StEPS: Helping Young Dancers have more Autonomy over their Decisions Regarding Food and Exercise

StEPS: Helping Young Dancers have more Autonomy over their Decisions Regarding Food and Exercise

Written by
Apolla Performance
Tuesday 7, 2023

Helping Young Dancers have more Autonomy over their Decisions Regarding Food and Exercise

Welcome to Beyond the StEPS. 

Our question today is “Helping Young Dancers have more Autonomy over their Decisions Regarding Food and Exercise”

Nutrition for dancers is different from the general population because dancers have higher energy needs due to the intense and consistent physical activity they engage in. It is important for dancers to understand their individual needs and to fuel their bodies appropriately, rather than following restrictive diets or cutting calories. This is especially important for growing dancers, who should focus on gaining strength and improving their skill set. Additionally, the demands of school, studying, and social activities can also deplete a dancer's energy levels and it's important to fuel the brain properly as well. It's important to understand that when you're restricting energy, something will be compromised, whether that's performance in dance classes, mood, or ability to study.

There is a balance that dancers need to achieve between being lean and agile for flexibility and quick movements, and having muscle strength and power. Finding this balance is unique to each individual and takes time to achieve. It's important for dancers to focus on being the healthiest version of themselves, rather than comparing themselves to others, and to work with their own body type and individual needs to achieve their best self in a healthy way. It's also important to keep in mind that it may take years of training and experimenting to find the right balance, and that it may change over time as the body matures.

Dr. Burkholder** believes that developing healthy eating habits early on in life is important, but it can be challenging for young dancers who are under pressure and have busy schedules. She suggests empowering children by offering them a range of healthy food options and allowing them to make their own food choices from a young age, while also being mindful of balancing their autonomy with appropriate guidance. She also stresses that it's important to understand that food preferences are real and allowing some flexibility within reason can help children develop healthy eating habits.

When introducing two healthier options to a child who is a picky eater, it can be a challenge but persistence is key. It may take up to 10-12 exposures to a new food before a child will accept it. As a parent, it is important to understand your child's preferences and try to find alternatives, but also be persistent in introducing new foods. It is also important to use this time while they are young, to develop their taste buds in a way that doesn't make them desensitized to salty and sweet flavors, as this will make healthier options more appealing in the future.

Dr. Burkholder states “I think it's important to reframe the conversation and focus on balance and moderation, rather than labeling certain foods as "bad" or "off limits." For example, instead of saying "nuggets are bad," you can say "nuggets can be a fun treat, but it's important to have a balance of different types of foods in our diet, like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains." It's also important to educate children about the nutritional value of different foods and the importance of making healthy choices. By providing them with the knowledge and tools to make informed decisions, they will be more likely to make healthy choices on their own as they grow older. Additionally, involving children in the meal planning and preparation process can be a great way to empower them to make healthy choices and develop a positive relationship with food. it is important to find a balance when introducing healthier options to children and not to villainize certain foods. Parents should be good examples of healthy eating habits and make healthy practices a priority. Instead of focusing on the food itself, parents can shift the focus to the experience, such as making a special occasion out of a treat, or incorporating nutritious ingredients into a treat that still tastes yummy. This approach can prevent rebellion and help children develop a healthy relationship with food.

There are several things that dance teachers can do to empower children and help them make healthy choices. One approach is to provide education on nutrition and physical activity to children of all ages. This can include teaching them about the importance of balanced meals, healthy snacks, and regular exercise. Another approach is to model healthy behaviors yourself by incorporating healthy choices into your own life and encouraging children to do the same. 

So what about young children ages 2-5?

Additionally, you can provide opportunities for children to make their own healthy choices, such as allowing them to choose from a variety of healthy snacks or giving them the option to choose a physical activity they enjoy. It's also important to remember that children learn best by example, so it's essential to lead by example and make healthy choices yourself.

Another way to empower two to five year-olds to make good decisions is through the use of visual aids, such as pictures or illustrations. This can help them understand the different options available to them and make it easier for them to make a decision. Additionally, it's also important to provide positive reinforcement when they make a healthy choice and to explain why it's a good decision. This helps to establish healthy habits and behaviors at a young age.

And when we get to six to ten-year-olds; we're getting into the Upper Elementary age. What's a good way to encourage them to make good eating decisions?

Providing education about nutrition and healthy eating to children is important for their physical and mental well-being. By teaching them about the different food groups, how to read nutrition labels, and the impact of different foods on their bodies, children can learn to make informed choices about what they eat. Encouraging them to try new foods and experimenting with recipes can also help them develop a positive relationship with healthy eating. Additionally, setting a good example by having a healthy diet yourself is a powerful way to influence and inspire children to make healthy choices.

Ten to thirteen year olds; I call these kids the “pod people” where did my happy loving little 10 year old go.. What's a good way to encourage them to make good eating decisions?

Emphasize the importance of continuing to offer healthy choices and encouraging involvement in food preparation for children in the six to ten-year-old age range. It's also important to maintain a consistent and healthy perspective on food, while also allowing them to make some choices and decisions on their own. Eating together as a family and planning ahead are also key strategies for promoting healthy eating habits in this age group. Parents can take the lead by packing healthy snacks for their children to eat on the go, and setting aside time on the weekends for meal prep. This can help make it easier for children to make healthy choices throughout the week. Overall, it is important for parents to provide a supportive and positive environment for healthy eating habits to develop and thrive.

Thirteen and up group; this is when they start getting some allowance, they can actually go buy their own foods. What's a good way to encourage them to make good eating decisions?

It's important to find a balance between offering healthy options and allowing them to make their own choices. Encouraging healthy habits and discussing the benefits of healthy eating can also be helpful, but ultimately it's important to respect their autonomy and not make a big deal about it if they do make less healthy choices. It's also important to monitor their spending and make sure that they're not using their money on unhealthy items.

What about having conversations about what they're eating around the 10-13 age range, and making them self-conscious in a way that they start developing body image issues, that maybe that wasn't the intention with our conversation but that's the result. Should we be having these conversations about why we need to put healthy foods in our body, with those kids at that age?


It's important to have conversations with children about healthy eating and nutrition at all ages, but it's important to be mindful of how these conversations are framed. Instead of focusing on weight or appearance, it's important to emphasize the connection between food and overall health, including energy levels, injury prevention, and disease prevention. It's also important to avoid making children feel self-conscious about their bodies and instead focus on the benefits of healthy eating for overall well-being. It's also important to make sure that the conversations are developmentally appropriate and age-specific, and that children feel comfortable and empowered to make healthy choices. Additionally, involving them in the process of making healthy choices, such as grocery shopping or meal planning, can be helpful in making them feel like they have control over their own health.

It's important for parents to continue to provide healthy food options at home, while also allowing children to have autonomy in their food choices. Eating together as a family, when possible, and planning ahead with meal prep can also help to promote healthy habits. It's important to educate children about the relationship between diet and health outcomes, and to frame the conversation in a way that is empowering and relevant to their interests and goals, such as preventing injury, promoting healing and increasing energy levels. It's also important to not make a big deal about it, instead focus on providing the knowledge and resources for them to make healthy choices. And also, be mindful about not enabling them to choose unhealthily, for example by limiting allowance for sugary drinks and snacks.

How should parents and studio owners and educators handle the moments away, the moments that these these kids are not in our supervision, they're not under our roof, they're not within our eyesight, (you know we're talking about sleepovers, we're talking about competitions, we're talking about conventions, at school, a lot of these places don't have the healthiest food options) so what are some things that we can do to kind of mitigate the damage that can be done when they're not in our eyesight?

Also, setting a good example is key. Children often model their behaviors after their parents, so it is important to lead by example and make healthy choices yourself. Additionally, encouraging physical activity and regular exercise can also help to promote a healthy lifestyle. Encourage them to find activities they enjoy and make it a part of their daily routine. Overall, the key is to educate and empower children to make healthy choices for themselves, while also providing a supportive and nurturing environment that encourages healthy habits.

How do you find a good nutritionist in your local community, who actually knows dance? Are there resources or anything you should look for? What if you're looking for a nutritionist, what are some questions you should ask to see if they have any specific experience with dancers or know how to work with dancers specifically?

When seeking a nutrition professional to help with your dance performance, make sure to look for a registered dietitian nutritionist, and also consider if they have a background in dance. You can find more information and resources on my website,, and you can reach out to me via email at to set up a virtual consultation or for group education.

Something that we want you to focus on between now and next week when we come back with another topic is, What is one action, one thing that you want our listeners to take between now and next week to progress in this area?

I want to stress the importance of planning and preparing healthy snacks in advance to avoid making poor nutrition choices during a busy week. I also suggest finding a registered dietitian nutritionist with a background in dance, and encourage readers to avoid getting nutrition advice from unreliable sources. She also provided a handout with tips, meal prep ideas, and healthy snack options for dancers, as well as information about her background and contact information for setting up consultations.

If there's anything that you want to see or hear about please message us and we will make sure we get that scheduled. We're always working on scheduling the future episodes. 

**Dr. Nasira Burkholder Cooley is a registered dietitian Fitness expert and nutrition educator. She was drawn to public health and nutrition as a result of her diverse background in Science Fine Arts and Fitness. She's currently an adjunct faculty member at Chapman University, a private practice registered dietitian, and post-doctoral researcher, she also serves as a nutrition educator for Chapman University Department of dance and the ABT Gillespie school at Segerstrom Center for the Arts, she is a former classical ballet dancer and trained with Pacific Northwest Ballet and the University of Arizona School of Dance and attended summer intensives at the National Ballet of Canada and American Ballet Theater. She graduated summa laude from the University of Arizona with a BS in nutrition and a BFA and Dance. Nasira continued her studies in the pursuit of a career as a nutrition professional and obtained a master's in public health from UCLA and a doctorate in nutritional Sciences from Loma Linda University, she's been an NASM certified personal trainer since 2008 and is a certified yoga instructor. Dr Burkholder Cooley you obviously have so much experience to offer, we're so honored to have you here thank you for being here.




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