Dance Health

Top 10 tips for making cafeteria food work for a dancer’s body

Cafeteria food.

School’s back! It is easy to make fun of cafeteria food or dismiss it entirely, but believe it or not, today’s school food service is better than it ever has been. Students now have more diverse food stations, well-stocked salad bars, but also overflowing dessert and drink bars. Today, even having vegan options is seen as a selling point in food service management, and students’ preferences are acknowledged much more so than in the past. It comes down to making smart choices so your body can get the fuel it needs. Here are 10 tips for making the most of your school’s cafeteria food. 

#1. Never skip breakfast.

If you’re lucky enough to be on a meal plan, that means you don’t have to make your own breakfast. Congratulations. Enjoy this blissful time in your life, and live it up by never skipping breakfast. There is a mountain of research that shows that breakfast boosts mental and physical performance. Especially on hard dance days, make complex carbohydrates like oats, muesli and whole grains the stars of your morning, accompanied by fruit, smoothies or yogurt. Sprinkle on some nuts or seeds, and grab a piece of fruit on your way out for your mid-morning snack. A hard boiled egg can be an easy protein source, in addition to the protein in oats and nuts, but limit or avoid bacon, hot dogs and sausage per the recommendations by the World Health Organization and Harvard School of Public Health to limit or avoid processed meats1,2.

#2. Make at least half your plate veggies at every lunch and dinner.

This could mean a dark leafy green salad, cooked veggies, soup, even a sweet potato, but start with the vegetables, and make them the stars of your lunch and dinner. It’s so easy to make a huge salad or add extra veggies to your burrito, sandwich or wrap.

#3. Limit or avoid excess calories from sugar sweetened beverages.

When free soda is offered at every lunch and dinner, it’s too easy to unknowingly add an additional 150-300 calories a day just in high fructose corn syrup in a cup. Make soda an occasional treat.

#4. Take advice from veteran dancers.

University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA) graduate Abigrace Diprima says, “Eating as many vegetables as I could always helped me, and the soups were not always so bad. Luckily, our Dean tried to make sure the cafeteria always kept whole wheat pasta, brown rice and quinoa available. If the salad bar had chickpeas or edamame, I would always add them to pasta, soup and other vegetables for protein! Even though finding the right balance of foods could be hard sometimes, the dancers at UNCSA made it work by getting very creative. Susan Jaffe always made sure we had an ‘Elite Artist Station’ for whole grains, grilled chicken and sautéed veggies. We were lucky to have faculty who pushed us to have the fuel we needed.”

#5. Indulge in treats only on occasion.

Discipline yourself to only get treats from the dessert bar occasionally, not every meal. It’s completely fine for dancers to have treats, but a dancer’s body doesn’t need them every single day.

#6. Go meatless on Mondays.

Hundreds of schools throughout the U.S. have embraced Meatless Monday3. Choose the veggie pizza, bean and rice burrito, tacos or a veggie burger. Depending on what’s offered, try a curry or a stir-fry or even a down home Southern meal of black-eyed peas, sweet potatoes and garlicky greens. It’s easier than ever to go meatless on campus, and you can get more nutrients with far less fat than a burger and fries.

#7. Dancers need protein.

Refueling after a long day of class and rehearsals is important, but if the chicken is deep fried and the steak is unappetizingly greasy, then don’t forget that protein comes in many other different foods, so see what else is available to you. Only ½ cup of beans has between 14-20 grams of protein4. See if there are beans, lentils, quinoa, whole grains, nuts, seeds, soy or baked/ grilled fish available at other areas of the cafeteria.

#8. Avoid fried foods.

A cafeteria staple is of course French fries. Frying can add 100-300 extra calories to a perfectly reasonable food that would be great on its own like the humble potato, for example. White potatoes with the skin are a nice source of vitamin C, iron and performance-enhancing carbohydrates. Sweet potatoes are great sources of Vitamin A (good for skin and immune function), and they don’t raise blood sugar as much as refined carbohydrates.

#9. Make time in your schedule to eat.

Everyone’s busy, but going for too long between meals without eating is one of the biggest pitfalls I see in my dancer clients. Skipping meals and snacks is also a way to increase risk for injury, decrease performance, and it contributes to anxiety. If you have access to a cafeteria or quick-serve snack bar, use it.

#10. Make your voice heard.

If you want your cafeteria to stock healthier options, don’t be afraid to speak up and make some suggestions for foods you would like to see at your school. Dancers’ bodies have unique nutritional requirements, so dancers can be leaders in making healthy changes at the cafeteria. Respectfully write a note to the food service management with ideas and suggestions.

Emily Harrison Dance NutritionistBy Emily C. Harrison MS, RD, LD of Nutrition for Great Performances.

Emily Cook Harrison MS, RD, LD 
Emily is a registered dietitian and holds both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in nutrition from Georgia State University. Her master’s thesis research was on elite level ballet dancers and nutrition and she has experience providing nutrition services for weight management, sports nutrition, disordered eating, disease prevention, and food allergies. Emily was a professional dancer for eleven years with the Atlanta Ballet and several other companies. She is a dance educator and the mother of two young children. She now runs the Centre for Dance Nutrition and Healthy Lifestyles. She can be reached at


  1. Carcinogenicity of Consumption of Red and Processed Meat. World Health Organization. Lancet Oncol 2015.
  2. Harvard School of Public Health.
  4. USDA Database for Standard Reference
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