Oct 28, 2021Major League Culinary Performance Nutrition
One hundred and sixty-two games over a six-month-long regular season. It’s an extended haul in Major League Baseball, and recovery throughout is pivotal to maintaining healthy and high-performing athletes. This goal is top of mind for the culinary and nutrition team working with the Cleveland Indians Baseball organization. Together, Sports Dietitians Grant Harris and Miguel Solis, and Executive Chef Jeremy Schroeder works as a collaborative unit across the organization’s minor league affiliates and major league team. Let’s take a look at some of the priorities and experiences they lead on when fueling for performance.
What are some of the top nutritional priorities in baseball?
Hydration is a foundational need for all athletes, but maybe not the first to come to mind for baseball. Nutrition Coordinator and sports dietitian Grant Harris explains, “Hydration is one of the things we hammer in baseball. While it’s not an overly strenuous sport the majority of the time, players do still sweat and end up cramping, or worse. This is especially true since we play in a variety of environments, from the dry, arid climate of Arizona during Spring Training, to the sweltering, humid locations on the East Coast and Midwest.” This theme is part of a broader priority: knowing how to prepare for and adjust to constant change. “Eating on the road and creating consistent eating routines is likely nutritionally where minor league players can struggle the most,” says Minor League Dietitian Miguel Solis. “They travel on a bus sometimes up to 12 hours per trip, which can disrupt their sleep and their appetite. Trying to work through that can be challenging, but it has a high reward when the player is able to adjust to constant shifts every 3 to 4 days.” As far as being proactive and prepared, Harris adds, “Recovery and health are essential. The reality is, you’re not going to avoid injuries completely. This makes being ready with rehabilitation plans key to getting athletes back to full health and playing on the field.”
What does nutrition look like before, during, after games?
Fueling for a long day is a continuous cycle. “Players arrive at the ballpark five hours prior to game time, so there is ample opportunity for fueling. Leading up to the game athletes will receive treatment from athletic trainers, get a lift in, throw bullpens, hit in batting practice, and take on other preparation,” says Harris. “This is all book-ended with an arrival meal, and then a post-bullpen/batting practice or pre-game meal, ensuring they’re not only fueled and recovering from these activities but also fueled for the game.” Executive Chef Jeremy Schroeder emphasizes meal timing and product quality. “The arrival meal depends on game time. A 1 PM game would start with a breakfast spread and omelet action station. We provide both comfort items and nutritionally lean and complex items to meet individual player’s needs, and occasionally cater in extra items like sushi and Latin dishes to satisfy the diverse culture of our roster.” The focus of pre-game meals tends to be simpler. “Think lean proteins, vinaigrette-based sauces, simple easy-to-digest carbohydrates, assorted vegetables, and a grab-and-go item,” says Schroeder.
During a game, Harris says, “The majority of the athletes have access to the Clubhouse. When individual players are up to bat, others are able to get snacks or hydration as needed.” Players who are limited are the relief pitchers, who are in the bullpen throughout the game. “Games typically last about three hours, so relief pitchers will pack a snack bag to make sure they stay fueled and ready to be called into the game whenever necessary.”
Post-game, “We have a meal prepared by our team culinary staff so players can effectively recover immediately,” says Harris. Schroeder explains, “Post-game is very different from the other two meals, we typically pull out the red carpet and provide very luxurious and creative meals such as a steamed bun action station, ribeye steak cooked to perfection, and assorted raw bar.” He notes that occasionally depending on the length of the homestand they will implement a catered meal after 1 PM games so players can leave quickly and spend time with family.
At the minor league level, Solis explains some differences. Here, players arrive around 12 or 1 PM at the stadium for a 7 PM game and are expected to have already eaten at least one meal. “Players are provided a pre-game meal which is usually built around grab-and-go entrées like a sandwich, wrap, or a bowl.” He notes that during the game strength and conditioning coaches play a big role in the fueling plan where peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, protein and granola bars, and fruit products are typically offered. “Post-game we do a full spread meal starting with 6 to 8 ounces of protein, 1 ½ cups of starchy carbohydrate, and a vegetable.”
Is there a periodized approach to menu development that you follow?
“In-season is our time to maintain the progress made during the off-season and preserve as much healthy, lean tissue as possible,” says Harris. It’s a balance of nutrient density and flavor variety to avoid menu fatigue. Solis explains they talk with the strength and conditioning coach to go over workloads the players are programmed to have and reflect that on the menu. “Usually a recovery day will focus on whole grains, fatty fish, lean proteins, crowd-pleasing vegetables, and fruit smoothies. For high activity days, we will offer higher calorie foods to help players meet their needs, like barbeque brisket or pasta carbonara,” says Solis. Harris points out that with the amount of travel faced as a sport, there is ample opportunity to implement menus of local delicacies or cultural dishes specific to a region to keep nutrient intake varied and diverse. “Pre- and post-game shakes are also individualized across the season for player needs, whether that be for energy during the game, recovery post-game, maintaining or gaining lean body mass LBM, supporting healing, or other factors,” says Harris.
What are strategies to increase nutrient density in performance meals that athletes will enjoy?
One of the easiest strategies is “hiding” ingredients that athletes might not gravitate towards. “Our chefs are excellent at creating nutrient-dense sauces and toppings involving multiple fruits, vegetables, and spices. By layering flavors we are able to provide a full meal that tastes amazing and has many different micronutrient profiles,” says Harris. To increase vegetable intake, Solis adds, “One of the strategies I use most with our Latin players is to encourage them to cut vegetables in small pieces and mix it with their rice. This type of medley rice is often on the menu, too. Another recipe we like to do is jalapeno mashed potatoes or jalapeno rice, which we do by pureeing spinach and folding it into the mashed potatoes with jalapeno, so players are eating a known food, with a different color and flavor than they are used to.”
How do you get to incorporate or consider foods from different cultures and why is this important?
“Baseball is known as America’s Game, but it has really been adopted by nations around the world and we continue to see more diverse rosters from a global recruiting pool,” says Harris. Latin America is a main international scouting location, with a majority of teams having a training complex in the Dominican Republic to help develop the raw talent in these countries. It makes sense that Latin American cuisine has been implemented as one of the main options on daily menus. Harris continues that, “Being able to provide culturally accurate food options for these players is essential to maintaining their interest in fueling appropriately. Many of these dishes are centered around rice, beans, and meat, which can make providing a diverse intake a challenge. Encouraging players to try different cultural food options is my daily goal, even if it’s rarely met with success.” Solis adds, “For me personally, understanding a player’s culture is super important to relate to them and explore the importance of nutrition as it relates to performance. Most players from the Dominican have never left their country and their level of English will vary depending on their education and economical resources. So if they are in a new place, away from family, friends, and anything that resembles their country, they hold on to their food as a way to remember their roots. I think that respecting and working with that identity is the best way to ensure that the players begin to have an open mind to the food served, which they might have never seen before.”
What are some interesting food requests you get, or fun menu options you get to provide?
As Harris mentioned before, having such a long season presents the challenge of food and menu fatigue. Schroeder adds though too that “No matter the culture, players are creatures of habit. Options need to be diverse as we strive to prevent players ordering out food elsewhere.”
Made-to-order food options at home and road clubhouses let players have a choice, which helps inspire interest in food and fueling. “Quesadillas,” says Harris. “I’ve never made or ordered more quesadillas in my life. Such a simple item, yet it provides a good basis of protein and quick carbohydrates that our players seemingly never get tired of.” A couple of Solis’ favorite meals to cook for players are mangu, which is a mash of green plantains with butter and pickled onions.
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“This is a breakfast staple in the Dominican and something that I really look forward to myself. Another item that I love to make is sancocho which is a stew of different meats (chicken, pork, beef, or combination) flavored with sofrito, cilantro, and thickened with a variety of starchy vegetables like potatoes, sweet potatoes, plantains, and yuca.” As far as other uncommon favorites, Schroeder points to octopus ceviche. “It’s not weird to me, but can be uncommon at a typical home in the states,” Solis recalls players grabbing bananas and mixing it in with their rice or their protein. Food is not always just fuel. It’s social, cultural, and meant to be enjoyed. Sometimes, it’s the simple things that keep athletes happy and fueled at the end of the day.
Written by Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietitians Association Registered Dietitians (RD). To learn more about sports nutrition and CPSDA, go to www.sportsrd.org.