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6 Ways to Stay Fueled When Headed Back To School

Ready or not, the new school year is here! And for many gymnasts, moving back to a school year schedule can bring many new stressors surrounding your fueling plan.

For many gymnasts, some of the most stressful parts of fueling during the school year have to do with:

  • Practice schedule is changing from morning back to afternoons or evenings

  • Navigating the school cafeteria (maybe you got used to fueling mostly at home all summer...)

  • Having enough time to pack a school lunch and snacks

  • Getting up early AND starting the day off with a fueling breakfast

  • Trying to fuel your body during the school day, especially with weird lunch times and strict "no food in the classroom" rules

I get it! It can be stressful and overwhelming to make sure that you are properly fueling your body during a busy day with school and gym. However, if you want to perform well in the gym and have the energy to do so, you need to continue to make sure you are incorporating a fueling strategy that works for you.

Fueling during the school day does not have to be stressful! One thing that many gymnasts in my nutrition programs for gymnasts have found helpful for staying fueled is having a plan ahead of time. Here are some tips and tricks for tackling your nutrition this coming school year!

1. Incorporate Meal Planning Strategies

When I say "meal planning", what do you think?

Do you think of cooking a ton of food and eating the same meal over and over all week long out of a container?

I know this is where my mind immediately jumps to. While this is one way to meal prep, this strategy is probably the most extreme example of meal planning. Meal planning does not have to be this involved or this complicated. Meal planning really just means taking a little time when you have it to set yourself up for success on your busier days.

If you think having more of a plan for fueling your body this school year is something you want work on, start with these 6 simple steps:

  1. Determine your schedule: The first step to meal planning starts with determining what type of schedule you are preparing for. School lunches? Dinner for late nights? Backpack and gym bag snacks? Breakfast before the bus? Also, think about other considerations like the schedules of other family members, where the meal will be eaten, or if snacks need to be kept cold, hot, or are fine at room temperature. You may even find it useful to use a calendar (like an electronic one, pen and paper, or a family whiteboard on the wall) to map out what days are for cooking, what days are for leftovers, and what days are for dining out.

  2. Compile your recipes: When first starting a meal planning routine, you may find it helpful to make a list or binder of recipes you like or make frequently and categorize them by helpful factors like ease, time to prepare or cook, season, ingredients, cooking method, etc.. If you’d like to try and incorporate new recipes, start simple and use 1 new recipe or ingredient per week. You can also think about how these recipes fit into a Performance Plate or how you can make the recipes more nutrient dense (ex. using whole grains, adding additional veggies, swapping butter for olive oil, etc.).

  3. Make your plan: Using your schedule and your recipes, decide what meals and snacks you and your family will have each day. Remember, a plan doesn't have to mean cooking from scratch every single day or meal. It may be helpful to cook the more involved recipes on a weekend or slower night and utilize kitchen tools (like slow cookers, pressure cookers, air fryers, etc.) on busier days. A plan can also include leftovers, repurposed meals (ex tacos for dinner one night and taco salad for lunch), second-use basics (brown rice with salmon one night and then using the leftover for fried rice or stir-fry the next)m shortcuts (like microwavable grains, frozen vegetables, rotisserie chicken, etc.) take out, or restaurants.

  4. Build your shopping list: From the plan you have created, create your shopping list! After considering what you already have in your house, build your list with the needed ingredients for any recipes (considering all meals and snacks), and be sure to add in any shortcut or snack items!

  5. Go shopping: The grocery store can contribute to a lot of stress surrounding fueling, causing many people to resort to just constantly ordering take out instead. Well, navigating the grocery store can feel a bit overwhelming without a strategy. I know at my local grocery store, there are so many options to choose from! Here are my favorite shopping strategies for each department to help you make the most of your trip.

    • Produce. The produce department is filled with a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. Many times in this department, I use my list as a rough outline of how much produce I need – for example, maybe 4 vegetable options and 2 fruit options, and then make selections based on what looks the best and what is well priced. It is important to consider the quantity of produce you need as well as the shelf life of what you’re choosing to avoid wasting food. For example, fruits like berries only last a few days, where apples and oranges will last a week or more. Depending on where you live, fresh produce is often higher quality and lower priced when purchased in-season, so during the growing months, be on the lookout for fresh and local produce. Many produce departments now also offer an array of convenience options that could make including more of these foods in your routine simpler. Options like bagged salads, pre cut veggies, and sliced fruit make it very simple to add color to your meal. The downside of these convenience options is that they’re usually a little higher in price, but you can decide if it’s worth it for you to pay with your time or your dollar.

    • Deli Counter. The deli can actually be a great department for purchasing some ready made meals or snacks or ingredients for semi-home made meals and sides. When ordering deli meats, opt for those that are less processed, like turkey, chicken, roast beef, or ham, compared to salamis and bolognas. Additionally, look for lower sodium options when available. Many delis also offer cold items like store made salads or hot items like rotisserie chickens, which can make putting meals together simple.

    • Meat and Seafood. When in the meat and seafood department, lean cuts of meat are going to provide more protein bang for your buck. Opt for more poultry and seafood over red meat and pork, look for leaner cuts of poultry like chicken breasts, boneless skinless thighs, turkey breasts or loins, and lean cuts of beef and pork like the loin, eye, round, or sirloin cuts or ground beef 90% or leaner. Many meat and seafood departments will also have pre-cooked options like chicken sausage, or seafood departments that will steam your fish while you shop, which are perfect for the busiest days. If you have the storage space, look to stock up on a variety of fresh and frozen options which you could defrost and serve when needed. And lastly, if you have the storage space, often buying proteins in bulk will save you some money in the long run.

    • Frozen Foods. Over the last few years, the frozen food section has gone through a major makeover. This is another great place to shop for convenient produce options, especially when produce is out of season. Frozen fruits and veggies are nutritionally equivalent to fresh produce, as produce grown to be frozen is picked at the peak of ripeness and then flash frozen to preserve nutrients. The frozen section makes it extremely convenient to include vegetables at dinner. You can find almost any vegetable and many delicious medleys in steam fresh bags which cook right in the microwave in just a couple of minutes.

    • Dairy. The dairy department is another great place to find meal and snack options. When choosing a milk, it’s important to know what your getting. Nutritionally, cow’s milk is the standard, providing a serving of protein along with vitamin D and calcium in each serving. Not all alternatives are created equal. If you are looking for a non-dairy alternative, like a soy milk or almond milk, look for one that has 8 or more grams of protein per serving and has been fortified with calcium and vitamin D. The yogurt section is another section that can sometimes feel overwhelming because there are just too many options! Yogurt is a great food for gymnasts, since it includes protein and calcium like the milk it came from, as well as probiotics which are important for gut health. Again, not all yogurts are created equal. Greek, skyr, and kefir usually have more protein compared to traditional American style yogurt. Many of the specialty yogurts, like those with fruit in the bottom or mix-ins, usually also have a lot of added sugar without a full serving of fruit. If you enjoy your yogurt with fruit or granola mixed in, I would encourage you to opt for a plain or vanilla yogurt and mix your own fruit or granola in. Also, not all dairy free yogurt alternatives are good sources of protein. Those with the highest protein content that I’ve found include siggi’s coconut, daiya coconut, silk almond milk, and good plants almond milk.

    • The aisles. Contrary to the popular sentiment, there are actually many nutritious and beneficial foods that can be found within the aisles of your grocery store. The old saying “ shop the perimeter and avoid the aisles” could not be further from the truth. Keep your pantry stocked with items like canned vegetables, dried and canned fruits, canned proteins like tuna, salmon, beans, and chickpeas, dried and microwavable grains like rice, barley, quinoa, oats, and pasta, dried goods like beans and lentils, nuts, nut butters, seeds, breads, and your fueling snacks like crackers, pretzels, bars, and more.

If you have the time to walk the aisles of your local store, that's great! But, as a busy gym family, it may also be advantageous for you to explore all your options, including online ordering, grocery pickup or delivery, or subscription services (like Amazon, Thrive Market,), or even meal delivery services (like Hello Fresh or Blue Apron).

6. Set yourself up for success: The last step of meal planning is to set yourself up for success, whatever that looks for you. When it comes to meal planning, set realistic expectations for yourself. The biggest reason people don't stick to their plan is that they make it too complex and expect too much from themselves. If you never cook at home, don’t expect yourself to all of a sudden start cooking 7 days a week for every meal. Start with one meal, one day, or one snack. Remember, eating leftovers or using pre cooked and semi-home made foods is still a plan. When making you meal plan, keep it realistic, make sure to consider your and your family’s food preferences, your schedule, your cooking habits and skills, and your lifestyle. Take things one day or one week at a time and celebrate the wins!

2. Do little things to make your life easier when you have the time, for when you do not have the time.

When you do have time, there are plenty of ways to make your life slightly easier when you don’t have time. A few simple things you could do include:

  • Wash and/or cut your fruits and veggies when you get back from the store, so it’s easier to eat later.

  • Bulk cook some staples (like grilled chicken, brown rice, pasta, roasted vegetables) that you can incorporate into meals and snacks later in the week

  • Separate bulk snacks like pretzels and trail mix into bags for later (if they don’t already come in travel sizes).

3. Keep non-perishable snacks in your car, gym bag, and school bag.

With a busy schedule, it can be super easy to forget to pack a snack. Planning ahead and putting a few days worth of snacks in places you commonly need them is a great way to avoid not having one. There are plenty of non perishable options that you can keep in your bag such as granola bars, dried fruit, trail mix, crackers, and more.

4. Don’t be afraid to use shortcuts.

At grocery stores, there are so many nutritious meal and snack shortcuts. Microwavable pouches of rice and pasta, bags of frozen veggies, pre grilled chicken that you just have to heat up, microwavable kodiak muffins… the list goes on! Never be afraid to utilize some of these options when fueling. They can be a super simple way to make fueling your body a little easier.

5. Pack your lunch, dinner, or snack the night before.

I know that many gymnasts pack their own lunches for school. However, for most, the morning can feel rushed by trying to sleep until the last second, getting dressed and ready for the day, and eating breakfast - there often just isn’t a lot of time to put together meals for later. To avoid this stress… put your food together the night before! Then it is sitting in the fridge waiting for you to quickly grab as you head out the door.

6. Find snacks that you can eat quickly.

Finding snacks that you can fuel with in between classes, is a good way to get around the "no eating in the classroom rule". Snacks like applesauce pouches, trail mix, dried fruit, and granola bars are just some ideas for foods you can eat super quickly between your classes! Or, if eating might not work, opt for something you could drink like a protein drink, yogurt drinks, or even smoothie (you can make it ahead of time and then freeze a smoothie in your cup. By the time you go to drink it, it's defrosted!)

Hopefully one of these tips helps you to properly fuel your body this school year with minimal stress! If you are still feeling overwhelmed, you do not have to come up with planing strategies on your own. As a Registered Dietitian for gymnasts (and their busy families), we can work together to make this school year and competition the best one yet! Fill out the short application today to see which of my programs would be the best fit for you.


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