10 Meal-Planning Tips from U.S. Ski Team Chef Allen Tran

published Mar 24, 2016
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(Image credit: Sarah Brunson / USSA)

Planning your family’s meals for the week ahead takes discipline, creativity, and culinary know-how, but feeding the appetites and fueling the energy of an entire gold-medal-vying professional sports team? That’s next-level meal-prep wizardry. So when Allen Tran, head chef and dietician for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, volunteered to share how he keeps his athletes ready to hit the slopes, we furiously took notes.

(Image credit: Anjali Prasertong)

1. Get inspired by the markets.

The first thing I do when I arrive at a particular stop on the World Cup circuit is check out the local grocery stores and markets and see what’s available and what looks good. For stops where the World Cup tour comes back every year, my approach is much like what you would see from a secret agent movie: I have a “dossier” of the location’s highest-quality meats, vegetables, and other ingredients. For example, the south Tirol region in Austria has great dairy and eggs, while the Dolomites in Italy have wonderful herbs and vegetables.

(Image credit: Coco Morante)

2. Keep things interesting.

European food can become monotonous over the course of a four- to five-month season, so I plan bolder menus with Mexican, Thai, and American BBQ themes to mix things up. I bring a lot of my own spices and hot sauce over to Europe to make those recipes possible.

3. Know your kitchen (and yourself).

The food truck in Europe looks big from the outside, but in reality that truck needs to include athlete seating as well as the kitchen and food storage areas. So my actual cooking space is on the small side, with electric burners that are more in line with a New York City studio apartment than a typical commercial kitchen. I use slow-cooking methods as well as pressure-cooking to maximize space and time. The slow cooker is a great appliance, as it can make one-pot meals with almost no effort. Just chop all the ingredients, layer them in, and set the timer.

(Image credit: Leela Cyd)

4. Choose multi-tasking foods.

Look at ingredients that can do double (or triple) duty in your recipes. A roast chicken can be an elegant dinner, and the leftover meat can be used in a sandwich or a soup. Quinoa can be served hot, but it can also be used cold in a “tabbouleh” salad. Roasted vegetables can be a side dish the first day and integrated in a cold salad the next day.

5. Make the most of your food.

With limited food storage, I also try to follow the natural life cycle of food items I buy. The freshest apples are served in a fruit or mixed-greens salad, and before they’re past their prime I’ll use them in my barbecue-inspired pork braise. Spinach is a salad staple, but if I end up with more than I can store in the truck, I’ll wilt a lot of it down with white wine into a small volume and incorporate it into something like a sweet potato and spinach whole-wheat quesadilla.

Take a Look Inside Allen’s Kitchen Toolbox

I’ve actually repurposed a hardware toolbox to keep all of my kitchen equipment that I bring on my checked luggage every winter season. My go-to items include:

  • My microplane grater for cheese, garlic, and citrus zest.
  • My trusted flat-edged wooden spoon for scraping caramelized fondue off the bottom of the pan.
  • My sharp chef’s knife for general prep.
  • Small deli containers, which are key to keeping things organized in my fridge.
  • A rubber anti-slip mat for underneath my cutting board (which works so much better than a wet cloth).

6. Don’t feel guilty about using pre-cut veggies.

Learning to be comfortable with a chef’s knife is the greatest skill for someone wanting to cook, but at the same time, don’t be afraid to use shortcuts like a food processor, a mandoline (use the hand guard!) or even pre-cut fresh or frozen veggies (e.g., pre-cut broccoli florets, shredded carrots, and cut mushrooms for an easy stir-fry). As long as it gets you cooking, that’s a win.

7. Consider who you’re cooking for.

From a sports nutrition perspective, the ski athletes need a good amount of calories and protein to support the hard work they do on the mountain. My meals include an ample amount of lean protein and nutrient-dense ingredients like Greek yogurt, dark leafy greens, and whole-food starches, like whole grains, sweet potatoes, and polenta. Because fresh pasta often contains a great deal of eggs, it’s actually a good base starch to work from, as it’s balanced with a fair amount of protein. Paired with veggies and a lean meat sauce, that’s one good go-to meal.

(Image credit: Sara Kate Gillingham)

8. Don’t forget the fat.

One other aspect that’s important is incorporating healthy fats in the meal. Luckily high-quality olive oil is plentiful in Europe. Avocados are becoming more prevalent in grocery stores, so adding avocado or whipping up guacamole is a great way to add variety and calorie-dense healthy fats.

9. Make breakfast for dinner.

A lot of the athletes like “brinner,” aka breakfast for dinner. I make a quiche that uses Greek yogurt instead of cream, or French toast made with whole-wheat bread.

(Image credit: Emma Christensen)

10. When in doubt, make pulled pork.

A classic American dish, pulled pork can easily be made in a slow cooker. It’s mainly pork shoulder (Boston butt), rubbed with my secret pork spice rub (it’s mainly smoked paprika, dry mustard, cumin, garlic powder, brown sugar, and salt), and placed in a slow cooker over a bed of chopped onions and apples and a jar of applesauce. I serve it with an apple-red cabbage slaw dressed with a mustard sauce, whole-wheat buns, BBQ sauce, and a slice or two of avocado.