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Ten things I learned teaching young hockey prospects how to cook…and how these lessons are universal

by Lisa McDowell / Team Sports Nutritionist, Detroit Red Wings

Every year, I look forward to my contributions at Detroit Red Wings prospect camp. Much of the structure of the week-long event is focused on teaching. Teaching the players how to train, how to recover and how to carry themselves like professionals in every aspect of their life.

As the team dietitian, I spend my time discussing a wide variety of topics like pre-game and post-game meals, electrolyte and fluid repletion, optimal blood values for performance and safe supplementation, if needed. I concentrate on teaching the prospects how to actually build the ideal plate to fuel their bodies for optimal performance. I quickly learned that these guys do not think in terms of glycogen stores or ATP (energy) production. They think in terms of breakfast, lunch and dinner.

My job is to translate these complex concepts involving meal timing, repletion and functional ingredients into simple meal plans. We did that by building meals together. Each day, we ate lunch together and discussed why certain recipes were chosen. Elite athletes depend on proper hydration, nutrition, recovery and sleep to meet their genetic potential. We know great nutrition will not make an average athlete become elite, but a poor diet can make an elite athlete average. It is my job to help our prospects reach their genetic potential by helping them optimize their body composition, lab values and energy stores.

Teaching 45 prospects from all over the world how to cook is always a challenge. This past July, we collaborated with Great Lakes Culinary Institute at Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City, and hosted a Red Wings version of 'Chopped,' the popular Food Network challenge show. Each team consisted of four players partnered with a chef to create a performance plate utilizing ingredients from the Farm at St. Joe's Hospital and from Meijer. Our equipment managers served as judges during the cook off. See highlight video from prospect camp here:

Here are some of the top lessons learned:

Cooking can be confusing - especially if you don't read English. Many of our players come from Europe, so it is essential to make it easy. No need for 25-step recipes. We are not trying to teach these young men to perfect Julia Child's Boeuf Bourguignon. In fact, the chefs did not follow any recipes. We simply assembled fresh, whole-food ingredients, and always finished the dish with fresh herbs and spices.

Cooking can be time-consuming, so make it quick. Plan ahead for the week by chopping fresh veggies and fruits for easy assembly. Make large batches of grains such as lentils, quinoa, millet, farro and rice to combine with favorite vegetables.

Make it convenient. Use ingredients that are readily available. We used seasonal ingredients like Michigan-grown corn, beets, tomatoes, carrots, fish, cherries, peppers, spinach, kale, chard, broccoli, garlic, ginger, turmeric and herbs. Nothing beats delicious ingredients that were locally grown in nutrient-rich soil without the use of pesticides.

When they prepare it, they eat it. You could see the pride on their faces when they realized how much they could create with just a few food lessons.

Emphasize what goes into the recipes, not what comes out. We challenged them to get as many colors as possible from micronutrient dense foods. We know the polyphenols, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals are key to helping athletes recover so they can train harder the next day.

Seeing is understanding. Healthy ingredients are universal and multi-lingual. We enjoy the rich colors and creative pairings. It is one thing to observe a chef create a master plate but so much more impactful to do it yourself.

Simple concepts, solving complex challenges. I can guarantee you, every player who attended prospect camp understood the need for protein and plants at every meal. They know spinach makes nitric oxide which helps the blood flow to their muscles better. They understand guacamole is a good fat that provides the building blocks for testosterone.

When you eat food that was alive, you feel alive. Processed food with artificial ingredients does not provide what we need for our bodies to thrive. When instructing athletes on how to build a power plate, I make sure they know how to read a label to understand if the food has added antibiotics, hormones, refined sugar, hydrogenated oils and other ingredients that have not been connected to health or elite athletic performance. Every meal they eat is an opportunity to feel stronger and train harder. This is true for everyone - so when you feel particularly alive and strong, think back to the meal you had and remember that feeling. Ingredients matter. Healthy ingredients that taste amazing are the secret sauce to an athlete's diet.

There is excitement in trying something new. Part of the competition was to build a healthy dessert parfait. Many had never tried ground flax seeds, chia seeds, certain spices, almond butter, acai fruit, pomegranates, pepitos or even pistachios and Brazil nuts.

Make it fun and competitive. In our competition, the last-place team had to do all the dishes. Share your favorites and host your own cooking challenge with friends. Sharing meals strengthens the bond between friends and teammates.

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