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  • NFL dietitian Leslie Bonci creates meals for the Kansas City Chiefs.
  • She has come up with a selection of hacks for sneaking nutrients into the players’ favourite dishes.
  • Bonci is busy, so uses many of the same tricks for making easy, healthy meals at home.
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Whether it’s NFL players or children, picky eaters are notoriously difficult to feed.

And for both high-performing athletes and growing kids, consuming the right nutrients is key.

Leslie Bonci has been an NFL dietitian for 34 years, and has worked with the Kansas City Chiefs since 2015. This year’s squad, being particularly young, have been especially picky, she told Business Insider.

Through the meals she creates, Bonci aims to sneak nutrients into dishes that still look familiar enough that players will want to try them, and taste delicious enough that they will actually finish them. 

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And as a busy person, she uses these same tricks to feed herself and her family. 

Bonci shared 6 cooking hacks for sneaking nutrients into meals below. 

1. Add blended beans to sauces

Beans are a great source of protein and fiber, but not everyone is a fan of their texture. To combat this, Bonci likes blending them into sauces for pasta and dishes such as cioppino, a fish stew originating in San Francisco.

She also regularly blends canned white kidney beans into sauce for mac and cheese. While a bowl full of beans might not be popular among football players, a portion of mac and cheese always appeals because it’s familiar, she said. 

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“The bottom line is you have to have the familiar flavor, otherwise it doesn’t get eaten,” Bonci said. “We use a lot of beans at home too because they’re so easy, and I do canned — I don’t do them from dry, I don’t have time, but they’re such a beautifully easy thing to sneak into dishes.”

2. Bulk up meatballs with lentils and vegetables

If you make your own meatballs, it’s easy to add more nutrients and fiber by mixing in lentils or shredded vegetables, Bonci said.

“You’re putting in something that ramps up the nutritional value,” Bonci said. “You can do half lentil and half beef, and now you’ve added more fiber, but you’re not tasting the lentil, you’re tasting the meat. That to me is a win-win. I’ve made it better for you, but you’re eating it because you like it.”

3. Combine foods, don’t replace

Bonci encourages her athletes to change the ratios of their meals, not overhaul them altogether.

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She knows that replacing wings with a salad is unrealistic, but maybe they could eat fewer wings and add in a few wing-like peanutty mushroom strips instead.

“They all know that vegetables are healthy,” Bonci said. “That’s not a surprise, but it’s just in the moment when you want to eat something, what are you going to go with? You’re usually going to go with the thing that you know and like.”

4. Add roasted chickpeas to popcorn

The next time you make a bowl of popcorn, Bonci suggested adding some roasted chickpeas to add more protein and fiber, while still providing that salty crunch.

Bonci also recommended adding them to salads or your own trail mix.

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By roasting your own chickpeas, you can choose the seasoning and spices too.

5. Mix pumpkin purée into your oatmeal

Forget Thanksgiving, Bonci cooks with canned pumpkin all year round — she particularly enjoys mixing it into her oatmeal with some pumpkin pie spice.

“You can get it all year long and it’s a more affordable vegetable compared to others,” Bonci said. “Significant nutritional value, minimal calories, and no prep. So boom, boom, boom.”

Bonci sometimes freezes canned pumpkin in an ice cube tray so she can use as much or as little as she needs for each meal.

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She also uses squash and pumpkin in smoothies and sauces, whether canned, frozen, or pre-chopped, she said.

6. Combine pre-prepared ingredients to make a balanced meal

Bonci, like most people, doesn’t have as much time to cook as she’d like, so she’s all about making healthy meals from convenient ingredients.

One of her favorite combos is taking a simple packaged soup but mixing in a can of beans and some plain full-fat Greek yogurt to up the protein and fiber and make it more filling.

“It’s creamy and delicious,” Bonci said. “Then it could be a little oil on the top or some sunflower seeds to make it pretty, but all this nutritional value without having to spend hours and hours in the kitchen, I love things like that.”

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