It’s probably safe to say that it wasn’t the salmon omelets, doled out by the heaping plateful every morning for breakfast, that got the Carolina Panthers to the Super Bowl. Or the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Or even the smoothie bar.
But team nutritionist Jennifer Brunelli is confident that the perfectly balanced (and yes, truly enormous) meals her crew prepared all season — some players consume more than 9,000 calories a day — played a role in the Panthers’ success. That’s why she and her team packed up their equipment and moved their entire kitchen to San Francisco, where the Panthers will face off on Sunday against the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50.
Let others obsess over whether quarterback Cam Newton can handle the Broncos’ pass rush. Brunelli’s concern?
“Can I replicate what’s gone on every single week out there so that it feels as much like home as possible?” she said.
That’s quite a challenge. The Panthers’ kitchen staff, which is made up of five to eight chefs on a given day, serve breakfast and lunch five days a week to the players. Two of the perpetual crowd pleasers: an omelet bar stocked with veggies, turkey sausage, and salsas, and a 24-hour smoothie station.
“They’re out there constantly making smoothies,” Brunelli said.
A former All-American swimmer at the University of South Carolina, Brunelli knows how important food is to an athlete.
This year, Brunelli overhauled her approach by ordering blood work for all the Panthers. She hoped that would clue her in as to whether the players were deficient in any particular nutrients.
She also gives out her cell number so players could call her with any questions as they prepared their own meals, and they take her up on it — Players texted her from the supermarket and from GNC. They’d ask if was OK to eat red meat, or whether to believe the salesman hawking a new product.
She even got texts from players asking things like whether they should throw an extra slice of tomato on their sandwich.
Lately, the Panthers have faced a new challenge. It’s been such a long, hard grind to get to the Super Bowl that some players have started struggling to keep on weight.
“We’ve had to hit it hard, adding on calories and focusing on calorie-rich foods,” Brunelli said. That’s meant lots of starchy carbohydrates like grits and steel-cut oats.
While the beefy defensive linemen eat the most, even the (relatively) little guys on the team aim for 3,500 calories a day. (Brunelli discreetly declined to discuss particular players’ diets.)
During practices, they scarf down PB&J and protein balls.
And during games, Brunelli keeps the sidelines stocked with snacks.
What snacks, exactly?
That’s top secret.
All she’ll say is that she has to be incredibly cautious about what she gives a player to munch on during a game.
“You don’t know how many plays before you go back in,” she said, “it could be one or it could be 12.” That means the snacks have to be simple and sparse to keep players from getting sick if they have to rush back on the field.
On Sunday, Brunelli will try to help the players sneak in a snack during halftime.
And if the Panthers win? Brunelli hasn’t said what she might serve as a victory banquet.
But she will say the Carolina Panthers really love their turkey meatloaf. “They’re just head over heels for that,” she said.