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The Most Important Meal of the Sports Calendar

Chef Mark Sandoval leading interdisciplinary pilot program to feed basketball team breakfast, and that might just be the tip of the omelette.

Athletics  |  Nov 2, 2017  |  By Jason Scavone
Chef Mark Sandoval

Chef Mark Sandoval is helping with a pilot program to manage nutrition program for UNLV athletes. (Josh Hawkins/UNLV Creative Services)

When you’re worrying about hitting three-pointers, three squares can take a backseat.

Between classes, practice, extracurricular activities, and some semblance of a social life, student-athletes can’t always line up the right food at the right time to meet the level of caloric needs that should make anyone over 25 weep for their metabolism.

A pilot sports catering program developed by the colleges of Hospitality and Allied Health Sciences is aiming to seamlessly integrate nutrition planning and meal preparation into Runnin’ Rebels day before expanding to all student-athletes on campus. The men's basketball season begins Nov. 11 against Florida A&M.

Executive Chef Mark Sandoval is starting with just a few breakfasts a week at the Mendenhall Center but plans to expand to five-day-a-week breakfasts and dinners, supplemented with grab-and-go healthy lunches that student-athletes can pack with them before a day of darting hither and yon.

“Healthy” is a jumping-off point, but convenience may be the overriding factor for student-athletes that may require 3,000-4,000 calories per day depending on their sport.

“The biggest issue is not that they eat unhealthy foods, but they're not eating enough food,” Sandoval said. “The calories they burn are almost exceeding what they're taking in.”

Breakfast menus rotate between different types of eggs, starches like French toast, pancakes and hash browns, fresh fruit, and both pork and turkey bacon, chicken apple sausage and the like.

Students studying in UNLV’s nutrition and kinesiology program work with coaches and student-athletes to determine goals, calories needed to gain or lose weight, and the macronutrient ratios to balance it all out.

In the long term, Sandoval envisions serving all student-athletes in a dining complex where foods are labeled with their caloric and macronutrient contents.

Of course, that doesn’t necessarily obviate the age-old struggle of getting everyone to eat their vegetables. Feedback comes in the form of clean plates and empty chafing dishes.

“I watch what they put on their plate: what they don't eat, what they do eat,” Sandoval said. “We're trying to get them things they like that work for what we need to do.”

For hospitality students, this type of program offers a valuable outlet for their gaining practical experience in the service industry, a degree requirement. Currently, about a dozen volunteer students and seven to eight paid student workers are involved, with student chefs starting to work into the mix. As the program expands, more opportunities will come to the college’s 140 food and beverage students before they embark on careers.

“They love it in that they're learning,” Sandoval said. “So they'll come in, and I'll say this is your timeline, this is everything you've prepared, and now you have to cook it in a progression that makes sense. Everything needs to come to the table when it's hot and ready to go, and you need to be out the door by 8:30 a.m. They're learning the process and timing, a sense of urgency. You have to move quickly, you have to be calculating.”

Once basketball gets fully established in the next several months, Sandoval would pitch this catering service to other programs, tailoring each plan to the sport and athletes involved.

It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement between the Hospitality College, the School of Allied Health Sciences, and athletics that delivers both practical experience and financial savings for the team by moving their dining program in-house.

But it’s an arrangement that has intangible benefits, as well.

“Hopefully our basketball team this year is really awesome, and (the hotel administration students) kind of feel like they’re a part of it,” Sandoval said. “I think their feeling is ‘Hey, if these guys are awesome this year, I'm helping.’ It's school spirit. It provides a lot more than just experience, those kinds of lessons.”