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Sheila's Nutrition Digest Vol. 7 - Fast Fuel for Busy Athletes
By:  Sheila Kealey   (2005/06/29)

Sheila's Nutrition Digest Series: In this new series, XC Ottawa member Sheila Kealey will help athletes choose the best foods for performance and overall health. Sheila has a Masters in Public Health and works in the field of nutritional epidemiology as a Research Associate with the University of California, San Diego.

Most athletes are busy people, trying to balance their training with work, school, family, or other activities. With all these commitments and lack of energy at the end of the day, preparing healthful meals can become a challenge. Since your diet will help adequately fuel your workouts, can improve your performance and recovery, and also promote overall health, figuring out how to eat well should be an important part of your overall training plan.

Fortunately, being short on time doesn't mean you have to sacrifice health and nutrition. But do set aside a little time for planning and thinking about how you can improve your meals and achieve some nutrition goals. With a little practice, you'll be able to sit down to a delicious and nutritious meal in less than 15 minutes.

Here are some tips that you may find helpful.


Quick meals begin at the grocery store. If you stock up on the right ingredients, it's easy to put together a nutritious flavorful meal in no time. Today's supermarkets offer an incredible variety of convenient products that take much of the effort out of cooking. Stocking your cupboards, freezer, and fridge with healthy staples is a critical step to a good diet, and will give you many options when you get home from a workout ravenous but too tired to cook. Here are some great staples to have on hand:

Frozen Assets

A well-stocked freezer is a great time saver. Many prepackaged frozen items let you use the exact amount you need, which means less to clean up. Also, use your freezer to store leftovers when you do cook extra, so you can have an instant meal on a busy night.

FROZEN VEGETABLES are quick since they require no washing, chopping, or peeling. They are also nutritious, since freezing is a very efficient method of preserving most nutrients. Mixed vegetables, pepper strips, peas, corn, spinach, are just some of the great options available. Serve as a side dish, or toss into soups, sauces, or pasta dishes. Add frozen peas to your tuna or salmon salad to boost the flavor and nutrition (and keep the filling cool if you're packing a lunch!).

FROZEN FRUIT is good to have on hand when your supply of fresh fruit is running low. You'll find a wide variety available in most grocery stores that often includes blueberries, mixed berries, and mangoes. Blend into a smoothie with fruit juice and milk or yogurt, thaw and eat plain, or use as a topping for cereal.

INDIVIDUALLY QUICK FROZEN chicken breasts or fish fillets are a good protein source for your meals. Consider also frozen meatballs (lean meat, chicken, veggie), which are precooked and just need a minute of thawing: they're also convenient since you just pour out the number you want. Simply thaw meatballs in the microwave or add while heating sauces or soups.

In Your Pantry

The convenience of canned products doesn't compromise nutrition. Fruits and vegetables are processed soon after being harvested, which helps to "lock in" certain nutrients. Other canned foods like beans or canned fish are nutrient dense, and will help you put together a great-tasting meal loaded with the important fuel that your muscles need for growth and performance.

Canned BEANS (legumes) are among the most versatile and nutritious foods available - they're full of protein, fiber, and disease-fighting compounds. Substituting beans, peas, or lentils for meat has many health benefits and can be the foundation of a quick meal. Stock your cupboards with an assortment like chick peas, black beans, or kidney beans. Just rinse and toss in salads, soups, grain or pasta dishes, or puree or mash into healthy dips and spreads.

Great canned VEGETABLES to keep on hand include diced tomatoes, corn, artichoke hearts, and pureed pumpkin.

Canned TUNA and SALMON are quick and nutritious. Both are rich in protein, and salmon is an excellent source of omega-3 fats, which have been shown to help a number of conditions from cancer and heart disease to arthritis and mental health. Add to grain or pasta dishes, toss on a salad, or mix with cottage cheese for a sandwich filling.

PEANUT BUTTER is a dense source of calories, and a quick and easy option for busy athletes. Spread on a whole wheat bagel or bread, top with a banana, enjoy with ready-cut carrots. Peanut butter is a good source of healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fats and vitamin E, but just a moderate source of protein, so round off your meal with a glass of milk.

TOMATO SAUCE is a popular staple with many athletes, and it's a healthy choice. Processing tomatoes concentrates their protective compounds and makes them more bioavailable. For example, one half-cup of tomato sauce contains six times more of the antioxidant lycopene than a medium fresh tomato. Make your sauce more nutritious by adding frozen bell pepper strips, and you can boost the protein with canned tuna or beans.

PASTA is a staple of many athletes' diets. When possible, opt for a whole grain variety, since regular pasta is refined and has been stripped of the vitamins, fiber, and other nutrients that you'll find in whole grains.

Explore other WHOLE GRAINS like brown rice or bulgur. Since these take a little longer to cook, cook extra so you can have leftovers the next day.

In Your Fridge

Good fridge staples that will help you prepare quick meals include prewashed salad greens and ready to eat carrots, cottage cheese, eggs, flavorful cheeses (high in fat but with great flavor a little goes a long way), hummus, milk, and yogurt.


  • Cook one-pot meals, which are easy to prepare, make great leftovers, and have less to clean up.
  • Make items ahead when you have the time.
  • Double or triple recipes. Create new meals with leftovers, freeze for a busy night, or pack in a container for tomorrow's lunch.


Quick Bean Dip. Process (or mash with a fork) canned beans (kidney or black) with your favorite salsa. This is a great sandwich spread or dip.

Sandwich Suppers. Sandwiches are quick, versatile, and easy to prepare. Create a healthful sandwich with sliced tomatoes, sliced cucumbers, salad greens, a protein source (hummus, cheese, fish, meat). Use whole grain bread or wrap into a whole grain tortilla or pita.

Fast Chili. Combine three cans or drained kidney beans with 2 cups frozen mixed vegetables and 1 large can of diced tomatoes. Add cumin or cayenne to taste and heat in microwave or on stovetop until warm.

Salad for Supper. Start with prewashed salad greens (the greener the better, since this means more nutrients), add canned tuna or salmon, cherry tomatoes, chopped green onions, light feta cheese, and almonds. Eat with whole grain bread for a good carbohydrate source.

Tuna Pasta Salad. Start with cooked pasta, and add thawed frozen vegetables and canned tuna. Toss with Italian or Mediterranean-style salad dressing.

Southwestern Pasta Dish. Combine cooked pasta with black beans and salsa. Add frozen or canned corn for more nutrients.

Pizza Pronto. For the crust, use flat bread, pita bread, store-bought crust, or English muffins. Top with tomato sauce. Add whatever toppings you have on hand, and top with shredded cheese. Cook in 375 degree oven or toaster oven till warmed through and cheese is melted.

Spinach Frittata. Add thawed, frozen, chopped spinach (squeezed dry), minced onion, crumbled feta cheese and fresh herbs (optional) to beaten eggs. You can reduce the fat by using more egg whites than eggs (egg whites in a carton are convenient), but don't forgo egg yolks completely since they are full or important nutrients. Scramble as usual. Serve on whole grain toast.


Soups combine the textures and flavors of many ingredients. This variety not only satisfies the palate, but ensures that you're getting a wide range of nutrients. Soup also makes great leftovers. And soups can be quick! You don't need to hours chopping or toiling over a hot oven. Start with canned or frozen vegetables, and cook quickly on microwave or stovetop.

Minestrone in Minutes. Combine canned crushed tomatoes with chicken or vegetables broth, canned beans, and frozen vegetables. Heat and enjoy!

Speedy Gazpacho. In blender or food processor, combine vegetable juice, canned tomatoes, minced garlic, red onion, cucumber chunks, bell pepper chunks, splash of red wine vinegar, olive oil, and salt and pepper (adjust ingredient amounts to suit your tastes). This combination is loaded with vitamin C and other important nutrients, and may even help decrease inflammation and oxidative stress, according to a recent study conducted at Tufts University. In the study, volunteers who consumed 2 cups of gazpacho a day increased their blood levels of vitamin C, while decreasing concentrations of certain stress molecules associated with health impairment.


Flavor doesn't have to suffer when you rely on quick and convenient ingredients. Items like mustards, salsas, pestos, chutneys, spice blends, jarred garlic, or jarred minced ginger can quickly transform all kinds of ordinary dishes into something special. And if you do have a little time, garnishing your meals with fresh herbs, chopped chives or green onions will add color, flavor, and nutrients.

Interesting Reading. . .
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