Feeding Athletes

Feeding people is what I do. At home, in the Berghoff Restaurant, at various catering events and many places in between. Until last week, one group of people I had yet to feed was student athletes.

Both my daughters are rowers, which means many of our weekends are spent cheering them on at regattas. Packing gluten-free food options for Sarah and educating the parents that volunteer their time as ‘team chefs’ on cooking gluten-free has become a regular habit. Luckily over the years Sarah has become a wonderful self-advocate and learned to be prepared (which, on a separate note, is one of the reasons I feel confident about her transition to college in the Fall – more on that to come later).

Last week Sarah’s team, Chicago Rowing Foundation competed in the USRowing Youth National Championships in Sarasota, FL. I decided it was my turn (plus I wanted a front row seat) to be a parent chaperone. And so 35 kids, two coaches, a few parents and myself set out on the adventure. I, of course, took on the role of feeding the team during the four days, because why not accept the challenge – it’s what I do, right?

Most events and memorable experiences are centered around food. It’s what guests at an event tend to remember, why people choose where to dine, and often times how people plan a destination for vacation. The difference with this event was that the food was the fuel these athletes would need in order to perform at one of the most memorable regattas of their athletic career. And it was my job to provide that fuel. With that knowledge in hand, it was time to get ready. And for anyone who might find themselves with the job of cooking for athletes, my game plan below might be helpful.

Step #1 – Plan your meals. Depending on the team’s schedules (race times, weigh-ins, practices, etc.), each meal needed to be thought out. Would breakfast need to be a grab-and-go, would lunch be served on-site and would dinner be in the condo or catered on the beach by a local restaurant? All questions to ask the coaches and parents that help coordinate the trip.

Step #2 – Create the grocery lists. After researching my grocery options in Sarasota, I broke my master list into three sub lists of my favorite grocery stores: Costco, Publix, and Trader Joe’s. There was of course a budget to keep in mind. Also in an effort to avoid cross contamination and because it’s just second nature to me, I chose to only shop and cook gluten-free (ask me later if anyone even noticed :)).

Step #3 – Shop and prepare. After dropping the team off in our 15 passenger vans, I switched to a small rental car and hit the grocery stores. Following my lists, I picked up all our grocery needs and returned to the condo. After unpacking I began to prep any menu items possible. Knowing that my time was split between watching the races and cooking, and that the girls would be hungry as soon as they arrived home, I tried to be efficient as possible. This meant marinating turkey breasts for the next day, preparing any salads I could (gluten-free pasta salad, green bean salads, dressings, etc.)

Step #4 – Cook and enjoy! Our menus varied of course but I think the team’s favorite meal was my Plank Salmon with Red Pepper Aioli and Grilled Asparagus. The key to our menus was lean proteins, vegetables and fruit. Basically anything that provided fuel without weighing them down.


With almost 40 people it’s pretty hard for food to go to waste. Of course towards the end of the trip I was reusing leftovers in varying ways and packed a cooler with any leftovers we could take on the plane ride home. If I learned one lesson about feeding athletes, it’s that food is key to their success. As I mentioned, lean proteins, fruits and vegetables are the fuel that keeps them going. Their portion size is typically a bit more than your average guest, but the level of gratitude higher. I’d say I completed my challenge and added a new category to my resume.

The best part of the experience: In the end Sarah and her team’s years of hard work paid off, placing 7th in the country!


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