After 10 years of the International Series, NFL teams have built an efficient drill to tackle the logistics of playing in London. Travel times, sleep schedules, hotel arrangements and stadium scouting reports all have been fine-tuned. Even the meal planning has emerged as part of a science that ensures players and coaches are greeted with a familiar routine.
This week, for example, the Minnesota Vikings will spend parts of four days in a hotel near Twickenham Stadium, where they will play the Cleveland Browns on Sunday. They will consume 15 meals, including a nightly snack.
And every detail will be arranged or approved by Geji McKinney-Banks, the team's director of food service operations. Chef Geji, as she is known at the team facility (and on Twitter), knows what her players like and is fully aware that the days leading up to an NFL game are not the time to expand palates.
That's why McKinney-Banks already has requested a specific vendor that guarantees delivery of USDA beef. And it's why she has shipped two boxes of commercial-size Bisquick mix, 10 bottles of hot sauce, a box of Lipton tea and a case of cherry juice concentrate for smoothies. The care package also included waffle and pancake flour.
"We don't want them going over there and not eating right because they aren't used to the food," McKinney-Banks said. "There can be some stark differences in flavor, especially if you're talking about beef. They've got a game. We don't want them feeling hungry because they can't or won't eat what they're given."
For the most part, McKinney-Banks relied on research she compiled in 2013, prior to the Vikings' trip to Wembley Stadium for a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. She journeyed twice to London that spring, taste testing food and exploring the area, in case players did the same. At one point, she dropped into a nearby KFC.
"I asked for a two-piece with a biscuit," she said. "They looked at me and said, 'a biscuit?' They had to get their manager out. That's when I knew I had to get Bisquick shipped over. The tiniest bit can make a big difference. It did even for me. I was a little hungry on that [planning] trip."
The Vikings, like most NFL teams, provide breakfast and lunch at their team facility on most practice days. Their players have grown accustomed to McKinney-Banks' southern-style approach, one honed during 23 years with the team and after two degrees at The Art Institutes International Minnesota.
For the most part, players will find their typical menu waiting for them in London. McKinney-Banks has arranged for the acquisition of ground turkey and provided hotel chefs with her (otherwise secret) recipe for turkey burgers. She offered advice on scrambled eggs -- on the dry side -- and shared recipes for sautéed cabbage, mashed sweet potatoes and kale-brussels sprout salad.
Her classic barbecue and wings are on the menu. The hotel will provide a daily fresh fish, along with brown rice, and it has promised to set up a "sauté station" to prepare stir-fry daily. Chefs in London know Vikings players want olive oil, a tip McKinney-Banks offered to avoid the likely use of ghee.
"If there is nothing you like that day, you're always going to have stir-fry," she said. "We used it last time, and it worked out great. That man who was doing it was worn out. There was a line on some days."
At the same time, the Vikings will accommodate anyone in the traveling party who wants to take some (mild) risks. She signed off on meal options that will include fish and chips, Yorkshire pudding and British-style roast beef. For a snack, they'll be treated to Knickerbocker glories -- ice cream sundaes served with fruit and a long spoon in a distinctive tall glass.
All of it will be matched with the "dot" system that guides choices for players who are managing their weight. Food with a red dot is high in fat and should be avoided, unless a player needs to gain weight. Yellow dots encourage players to "proceed with caution" on foods such as cheese and bread. Fresh fruit and vegetables are affixed with green dots.
If the details of feeding a football team some 4,000 miles from home appear daunting, McKinney-Banks doesn't appear to be sweating it. She was smiling and relaxed as she discussed the challenge last week.
"I've always said I wanted to be a world-class chef," she said. "That's the kind of thing you write down and put away when you're 11 years old. We're going to another country, and I look at this as my opportunity. I'm not afraid. I love this and I'm so confident in what I do. It's going to be OK."