How to feed a soccer player: Forget alcohol and ketchup, now it’s cooking courses and meals on wheels

Romelu Lukaku was heading to his seat at the Finch Farm with a plate of bread in it when the Everton dietitian discovered something was not quite right.

“Where’s the protein in that?” He whispered in Lukaku’s ear.

So now Inter striker Lukaku is back to get some boiled eggs and only then have breakfast all the right food boxes. Footballers’ diets have come a long way.

The days of taking over a McDonald’s on his way to Matt Le Tessier’s training—though his performances don’t hurt—Steve Bold mocking nine dinner contests on the way back from the game or Steve Howe drinking beer for breakfast and lunch and dinner long gone.

In pursuit of marginal gain, feeding footballers is now a science in which nothing is left unchanged, and banning spices, a familiar move by new coaches, is just the tip of the iceberg.

Cristiano Ronaldo is famous for taking care of his body with specialized nutritional advice

Cristiano Ronaldo is famous for taking care of his body with specialized nutritional advice

Don McLaren, the country's first professor of sports nutrition, previously advised Liverpool

Don McLaren, the country’s first professor of sports nutrition, previously advised Liverpool

“Nutrition can make at least a 10 per cent difference between when you get it wrong and get it right,” said Don McClaren, the UK’s first professor of sports nutrition. “It has become more important.”

Little wonder, then, that this is one area that new Manchester United boss Erik Ten Hag has adjusted in his attempt to give his stars form ahead of the new season by banning alcohol during match weeks, and revamping and insisting the club’s roster. Eat club-cooked meals rather than those served by personal chefs.

McLaren, a former nutrition consultant for clubs including Liverpool, Everton, Manchester City and Bolton, worked in the game from the mid-1990s to 2015, the era when football began taking a real interest in players’ diets.

It is necessary to make any changes that nutritionists wish to make over the years.

“It doesn’t make sense if the manager isn’t fully convinced of it,” McLaren said.

The late Gerard Houllier and Rafa Benitez at Liverpool “brought nutrition experts more easily.”

Sam Allardyce was the first English coach to remember being eager to explore the benefits while Scott David Moyes was also open.

When McLaren started advising clubs they didn’t have much to work with.

He explained: “They had canteens that don’t really have a lot of space for cooking,” he explained. There was only one lady with an assistant and she was very limited in her kitchen as to what she could cook, which was really just stealing things.

In those days, it was no surprise that players would forgo eating at their clubs and instead head to nearby restaurants and miss out on a vital opportunity after training to ‘sprout’ in the process.

Now, many clubs, especially in the first two divisions, boast facilities equal to the restaurants that previous generations of players used to run to.

And while the types of food on the menu might not surprise you, the level of detail that goes into what they eat is most remarkable.

Before they set foot in their canteens for breakfast or lunch, players know how much they should eat.

It is predetermined by day of the week and factors such as distance from the last and next match, their most recent workload and players’ caloric needs which are influenced by factors including their position and size.

Former Arsenal defender Steve Bould once had nine dinners at a eating contest

Former Arsenal defender Steve Bould once had nine dinners at a eating contest

There are also some big eaters across the Premier League who have an eye-catching appetite, such as the London-based defender who is often seen at lunch or dinner with two plates on the go or with a plate piled high with the main ingredient of his meals atop a large serving of pasta or rice.

Food for all players is planned in collaboration with the club’s nutritionists, sports scientists and chefs.

Those employees are now full-time, a change very different from when clubs had someone, sometimes just a student apprentice, going in to give nutritional advice to managers, players and the chef every now and then.

Quota control is an increasing consideration with some clubs now ensuring that players are served food rather than allowing them to fill their shoes.

The forward-thinking Norwich has gone even further with the level of detail, attributing a value to each food item on his menu and the total value allowed to each player’s meal.

Managers at some clubs want their players to finish eating two hours before training starts so their food is fully digested, a factor that once prompted a former Premier League manager to ban red meat the night before matches.

Romelu Lukaku reportedly struggled with his diet before moving to Inter Milan which made him thrive under a new plan

Romelu Lukaku reportedly struggled with his diet before moving to Inter Milan which made him thrive under a new plan

Almost anything and any combination of a wide range of cereals, porridge, bread, yoghurt, smoothies and other hot and cold items is available as well as the chefs available to cater to their requirements.

Warm breakfasts are a popular choice among players and well-used coffee machines, especially before training.

After training, lunch is served. The quality, especially at the highest level, is described as “unbelievable”.

Chicken, fish, and vegetarian/vegetarian dishes can be eaten along with carbohydrate sources such as pasta, rice, and potatoes in addition to vegetables.

To keep things fresh, popular specials such as filet steak, salmon teriyaki, black cod or honey and mustard meat are sometimes added to the menus.

Fruits, nuts, vitamin and herbal drinks and fruit teas are also available upon request.

‘Whatever mixture they want they can have,’ one source said with Ben Chilwell’s presentation of Reese James’ lunch of chicken, pasta, broccoli, pineapple, strawberry and mayonnaise last season.

Steven Gerrard was receptive to McLaren as a young player

McLaren claims Eric Dyer will listen carefully to his nutritional advice

McLaren says Steven Gerrard and Eric Dyer were among the most receptive to his advice

When players walk away from their clubs, it is their responsibility to stay disciplined and confidence is required.

The club’s specialists are just a message or phone call though players are encouraged to ask questions and feel involved.

“I remember young Steven Gerrard and Eric Dyer as young men who listened carefully,” McLaren said. They asked for some instructions on what to eat for breakfast and dinner and said “We print this out and put it in the fridge.”

Phil Neville was at the end of his career when he came to Everton. We adjusted his diet and thanked him. Sometimes his diet was a little focused on carbs and we needed to cut it down, put in a little bit more protein for example.

Sylvain Destin’s preference for a rump steak every training day was another McLaren tweak to introduce more variety.

“He was very receptive.” McLaren said. Younger players are more likely to listen for an extended period of time to get in and establish themselves. Older players want to listen because they want to extend their careers.

Sylvain Destin (left) enjoyed a rump steak after each training day

Sylvain Destin (left) enjoyed a rump steak after each training day

Clubs serving takeaway service to their players and even their families are now very popular. United are said to be now offering a meal service on wheels so players can have their meals delivered to their homes.

Some clubs set up cooking courses for players and also for parents to share knowledge.

Technology is also used. Digital screens in some clubs have translated instructions and menus for their stars abroad.

Norwich has an app for players as well as for employees with customized meal plans, instructions and cooking tips down to the smallest details like which oils to use.

The use of personal and resident chefs, employed by the likes of Harry Kane, James and Emile Smith Rowe, is a growing trend.

Food consumption on match days is even more important as nutritionists play a key role in guiding players during that crucial period when large carb rations are needed the night before matches.

In the changing room, players often come up with an array of options to save more energy from bananas, rice cakes, cereal bars, sweets, beetroot juices, caffeine shots, and electrolyte drinks.

Norwich City has an app for players and staff with bespoke meal plans and recipes

Norwich City has an app for players and staff with bespoke meal plans and recipes

Post-match is another important time.

In keeping with the popular belief that for 24 hours after a match players can eat whatever they want, it was not unusual to see clubs receiving large amounts of pizza after matches.

The boxes were piled high in the England dressing room after their 10-0 win over San Marino in November.

But there is now a growing focus on reducing the damage footballers do to their bodies.

High carb foods are still being consumed though now with more thought behind this process and allows to reduce the period in which you eat high calorie foods after a match.

The Premier League captain keeps it pretty simple, and just picks a bottle of whole sugar, Lucozade oranges.

For home gyms, there is more room to lie in the locker room with healthy but still attractive food like chicken skewers, burgers, chili, sushi, fruit bowls and protein shakes.

Sam Allardyce was one of the first British managers to embrace the importance of nutrition

Sam Allardyce was one of the first British managers to embrace the importance of nutrition

After the games are over, players return on planes or buses with onboard kitchens where their food can be prepared and served.

Some clubs also make goodie bags with vitamin drinks, cereal bars and healthy potato chips among other things that players can work with when it suits them.

Chefs and/or nutritionists usually travel with teams and sometimes before to make sure food is made or eaten just fine.

Some stars feel they have the metabolism up and burn enough calories during the week to indulge in takeaways now and then.

The problem now is how well they are monitored – not as weekly as they once were at some clubs but now, in some cases, every morning.

Not only are their weight checked, but other indicators of their condition are checked including their fat and muscle ratios. United players’ BMI will now be checked monthly.

And the numbers don’t lie — and they come with repercussions — making it even more difficult for players to overeat than it used to be.