How, When, and What to Eat: Food for Musicians

Travelling, touring, teaching, playing, singing: whatever it looks like for you, life as a musician can take its toll on our bodies. Musicians and others working in the performing industries face some tough challenges when it comes to eating healthily. From strange working hours to tempting treats, life as a musician doesn’t always go hand in hand with a healthy lifestyle…

Travelling the country, seeing new cities every day: sounds like a wonderful job, right? Well, yes and no. While I count myself very fortunate to be able to travel with my work, the lack of routine is a big hurdle to get over when it comes to food. Our bodies generally thrive on routine, but sometimes (ahem, very often), our work patterns prohibit us from getting into any kind of groove with our meals.

As musicians, when we eat and what we eat are crucial choices to be made. As much as we want to think otherwise, every decision we make about what foods to eat or drinks to consume, and when to do so, can have a direct impact on our energy levels, mood, and overall health.

Home healthy cooking

At home it’s much easier to prepare healthy meals

When I’m at home in the evening (in other words, not working), I like to have a big bowl of something carb-filled (like pasta) to get me nice and drowsy for a good night’s sleep. However, this is exactly not the kind of thing I should be eating before a performance (as tempting as it may seem). I’d love to be able to know I can have the same type of food at each time of day, but I have to be careful about what I eat depending on what I’ve got coming up. If I have an evening concert and I’m being sensible, I’ll aim for a salad packed with protein to give me the right amount of fullness without the sleepiness.

Photo of food ordered during travel

Whereas when travelling, it can be tricky. Vegetables? What vegetables? (Snapped while on tour in Prague)

When we’re constantly on the move, we begin to prize convenience above perhaps what might be better for us in the long run: fast food often beguiles us with its ease and taste; coffee and sugary drinks give us those much-desired energy boosts. While these things might satisfy cravings in the immediate moment, they are not a recipe for long-term success. Fast food doesn’t fill you up, and sodas only provide a temporary release from fatigue.

Sumi Jo Sings Bach’s ‘Coffee Cantata’

So how do we go about finding a way to take care of our bodies when we’re often on a budget of both money and time?

Firstly: it takes some time to figure out what works for you. Bananas, nuts, fish, lentils, and other sources of protein are some of the go-to foods for me and my colleagues to get a more sustainable energy boost. But everyone is different. What works for you might not work for others, and vice versa. Some people may find a huge bowl of pasta is exactly what they need to feel good on stage, and if that’s the case (apart from me being very jealous), do what you need to do!

Secondly: don’t underestimate the power of water. Very often tiredness (or even mild hunger) can be partially solved by a good drink of water. Staying hydrated is an easy way to ensure our bodies can work at peak efficiency with all the fish and lentils (and pasta) you’re feeding it.

Thirdly: have your go-to snacks and meals that you know won’t fail you. After a while, you’ll get an idea of what foods give you immediate satisfaction but leave you sluggish and tired after a few hours, versus the foods which fill you up and give you the all-important energy to perform. When I’m on the road I scout out a supermarket to load up with emergency snacks like bananas, pistachios and some chocolate (to be eaten in moderation, of course!) in case I get caught short later.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly: it won’t be perfect all the time. There will be days where the allure of a burger is simply too much, or the siren call of a pack of cookies is too seductive to resist. That’s ok. We’ve all been there (and by ‘we’, I mean ‘I’. Many, many times). Being a musician is a stressful job, so we’re allowed to cut ourselves some slack from time to time.

Of course, food is just one part of a balanced life – making sure we’re getting enough sleep and interaction with other people (or alone time) are just as important as eating well. Everyone has the balance that works for them, and I believe the most important thing to do when on the road is just to try and listen to our bodies as much as we can. They’re pretty good at telling us what they need – if we let them. To investigate food and nutrition in-depth goes far beyond the scope of the space we have here, but something to remember is that we all have different calibrations of what keeps us balanced, and being mindful of when, how, and what we eat is a sure-fire way to keep our bodies in tip top shape during busy periods.

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BAPAM (The British Association for Performing Arts Medicine) has complied a wonderful PDF full of useful details on healthy eating for performers

This blog on Music Travel has some great info on healthy eating and individual advice for choirs, marching bands, and orchestras.

This article from St Olaf’s College is aimed specifically for singers’ nutrition.

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