Simple Scrumptious Eating for Happy Healthy Dancers & Active People
Spring cleaning this month included the fridge, and it was high time! To entice myself to do that cleaning and improve the kitchen environment and my own nutrition this season, I bought some nice jars for my minimal “meal prep,” in order to have something good ready to snack on at all times.
My habits can tend to slide into eating more junk food and less fresh produce, especially in the winter, so I like to regularly revisit my healthy favorites to help me feel my best.
This time of year is a great opportunity to take stock and integrate new habits (or start old habits anew) to take us into the Summer and beyond. If you are into healthy habits, minimalism, or simple fitness (or you want to be), you may wish to check out my blogs on those topics as well: Healthy Habit-Building, My Minimalism Memoir, and Move Your Body: Minimal Fitness for Maximal Well-Being.
I want lots of energy for dancing and learning and doing all the things I love to do, and I know (both from scientific research and my own lived experience) what I eat is an important factor. But I’m also more of an enthusiastic eater than cook and am not willing to put too much time and energy into preparing everyday meals.
You can call it lazy or efficient, but 5 ingredients or less is my general guideline for cooking, and I have learned to make the most of my time and use ingredients that make a difference in taste and well-being.
I am no kind of purist at this point in my life, and fully admit that I do seek convenience along with variety and nutrition, so I use frozen fruits and vegetables as well as fresh; I consume eggs and cheese as well as vegetarian fare, and though I don’t cook with meat, at this stage in my life I do eat it.
I definitely have a sweet tooth, regularly enjoying snacks, treats, and dessert. Life is short and I’m just not about deprivation.
I also do NOT advocate weight loss, the pursuit of a particular “look,” shape, size, or any of that. What we eat is very personal, and my goal is to listen to my own body, prevent disease, be healthy and happy 🙂 Please listen to your own body and the advice of a trusted physician when choosing what works best for you.
I know lots of people struggle with specific and sometimes mysterious issues when it comes to eating and digestion, and I hope through good information and trial and error you can find flourishing good health and vitality.
In my youth in dance and in society in general, I have been surrounded by disordered eating and strayed toward obsession myself from time to time, but it’s no fun. Part of my current yoga and spiritual practice is self-love, and this includes the physical body.
As a younger person I was a vegetarian on ethical grounds for about 10 years, including practicing a vegan diet for around 7, which was great. Of course I’ve got stories about how I started as well as how I quit, but for now we’ll suffice it to say that I still love eating vegan and raw foods, but no longer adhere to any particular fixed diet.
Further, I have many positive associations with special meals spent with friends and family members, in unique locations, prepared with love, but all of these are fodder for future meditations. Today we’re looking at the normal, everyday choices that affect how we feel and function in the long run.
Here’s what’s currently working for me to promote my body’s ability to heal and recover, to be energetic and enthusiastic, alert and able to perform, namely a simple, overall nutritious and balanced diet.
Podcast 051: Simple Balanced Eating
I am not a nutritionist or any kind of an expert, so this is not advice, rather sharing what I enjoy and what works for me. I am a very busy and active person who loves to eat and feel good, so if you’re similar, you might find some ideas here that you like. Let’s begin with what some experts do have to say with regard to diet in the demanding practice of ballet and general guidelines for health:
Nutrition for Dancers
A couple of my favorite books about Ballet Technique and Pedagogy are Ballet Pedagogy by Rory Foster and The Ballet Companion by Eliza Gaynor Minden and they both contain practical advice for dancers on the subject of nutrition. Foster reminds us, “Many dancers, students and professionals, do not realize how necessary proper nutrition is to their physical development–the right balance of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates along with enough caloric intake and sufficient hydration. Inadequate nutrition can contribute to injuries, as bones and muscles must have the proper nutrients to initially grow and develop and then to maintain and repair themselves.” (Ballet Pedagogy p.127)
Gaynor Minden argues that, “Like all elite athletes, dancers need to look after their bodies in order to perform at their best and to avoid injury. Nutrition is fundamental. […] Rest is also essential for the healthy dancer, as is maintaining a sensible and consistent schedule. […]
This is all common sense, of course, but it’s easy to let things slide, especially when there are many demands on your time.” (The Ballet Companion p.209 I especially agree with that last part: though we may have the best of intentions and plans, entropy can set in when we’ve got a lot on our plates and we can fall out of our good habits.
Gaynor Minden explains further: “Food is more than just fuel; it is the construction material with which our body builds and repairs itself. Sustained high-level athletic performance requires first-rate nutrition. It gives you the energy you need, and it helps protect your body from illness and injury. Humans are highly adaptable; you might survive on a diet of junk food, but you feel better and you dance better when you eat wisely.” (The Ballet Companion p.209-10)
The books listed at the end of this blog contain more information about nutrition, particularly for vegetarians and vegans, as does my friend Erin Whalen of The Kale Whale: https://www.thekalewhale.com/
Yoga of Nutrition: Ayurveda
The course of my yoga study has included a bit of Ayurveda, the over 5,000 year old life science, and one of my favorite cookbooks happens to be The Modern Ayurvedic Cookbook by Amrita Sondhi. In fact, it was one of only 3 cookbooks I brought with me to Germany along with my box of precious recipe cards and a bunch of Evernote scans!
Sondhi says of Ayurveda: “At the heart of Ayurveda is our intimate connection to the elements of nature, and how they can help us to achieve a physical and spiritual balance in all aspects of our lives. For the sake of our health and well-being, this balance can be accomplished through a number of means, including diet and exercise.” (Modern Ayurvedic Cookbook p.9)
I will continue to learn more about the ayurvedic system and share about it in the future in pursuit of this healthy balance, but the key idea here is that we can approach what we eat mindfully, make our food choices with awareness, and promote healing and well-being. In fact, as Sondhi explains, “Ayurveda considers food an integral part of its healing system, it originated some of the oldest and most time-tested principles of nutrition.” (Modern Ayurvedic Cookbook p.10)
Healthy Eating Habits
You don’t have to be a dancer or a yogi to appreciate the benefits of introducing more nutritious food into your diet. As with adding any new habit, it has a better chance of succeeding by beginning small and easy as possible. Rather than deprivation and elimination, I prefer to add more nutritious ingredients, meals, and snacks.
In her lifestyle book Three Black Skirts, Anna Johnson shares her strategies for incorporating healthy eating habits: “The trick to eating well is finding the foods that offer the feel-good factor yet are actually good for you. You can build healthy habits from there. If Mom baked muffins and their warm, earthy aroma delighted you as a child, then whip up your own batch with oat bran, walnuts, honey, and organic eggs. […] Improving your diet doesn’t mean eating less or eating more expensively; rather it is a matter of choosing foods that have the optimum levels of nutrients, flavor, and sensual appeal.” (p.18)
I think this approach is great, as it balances taking care of our needs both nutritionally and in terms of enjoyment. Including nourishment and delight (as well as convenience and flexibility) sounds like a sustainable approach!
Setting the Stage for Healthy Eating
Generally speaking, my approach to better nutrition is through endeavoring to eat a variety of healthy, whole, healing foods, or as The Kale Whale puts it, “Eating the rainbow.”
I try to pack in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains wherever I can, particularly in smoothies, overnight oats and parfaits, salads and stir-fries. Like everything, it is a balance, but having the right equipment (my trusty Vitamix blender, Jars, nice bowls for produce…) and ingredients (fresh and frozen fruit & veg, good bread, yogurt, cheese, eggs, tofu, nuts, seeds, dips and sauces…) makes it easier to feel good and enjoy the experience of eating.
Gaynor Minden explains a good strategy for dancers: “No one food or type of food has everything we need; it’s the sensible balance that makes the body run like a well-oiled machine. Many foods provide more than one type of nutrient…We also require water, fiber, and ‘micronutrients,’ the technical term for vitamins and minerals.” (The Ballet Companion p.210) So, by eating a variety of foods, we are already on the right track.
Kitchen as Playpen
Johnson provides a realistic way to set ourselves up for success with our healthy eating habits: “You can’t change what you eat overnight, but you can establish better habits over time. To do this you need to set up a kitchen that is a luscious playpen for you to work in–one strewn with hearty staple ingredients, clean implements, and vibrant color. Learn a little about the healing properties of food and gradually change your wanton ways.” (Three Black Skirts p.18)
Bringing attractive and nutritious ingredients into the kitchen is a good start! By appealing to our own preferences and tastes.
In her book Living a Beautiful Life, Alexandra Stoddard proffers advice for tailoring your cooking & meal prep environment to meet your needs: “Evaluate what kind of cook you are now, and what sort of cooking patterns you have. You can set up a simple system that will work uniquely for you if you are willing to part with things that don’t really function well for you any more. […] Personally I have passed through my gadget phase and I’m back to basics. I need a few really fine knives, a nest of frying pans, a nest of pots[…]I’m not Julia Child and I know it. A great deal of my delight in our kitchen is having my things well organized, handy and attractive–because when I cook, the implements, the shapes, the finish and the color are all a part of the ritual, and if they are appealing as well, they double my pleasure in the process.” (p.67)
Fresh and Seasonal Produce Where Possible
Nutrition recommendations for dancers, Ayurveda, and general healthy-eating guidelines all agree: fresh seasonal fruits and vegetables are ideal:
Gaynor Minden explains “Fresh fruits and vegetables are the best sources of many crucial micronutrients; moreover, they are fairly low in calories and high in fiber. Fiber helps your digestion. Foods high in fiber–whole-grain breads and cereals, fresh fruit, and vegetables–are processed more slowly, helping to regulate appetite and optimizing nutrient absorption by the body.” (The Ballet Companion p.211)
Sondhi describes to importance of fresh ingredients to the Ayurvedic approach: “Most recipes use whole grains and fresh foods rather than processed foods, which are considered toxic, or tamasic, in Ayurveda. Ayurveda stresses eating fresh foods, so I do not emphasize frozen, canned, or microwaveable foods (although I make reference to a few recipes that freeze well if desired).” (Modern Ayurvedic Cookbook p.12) I don’t follow this strictly, but do try to maximize intake of fresh ingredients where possible.
Stoddard extolls the joys of following the seasons in our eating choices: “Certain foods should be eaten at certain times of the year. Nothing is more disappointing than a tasteless plastic tomato in December. The best way to select fresh ingredients at the best price with the most flavor is to follow the seasons.” (Living a Beautiful Life p.67) This allows for exquisite simplicity: “Following the seasons with the best available produce and ingredients makes for ideal menus, and they are usually disarmingly simple. The panache is in the presentation.” (Living a Beautiful Life p.69)
Soup, Salads, Smoothies…
Some of the easiest way to consume a variety of fruits and vegetables are of course salads, their warm counterpart soups, and as breakfast, smoothies or oats and parfaits. Johnson sings praises to the ease and flavor of salads: “Salad is anything you choose to toss in a bowl. Salade Nicoise (boiled egg, canned or fresh tuna, black olives, grilled onion, fresh greens, and baby potatoes) is a good protein and calcium hit. Chopped red cabbage, red bell pepper, corn, and cilantro tossed in tamari and lemon tastes amazing in a baked potato.” (Three Black Skirts p.19)
The key is to find a variety of ingredients that nourish you along with a mix of flavors that entice, and if you want further inspiration, just keep reading…
Favorite Easy Meals & Prep to maximize fruit, veg, and nutrients
- Overnight Oats – these are great because they require no cooking time, just a little bit of prep. They include ideally steel-cut oats, flax/hemp/chia seeds of choice, & sliced almonds or other nuts covered with milk of choice, frozen blueberries, & yogurt.
- Jar Salads – so easy to prepare in advance, with wetter ingredients at bottom, then drier toppings, then lettuce or greens on top. Just dump them into a bowl or onto a plate, dress, and eat!
- Smoothies – banana, yogurt, chia, hemp, peanut butter, frozen fruit, frozen kale or spinach, protein powder (I love having a Vitamix again!) and ginger: got the ginger and cinnamon idea for smoothies originally from my friend Erin Whalen of The Kale Whale.
- Stir Fry, Curry, or Fried Rice – frozen or fresh veggies, tofu, seasonings, rice (always have a rice cooker)
- Yogurt Parfait or Açaí Bowl – yogurt, fresh and frozen fruit, nuts, seeds, honey
- “Buddha” Bowls – somewhere between a stir-fry and a salad, start with a bed of rice or quinoa, making a nice catchall for veggies and protein with yummy sauce and toppings to taste
In addition to fresh salads, Johnson encourages us to “Get into the soup! Healthful legumes, like lentils and split peas, make delectable soups that are rich in flavor and nutritional value–and they keep practically forever. Soups are also the perfect way to empty your crisper drawer of veggies and benefit from all their nutrients–you keep the skin and you don’t lose the water they were cooked in. For flavorful soups, make up big batches of vegetable, chicken, or fish stock and freeze them. They’ll be ready when you are for a stew, a risotto, or a light Asian broth.” (Three Black Skirts p.19) Here are a few of my personal very-simple and savory favorites:
- Peanut Butter Curry Soup from Pick Up Limes in Fall & Winter or anytime
- Carrot Ginger Soup from The Modern Ayurvedic Cookbook, anytime
- Green Pea Soup from Pick Up Limes, Spring & Summer or anytime
- Peruvian Quinoa Soup with or without chicken
- Summer Corn Soup: I’m going to try a recipe from The Minimalist Baker for this next, will keep you posted)
Quick Nutritious Snacks
Rather than try to stop eating less-healthful foods, my approach is make better choices abundantly available, such as:
- Carrot sticks & hummus or other dip – I make carrot sticks ahead of time along with my jar salads to have them ready in the fridge
- Apple slices & Peanut Butter
- Baked Apples with raisins, nuts, maple syrup
- Tofu Poke – great with rice and/or salad or as a snack with tortilla chips from The Kale Whale
- Roasted Cauliflower – also makes a great salad or bowl topping
- Tofu Dip from Simply Vegan
- Tofu Jerky from How it All Vegan
- Hard Boiled Eggs
- Popcorn – I strongly prefer the stovetop version popped in peanut oil
- Roasted Pumpkin Seeds in Autumn
- Chickpea Nibbles from How it All Vegan
- Nuts or trail mix
- One-Bowl Peanut Butter & Chocolate Oatmeal Cookies from Pick Up Limes
Selected Online Resources
- The Kale Whale (Especially Kale Smoothies with Ginger and Tofu Poke)
- Pick Up Limes (Especially African Peanut Soup, Garden Green Pea Soup, One-Bowl Oatmeal Cookies)
- The Minimalist Baker (Once corn is in season, I’m going to give their Summer Corn Soup a try, and there are a host of easy recipes for both sweet and savory treats, including many vegan and gluten-free)
Cookbooks I love for simple, delicious nutrition
- The Student’s Vegetarian Cookbook by Carole Raymond (especially Fluffy Vegan Pancakes and Moroccan Stew)
- Simply Vegan by Debra Wasserman (especially Tofu Dip)
- How it all Vegan by Tanya Barnard and Sarah Kramer (especially Chickpea Nibbles, Tofu Jerkys, Voracious Vegan Pate and Vegan Sloppy Joes! They introduced me to the idea of flax “eggs” for baking, a revelation!)
- Pop it in the Toaster Oven by Lois Dewitt (especially One-Step Classic Goulash)
- Ani’s Raw Food Kitchen and Ani’s Raw Desserts by Ani Phyo (especially Japanese Miso Shiitake Soup)
- The Modern Ayurvedic Cookbook by Amrita Sondhi (especially How to Start Your Day Lemon Drink, Autumn Tea, Spicy Hot & Extra Dark Chocolate, Carrot Ginger Soup, Dressing…)
I hope this has given you some inspiration to revisit some of your favorite ways to bring more healthy and healing foods into your life, or possibly introduced a new idea, resource, or recipe 🙂
What healthy eating habits do you want to (re)incorporate into your life, and which recipes will you try next?
Send me a message, or hop over to the A Blythe Coach Facebook Page and let me know!
Blythe Stephens, MFA
she/her or they/them
A Blythe Coach: Dance Education & Coaching
move through life with balance, grace, & power
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