The Athlete’s Kitchen
Fill the fridge, fuel your body
Allegra Burton, MPH, RD
Santa Monica, CA
Like any well-honed machine, your body requires the proper fuel to perform at its best. Feed your body complex carbohydrates, lean protein and healthy fats and you will feel and see positive results in your energy level and performance. One of the easiest ways to ensure you are giving your body what it needs is to make sure your kitchen is well-stocked with a variety of healthy foods. Make a commitment to yourself to stock up on nutrient-dense foods and replace foods that are high in saturated fat, sugar, salt and preservatives with healthier versions.
Most refrigerators fall into two categories: the barren “bachelor pad” models and the over-stocked “land of the lost” variety. While all refrigerators have the potential to hold healthy fueling and recovery options, if that good food is either non-existent or impossible to find, you’ll never get the benefit of it. To ensure that you have the following food essentials easily accessible, take 15 minutes to quickly clean out the old items and designate a consistent home for these powerful fueling and recovery foods. After all, what takes prominence in your fridge, takes prominence in your diet.
Nonfat and low-fat dairy items and soy products:
Milk, plain or low-sugar yogurt, cottage cheese and other cheeses are all good to have on hand. Be sure to choose nonfat and lowfat versions of these foods because the higher-fat versions are major sources of artery-clogging saturated fat as well as cholesterol. Soymilk, soy yogurt, and soy cheeses are also great choices. Dairy foods and fortified soy foods provide important bone-building calcium and vitamin D as well as carbs, protein and important minerals such as magnesium and potassium that are depleted after a workout. Studies show that an old childhood favorite – lowfat chocolate milk – may be close to a perfect post-workout food because it provides the ideal 4:1 carb-to-protein ratio that your body needs to replenish glycogen stores and enhance muscle repair and growth.
Fresh fruit and vegetables:
An intense, sweaty workout can leave you low on key electrolytes; fresh fruits and veggies are great, natural replenishers – the more colorful the better. Red and yellow peppers, broccoli, spinach, carrots, bok choy, dark green lettuce, tomatoes, lemons, bananas, oranges, red grapes, berries, kiwis, and whatever fruit and vegetables are in season and strike your fancy. Potatoes – yams, sweet potatoes, good old baking Idaho’s – are all excellent sources of body-fueling carbs, vitamins and minerals. And winter is the perfect time for winter squash – butternut, buttercup, kabocha, or whatever your local market sells. These sweet, dense squash are high in fiber and loaded with vitamin A.
Lean sources of protein:
Sliced turkey, lean ham, eggs, leftover cooked chicken, tofu and bean dip such as hummus all provide lean protein you need for recovery, repair and growth of muscle tissue. Natural peanut butter and almond butter are also key components of an athlete’s diet. Nut butters are lower in protein and higher in calories and heart-healthy fat but these are nutrients that an active body needs.
Flavored unsweetened sparkling water, natural fruit juices, sports drinks, vegetable juices, iced herbal and green teas, and good old water are all excellent choices. Staying well hydrated is crucial for health and fitness.
Condiments and dressings:
Dijon mustard, whole grain mustard, low-sodium soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, concentrated chicken or vegetable bouillon, soy mayonnaise or low-fat mayonnaise, all-natural ketchup, all-fruit jams, all-natural salad dressings (or make your own using olive or walnut oil and either vinegar or lemon juice), garlic and lemons are all great flavor enhancers.
Although it is known most as a storage device for long-forgotten leftovers, the freezer is a source for fast and budget-friendly meals. Just a few minutes in a microwave, blender, or sauté pan, and the right frozen foods will be on your plate as healthy and delicious fueling and recovery meals. Here are five essentials to keep on hand:
Lean sources of protein:
Boneless, skinless chicken breast, lean ground turkey, fish fillets, and lean cuts of pork, lamb and other red meat to eat on occasion are good choices. Just pull something out of the freezer and stick it in the fridge the night before to defrost. Also stock up on frozen veggie burgers (Gardenburger, Boca) and vegetarian burritos and other frozen meals (Amy’s and Kashi are good choices) for quick lunches and dinners.
Freeze portions of cooked brown rice or other whole grains that can be defrosted in minutes in the microwave or overnight in the refrigerator.
For days when you run out of fresh vegetables, frozen are good substitutes: stock up on spinach, brussels sprouts, corn, petite peas, edamame, etc.
Frozen berries can be defrosted in the microwave or overnight in the refrigerator or be used frozen in smoothies.
Whole grain waffles:
They make a terrific quick breakfast topped with peanut butter or yogurt and jam. Add a piece of fruit and your good to go.
A perfect place for shelf-stable foods, the pantry (or your kitchen cabinet) is a great place to keep everything from snacks to meal foundations. Moreover, whereas you must replace perishable items such as fruits and meats, the pantry features fueling and recovery foods that you can stock up on weeks or months before you may ever consume them. If space constrains your ability to buy in bulk, consider Tupperware containers in your basement, attic, or hall closet that you can go to on those mornings when the cereal in the cabinet inexplicably runs out.
Whole grain cereal is a must-have for an athlete’s kitchen. Morning or night, a satisfying bowl of hot or cold cereal helps replenish carbs and fuel workouts. Look for oatmeal, Wheatena and other whole grain hot cereals and cook these with part water and part milk for added protein and other nutrients. Stock up on whole grain, low-sugar cold cereals such as Kashi, Natures Path, Health Valley, Barbara’s, and Cascadian Farm cereals, Grape Nuts, Shredded Wheat, Cheerios, granola, and Whole Grain Total and Wheaties.
Carbo load and replenish glycogen stores with brown rice, wild rice, whole grain pasta, barley, bulgur wheat, quinoa, and couscous. Some of these – such as quinoa and couscous take just minutes to prepare.
Dried and canned – lentils, black beans, garbanzo beans, kidney beans, pinto beans, cannellini beans, and soybeans are all great sources of protein, fiber, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. Add them to salads, pastas, soups, stir-fries and stews.
Any and all dried herbs and spices – oregano, basil, rosemary, etc. are great to have on hand to spice up potatoes, fish, meats and poultry, soups and stews.
Nuts and seeds:
Almonds, walnuts, pistachios, cashews, sunflower seeds, flaxseed, and other nuts and seeds provide vitamins, minerals and healthy fats. Choose unsalted raw or dry-roasted nuts and seeds and add them to cereal, salads, stir-fries and casseroles.
Raisins, dried apricots, dried cherries, dried apples, make great snacks and are delicious on cereal, in salads and mixed with nuts for an on-the-go snack.
Whole grain bread and crackers:
Note that bread keeps freshest longest in the freezer and defrosts in the microwave or at room temperature in very little time. Choose breads that list whole wheat or other whole grain as the first ingredient. Some healthy brands to look for include Ezekiel, Arnold and Orowheat whole grain/100% whole wheat, Trader Joe’s, Brownberry, Bran for Life, and Vermont Country Bread. Also try corn tortillas, whole wheat bagels and whole wheat pita bread.
Olive oil is best but other good choices include canola oil, toasted sesame oil, and walnut oil.
Balsamic, red wine, rice wine, and flavored vinegars are good to have around for whipping up home-made salad dressings.
Canned tuna, salmon and sardines are excellent sources of lean protein as well as heart-healthy omega 3 fatty acids. Be sure to have some low-sodium soups such as lentil, vegetable, and chicken with barley in your pantry as well. Canned tomatoes and marinara sauce (bottled or canned) can top not only pasta but also vegetables, beans, fish, poultry and meats.
Granola bars/fig bars/graham crackers:
To help satisfy your sweet tooth while replenishing your body’s carbohydrate stores. Look for those made with whole grains and natural sweeteners.
Eat (in moderation) without guilt – dark chocolate has been shown to have a number of health benefits! Have a small amount with some fruit and nuts for a satisfying dessert.
To most marketers’ delight, when we shop we tend to grab the first thing we see in order to forgo the decision making process. Food consumption is no different. This is why it is important to make sure that what is in grabbing distance is as healthy as those items tucked neatly away in the pantry or freezer.
In addition to the fruit that keeps best in the fridge (citrus, apples, berries, etc.) be sure to fill the fruit bowl that sits on your countertop with bananas, avocadoes, and other fruit that needs ripening. Bananas and avocadoes should be a regular part of any athlete’s diet – they are both loaded with vitamins, minerals, fiber, and carbs. Avocadoes are also a great source of healthy fats.
If you are able to get to a farmer’s market in your area, that is one of the best places to find fresh, seasonal produce as well as breads, nuts, freshly made soups and other items. So stock your athlete’s kitchen and ensure you are giving your body the high-quality, nutrient-dense fuel that it needs to perform at its best.