The cheat meal.
It typically comes after a substantial streak of healthy eating as an incentive for a person to stay on their diet. The theory behind it is that a meal of gluttonous indulgence provides an outlet for comfort food pleasures but in a controlled environment. It makes sense in theory, but cheat meals bring about a host of problems. Not only do they encourage athletes to gorge themselves (and potentially undo all the progress they’ve made with their healthy eating), but it can also encourage a binge/restrict mindset, which isn’t healthy. Which is why many pro athletes now forgo traditional cheat meals.
RELATED: Why Cheat Meals Aren’t So Smart
What are they doing instead?
Turning to custom-prepared dishes that mimic the taste of traditional cheat meals but carry a much cleaner nutritional profile. Athletes can eat these meals more frequently than normal cheat meals while also staying on their “clean” diets—essentially, they’re having their cake and eating it too.
When Portland Trailblazers guard C. J. McCollum entered the NBA, he was addicted to fast food. “I loved it [throughout high school and college]. I would eat McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Taco Bell. I would eat it before playing in AAU tournaments where I had multiple games in a day,” McCollum told STACK. But when it came time came to renovate his diet to the pro level, he was worried he’d have to give all those foods up. One favorite food he was particularly afraid to let go? French fries. But then his personal chef introduced him to baked sweet potato fries, a healthier alternative that retains the comfort food profile of fast food fries. “They’re baked, they taste amazing and they’re much healthier than fast food fries,” McCollum says. Thanks to his new smart-yet-satisfying approach to eating, McCollum has been able to improve his diet and his play. Last season, he won the NBA’s Most Improved Player award.
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Von Miller, the four-time Pro Bowl linebacker for the Denver Broncos, ate Chik-fil-A every single day when he was at Texas A&M. That’s why suddenly eating nothing but kale and quinoa when he got to the NFL was not a realistic goal for him. But his diet has become remarkably clean thanks to his creative personal chef. “I’ve even created a way to cheat healthy. So my chef makes all the cheat meals I like in a healthier way. [For example], if I like fried rice from the Chinese restaurant, my chef might make it with brown rice cooked in a healthier way,” Miller recently told GQ.
Roy Hibbert, the two-time All-Star center for the Charlotte Hornets, has mastered this tactic thanks to Dr. Mike Roussell, his long-time nutritionist. Hibbert is disciplined in his nutrition, but he still craves comfort food favorites like chicken parmesan and french toast. “[Roy] really likes chicken parmesan. Whenever he goes to an Italian restaurant, he wants chicken parmesan. But chicken parmesan is traditionally breaded and then fried. Basically what we did was make a chicken parm that fits with our plan. We ended up taking the chicken breast, putting it in an egg wash, adding wholewheat breadcrumbs and then baking it. We still use some mozzarella cheese, some tomato sauce. He really likes it. Another thing is French toast. He really likes French toast. So we do baked French toast sticks with whole wheat bread. For syrup, his chef mashes up berries. So it’s kind of a berry sauce. There’s still something to dip it in and spread on it, but it’s not just pure sugar from syrup,” Roussell told STACK.
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The strategy is a win-win. Players get to eat the foods they enjoy while staying within the bounds of their nutrition strategy. I know what you’re thinking—“that’s great, but I don’t have my own private chef.” I hear you. That’s why we’ve enlisted the help of Terry Bell, team chef for the Cleveland Cavaliers, to share some of his special recipes. As the chef for the reigning NBA champions, Bell knows all about the balancing act of food as fuel but also something you actually want to eat. “It’s a fine line,” Bell says. “You don’t want to go so crazy healthy that guys get scared away and go eat at the local fast food joint. But you also don’t want to soak everything in butter and make guys feel terrible. You’ve got to find the right balance,” Bell says.
These three recipes from Bell will have you indulging like a pro.
Cauliflower Fried Rice
If you love the fried rice you’d get from a Chinese food takeout joint, you’ll enjoy this healthier twist from Bell. Cauliflower is high in fiber, protein and vitamin C.
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
- Put cauliflower in a mixing bowl, toss it with the olive oil and salt and pepper. Spray nonstick cooking spay on a cooking tray. Evenly spread the cauliflower onto cooking tray. Place into oven and roast for 15 minutes.
- Once that’s ready, heat a wok or large sauté pan with the sesame oil. Add roasted cauliflower, chopped scallions and frozen peas and carrots. Sauté for two minutes and add chopped garlic.
- Push the cauliflower mixture to the sides of wok or pan to create an opening in the center. Pour the 2 eggs in the opening. Whisk and scramble the eggs. Toss and combine the mixture. Finally, drizzle the Coconut Secret and toss to combine. Scoop into bowls and enjoy!
Grilled Chicken Wings
Everyone loves chicken wings, but fried wings are filled with fat, which can make you sluggish. Bell says these grilled wings are a big hit with the Cavs players. “This is an easy, healthy way to prepare wings. You can roast the wings a day ahead of time if you’d like and then grill them the day you’re going serve them,” Bell says.
- 2 lbs. fresh chicken wings
- 3 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
- 2 tbsp. salt & pepper
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
- While the oven heats, put the wings in a large mixing bowl and toss them with the olive oil, salt and pepper. Spray non-stick on a cooking tray. Spread the wings out evenly on the tray. Roast in the oven for 25-30 minutes until golden brown. Set the wings aside and let them cool for 30 minutes.
- Next, fire up the grill. Once the grill is hot, place the wings on the grill. Allow them to get some nice grill marks on the wings. Finally, toss the wings in your favorite wing sauce and enjoy!
Chocolate Avocado Pudding With Cashew Cream
Want to eat dessert like Tom Brady? Now’s your chance. The star quarterback is famous for his love of avocado-based ice cream. This avocado pudding is a similar dish, sure to satisfy your sweet tooth without giving you a sugar overload. “This is great for an on-the-go breakfast or whenever you have a sweet tooth,” Bell says.
- 2 avocados (skin removed)
- 1/3 cup of cocoa powder
- 1/4 cup of agave or manuka honey
- 1 cup of unsweetened almond milk
- 1.5 tsp. of vanilla extract
- 1 cup of raw cashews (which’ve been soaked in cold water for 1 hour)
- 1/2 cup of water
- 2 tbsp. lemon juice
- 1 tbsp. raw agave
- 1 pinch of pink sea salt
- Take the ingredients for the pudding and place them all in a blender. Blend until smooth. Pour into a bowl and place in the refrigerator for 45-60 minutes to chill.
- Strain the cashews. Place all the ingredients for the cashew cream into a blender. Blend until smooth. Pour into a bowl and place into the refrigerator for 45-60 minutes to chill.
Once both components are ready, scoop a layer of avocado pudding into a cup and top it with a layer of cashew cream. You can add healthy toppings such as toasted pistachios, chia seeds or raw coconut if you like.
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