For athletes with specific training and nutritional needs, the holiday season can be tricky to navigate. Do you channel your inner bon vivant and have a third helping of pecan pie, or do you take care to avoid piling your plate with foods that might make tomorrow’s training run a little harder? Ultimately, the best defense is a good offense: if you bring a homemade dish to every party, you ensure that you have something hearty and healthy(ish) to eat.
Sports nutrition expert and Feed Zone Cookbook author Allen Lim explains that when it comes to eating rich, delicious food, context is key: “What you eat in celebration will have little bearing on the big picture. It’s not what you eat on one day—it’s what you consistently eat every other day that really matters. But with classic holiday favorites, almost every recipe could be toned down slightly, so that we can still enjoy a good portion without it being so sweet, fatty, or calorically dense. It’s a balance.”
So, don’t stress out about that third piece of pie, but check out these athlete favorites for some potluck inspiration.
Italian Arancini with Red Pepper Oil
These rice balls are the perfect fare for a large gathering, Lim says. Arancini is a holiday party classic, and Lim and fellow chef Biju Thomas’ recipe calls for fresh, whole-food ingredients. They’re traditionally served on their own, but Lim also likes to use them as salad toppers. Bring these to a party on a big bed of mixed greens, and use the red pepper oil as a dressing.
- 2 cups uncooked short-grain rice (Short-grain brown rice works well.)
- 1 red bell pepper
- Coarse salt, to taste
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 1 cup ricotta
- 1 tablespoon freshly grated Parmesan
- 2 eggs, lightly beaten
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh Italian herbs of your choice, like basil, tarragon, thyme, or parsley
- Zest from half a lemon
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 egg plus 1 tablespoon water, lightly beaten
- 1 cup gluten-free panko or breadcrumbs
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- Freshly grated Parmesan
Heat the oven to 250 degrees Fahrenheit. Prepare the rice in a rice cooker or on the stovetop, following the instructions on the package. While the rice is cooking, blanch the bell pepper in salted boiling water for no more than one minute. (The skin should be wrinkled.) Run the pepper under cold water, then peel off the skin and remove the stem and seeds. Place the pepper in a blender with the olive oil and purée. Season to taste with coarse salt and set aside.
Once the cooked rice is cool enough to handle, transfer it into a large bowl and add the ricotta, Parmesan, eggs, herbs, lemon zest, and salt. Mix together with a wooden spoon. (It will be sticky.) Shape into large, firm balls, about two inches in diameter (the size of a golf ball). This recipe makes about 32 rice balls. Brush egg-and-water mixture onto each rice ball, then roll in the breadcrumbs.
In large sauté pan or skillet over medium-high heat, heat the olive oil, then add the rice balls in batches. Don’t crowd the pan. Turn frequently until golden brown on all sides. Each batch will take about eight to ten minutes to cook.
Transfer to a baking sheet and keep warm in the oven while you finish making the remaining rice balls. Pile the rice balls on a serving platter and top with freshly grated Parmesan. Serve with red pepper oil, pesto, or your favorite marinara.
Sriracha Honey Turkey Meatballs
Cyclocross racer and Red Bull athlete Ellen Noble has been racing since she was seven years old, and she has learned to dial in optimal nutrition without sacrificing taste. These sweet-and-savory meatballs are her go-to holiday party treat, whether they’re served with toothpicks as an appetizer or as part of the main course—and the leftovers make for a great post-workout protein boost. They keep well in the freezer, so prep ahead if you know party season will be hectic.
- 2 pounds ground turkey
- 1 cup panko or breadcrumbs
- 2 large eggs
- Garlic powder and salt to taste
- 1/4 cup sriracha
- 3 tablespoons soy sauce
- 3 tablespoons rice vinegar
- 3 tablespoons honey
- Fresh ginger and garlic, finely chopped, to taste
- Splash of sesame oil
- Sesame seeds
Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Mix ground turkey, panko or breadcrumbs, eggs, garlic powder, and salt. Roll into one-inch round balls. Place on baking sheet and cook until browned and cooked through (about 22 minutes).
While they’re baking, make the sauce. In a medium saucepan, mix sriracha, soy sauce, rice vinegar, honey, ginger and garlic, and sesame oil. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until it comes to a boil. Then, reduce heat and let simmer for eight to ten minute or until the sauce thickens.
Coat meatballs and top with sesame seeds to serve. If freezing, freeze meatballs and sauce separately.
Break up the sea of charcuterie and cheese plates with this vegan mushroom spread from chef and yoga instructor Stepfanie Romine. It’s a great way to offer people with common dietary restrictions, like lactose intolerance, a chance to enjoy more than just veggies and hummus at a cocktail party. “Duxelles is a classic French recipe base that infuses flavor into any dish,” Romine explains. “You can change it up based on the mushrooms, alcohol, and fats you have on hand.” It’s great served on toasted baguette slices or crackers as an hors d’oeuvre, and it works wonderfully as a stuffing or topping for eggs, meats, and other dishes.
- 1/4 cup safflower or olive oil
- 1 pound tender mushrooms, any variety, caps only, finely chopped
- 2 tablespoons minced garlic
- 1/4 cup minced shallots or 1/2 cup finely diced yellow onion
- 1/2 cup dry red or white wine or 1/4 cup dry sherry
- Sea salt
Place a saucepan over medium-high heat, then add two tablespoons of oil. Once hot, add the mushrooms, garlic, shallots or onions, and a pinch of salt and pepper. Cook for five minutes, stirring often, until the mixture is dry and starting to get some color. Add about half of the wine, stirring and scraping to remove any cooked-on bits. Once evaporated, add the remaining oil and another generous pinch of salt and pepper. Continue cooking, stirring often, for another five minutes. If the shallots are in danger of burning, reduce heat to medium. Add the remaining wine, scraping the bottom as before, and cook until completely evaporated.
Let cool, then season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve alongside toasted baguette slices or crackers.
Recipe reprinted with permission from Cooking with Healing Mushrooms (Ulysses Press, July 2018) by Stepfanie Romine.
Hearty Beef Chili
Professional cyclist Nigel Ellsay is one of the Rally Health team’s top riders and top chefs. His personal favorite meal when temperatures drop is a hearty beef chili seasoned with unique flavors like coffee and molasses. The best part about chili is that it’s easy to prep in advance: you can simmer it in a slow cooker all day or cook it in advance and freeze it. Serve as an appetizer at a cocktail party with sturdy tortilla chips for scooping, in bowls over rice as an entree, or with a side of sourdough bread.
- 1 cup hot coffee
- 2 dried chiles (ancho, poblano or chipotle)
- Olive oil
- 1 diced red onion
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 teaspoon chili powder
- 1 bay leaf
- 5 diced garlic cloves
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- Salt and pepper
- 2 28-ounce cans peeled whole tomatoes
- 2 pounds beef (brisket or another pot roast–style cut), cut into 2-centimeter cubes
- 2 tablespoons molasses
- 2 bell peppers, chopped (not green)
- 1 28-ounce can kidney beans
- Optional toppings: Greek yogurt, sour cream, chopped avocado, chopped cilantro, hot sauce
Before you start frying and prepping anything else, soak the dried chiles in the hot coffee. In a pot, Dutch oven, or slow cooker, heat the olive oil over medium and sauté the onions, cumin, paprika, oregano, chili powder, and bay leaf for ten minutes.
Chop the now partially rehydrated chiles. Add the garlic, bay leaf, cinnamon, and both types of chiles to the pan. Sauté for one to two minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Add the rest of the ingredients, except the bell peppers and beans, including the coffee you soaked the chiles in. Smash the tomatoes with your spoon after you add them to the pot. Add more salt and pepper to taste.
Cover and simmer for three hours on the stovetop, or five hours on high in a slow cooker. Add the bell peppers and beans. Taste and add salt and pepper, if necessary. Simmer another 45 minutes.
Top with Greek yogurt, sour cream, chopped avocado, chopped cilantro, and hot sauce. Serve alongside tortilla chips, rice, or sourdough bread.
White Chocolate Coconut Bars
“These may sound decadent, but they offer decent protein levels from the nuts, protein powder, and nut butter,” says Alan Murchison, author of The Cycling Chef cookbook. “Lee, a training buddy of mine, asked me to make a protein bar recipe that actually works, after having countless disasters trying to make his own. The aim was to create that sweet-and-salty combo that we crave after hard training sessions or long rides, to restock those glycogen and electrolyte stores, and to help repair tired muscles.” Chunk the bars into smaller pieces for a sweet party treat with a nutritious kick.
- 1 cup oats
- 1/4 cup sweetened dried coconut
- 1 teaspoon Himalayan salt
- 2 tablespoons goji berries
- 1/2 cup dried mango, chopped
- 1/2 cup dried cherries, chopped
- 1/2 cup cashew nuts
- 1 tablespoon chia seeds
- 1/2 cup milk
- 1/3 cup vanilla protein powder
- 2 tablespoons runny honey
- 1/3 cup white chocolate chips
- 1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon coconut oil
- 1/3 cup peanut butter
In a bowl, mix together all the dry ingredients and set aside. In another bowl, whisk together the milk, vanilla protein powder, and runny honey until you have a smooth paste.
In a saucepan over low heat, melt the white chocolate chips and coconut oil, then stir in the peanut butter. In a large mixing bowl, combine the milk mix with the white chocolate mix, then stir in the dry ingredients. Line a shallow 9×9-inch baking tin with greaseproof paper and spray with olive oil, then press the mixture into the tin.
Place in the fridge for 60 to 90 minutes to firm up before slicing into approximately 15 bars.
Easy Chocolate Protein Mousse
Short on time but promised to bring something sweet to the party? Try Murchison’s ultra-simple chocolate protein mousse—it combines ingredients that many athletes already have at home, like banana, coconut milk, and protein powder. A single serving packs in 26 grams of protein, so save leftovers for a post-workout treat.
- 2 1/2 cups coconut milk
- 5 tablespoon honey
- 1 1/2 cups chocolate protein powder
- 1 2/3 tablespoons cocoa nibs
- 1/3 cup cocoa powder
- 1/3 cup finely shredded coconut
- 1 2/3 tablespoons chia seeds
- Optional topping: Chopped cashews, chopped banana, fresh cherries
In a food processor, blend the coconut milk, honey, protein powder, cocoa nibs, and cocoa powder. Stir in the coconut, chia seeds, and cashews. Spoon the mixture into ten ramekins and place in the fridge for 30 minutes or until firm. Serve with chopped cashews, banana, or fresh cherries on the side.
Reprinted from The Cycling Chef by Alan Murchison with permission by Bloomsbury Sport, Bloomsbury Publishing, Plc.