Team meals: Thinking outside the spaghetti bowl

Team dinners are a great way to build camaraderie and instill team spirit prior to a game or competition. But what you eat the night before an event, in addition to how you eat each and every day, can affect your athletic performance positively or negatively. Here are three things to think about when planning a team dinner:

What is “carb loading” and is it beneficial? Carb loading is more than that big spaghetti dinner you enjoy with your team the night before a meet or game. The idea behind carb loading is to make sure your muscle glycogen stores (your energy reserves) are at their max prior to game day, but eating too much of a good thing can be bad. Without a doubt, carbohydrates are a great choice for fueling muscles, but make sure you are enjoying a variety of carbohydrate-rich foods throughout each day, such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables, in addition to your carb-centric evening meal.

Why are all Five Food Groups important? Eating a variety of foods from all Five Food Groups will help you get adequate fuel (in the form of calories), in addition to essential vitamins and minerals necessary for optimal training, health and immunity. Remember, make two-thirds of your plate carbohydrate-rich foods and balance that out with lean proteins, low-fat dairy foods and healthy fats.

Fluids: Which ones should I serve? During activity you lose fluid in the form of sweat; the harder you exercise, the more fluid you lose. But rehydrating after exercise isn’t enough. You must work to stay hydrated throughout the day. A good strategy is to drink milk with meals and water with snacks and between meals. Milk, both white and chocolate, is an excellent choice as it provides carbohydrates which help fuel muscles, high-quality protein to aid in muscle-building and repair, and essential nutrients for healthy bones and bodies. Both white and chocolate milk are popular offerings at team dinners.

Taking into account these three key variables, here are some meal ideas for your next team gathering:

Pasta: Pasta is a great source of fuel in the form of carbohydrates, but it is a marginal source of vitamins and minerals. Make your pasta dish a nutrition powerhouse by adding vegetables and protein. Try topping your pasta with a hearty tomato sauce and lean ground beef meatballs, or mix spiral pasta, broccoli, bell peppers, diced tomatoes and black olives with grilled chicken slices and a little bit of Italian dressing for a healthier twist on pasta salad. Serve a green salad as a compliment to the main pasta dish and round out the meal with a cold glass of milk and fruit for dessert.

Stir fry: Rice is another popular carbohydrate choice as it is fairly easy on the stomach and can be used in a variety of dishes. Try making a big wok of stir-fried vegetables and offer grilled chicken strips or tofu, with a choice of sauces to put on top – that way each member of the team can customize their meal.

Make-your-own pizza bar: Pizza can be a nutrient-rich and popular option for athletes. Choose whole grain crusts, either homemade or store-bought, or substitute a traditional crust with English muffins or bagels. Offer a variety of sauces and toppings, keeping fruits (think pineapple) and vegetables, lean proteins and low-fat cheeses top of mind. Allow each athlete to make their own pizza. Serve with a salad bar, and white and chocolate milk.

Smoothies: Popular among athletes, smoothies make a great after-dinner treat. Simply mix fresh or frozen fruit, milk and yogurt in a blender. Put together a “create-your-own” station, letting the athletes choose their “blend.”

Whether before each meet or at the end of the season, use team dinners as an opportunity to fuel up on carbohydrates, enjoy a variety of foods from all Five Food Groups and ensure adequate fluids all while enjoying the company of teammates.

Athletes can train harder and perform better with proper nutrition. Visit WesternDairyAssociation.org to read more about milk as an exercise recovery beverage and learn how to eat for peak athletic performance.