to eat with veggies, salad, or a side of sprouted whole grains.
Pasta is one of the most common staples of the standard American dinner. It’s used to “carbo-load” the night before an athletic event, and is simply a comforting and nostalgic food for many of us. Plus, it’s versatile and easy to prepare.
Traditional pasta is made with bleached and highly processed flour, and many marinaras and pasta sauces on our grocery store shelves include questionable ingredients like sugar, additives, and poor quality vegetable oils. Seeing a trend here? Welcome to the label-reader club. It’s truly eye-opening.
Dial up the nutritional value of your dinner with these swaps and add-ons:
- Pasta Alternatives: Believe the hype about the new Trader Joe’s Cauliflower Gnocchi. Made with cauliflower, cassava flour, potato starch, extra virgin olive oil, and sea salt, it’s a lower carb and more nutrient-dense option that still gives you that pasta feeling. Spaghetti squash, sweet potato noodles, and zucchini noodles are also great vegetable-based alternatives to pasta and traditional noodles.
- Sauce Upgrades: Read your labels to find pasta sauces that are free of added sugar, vegetable oils, and additives. Rao’s marinara sauce includes all whole-food ingredients, nothing weird. I’ve found various brands at multiple stores that fit the bill.
- Add Proteins and Fats: Use grass-fed ground beef or organic sausage to make a meat sauce, or eat your pasta alternative as a side with your protein as the centerpiece of your meal. Organic whole-milk cheese also pairs well with pasta so take the opportunity to sprinkle some on top or make a pesto sauce.
Breaking established meal habits is a challenge. Make these swaps slowly and over time. Start with one meal, and gradually increase until you’ve found a new pattern of eating that serves your body, wellness, and performance better.