CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Training camp can’t be all that bad for the Carolina Panthers when their day starts with a breakfast menu that includes shrimp and grits and salmon cakes.
They can thank quarterback Cam Newton for that.
And Jennifer Brunelli.
Brunelli is entering her third year as the team dietitian -- a position the organization didn’t have before her. Her mission has been to revamp and individualize menus to help each player reach maximum performance, while also fitting the players' tastes.
Newton was her biggest challenge. Since the beginning of 2013, the NFL MVP has been a pescatarian, a diet that includes fish and other seafood but not the meat of other animals.
So Brunelli began devising, with the help of Newton and the Panthers chefs, a menu that included a variety of ways to put fish on the training table during the season and in training camp.
“He’s great about being variable,’’ Brunelli said of Newton. “One of the things I introduced was doing shrimp and grits for breakfast just to mix it up. We actually made these little salmon cakes for breakfast, so like a play on a crab cake.
“Salmon is very, very high on omega-3 fatty acids, really good when it comes to impact. He really enjoys salmon and shrimp. They tend to be go-tos for him.’’
Other players are jumping on the fish bandwagon after Brunelli explained the benefits of cold-water fatty fish.
"We are an insane team in the sense that I walked in with the expectation of coming up with some of these little hurdles that we have to get over,’’ Brunelli said during a recent Gatorade-sponsored "Beat the Heat" event on the importance of hydration. "...These guys are so open to information on what’s going to be better [for them]. ... They’re really looking at the right thing to do. They don’t tend to go after weird things."
“We really don’t have that,’’ Brunelli said.
Menus for some players may change every few months, depending on weight loss, weight gain or injury. Brunelli spent time with each player during the offseason making sure they were on the proper diet to have them ready for the hot, humid conditions of training camp.
“Our goal is, all through OTAs, to show them what needs to be done so when we get to camp they know what to do,’’ she said. “We do a lot of pre- and post-camp weigh-ins. We do a lot in advance so we know where people are, to say ahead of time, this is what you require.’’
Brunelli works with the team several days a week during the season and offseason (yes, her role is part time). She also has a nutrition consulting business in Charlotte.
Brunelli was a seven-time All-America swimmer at the University of South Carolina, and she's the wife of Nicholas Brunelli -- a former American-record holder and world champion swimmer -- so she understands the needs of an athlete.
She also understands that some athletes may approach a dietitian with a not-so-healthy attitude for fear of being restricted to foods that don’t taste good.
“It was just a matter of getting them to understand I was not there to take away,’’ she said. “I was there to hear what is it that they enjoy and how can we get creative to promote some of what we need to do. We do it every day.’’
Brunelli’s job was made easier when the Panthers built a kitchen in Bank of America Stadium, making made-to-order meals easily available.
“When I got here we had a hot table where things had been made in a kitchen pretty far from where the players are, so there wasn’t a lot of buy-in because it wasn’t very good,’’ Brunelli said. “And it wasn’t anybody’s fault.’’
Having the kitchen in-house allows Brunelli to work closely with the chefs, strength staff and training staff throughout the year. That’s important because each has input that she calculates into daily menus.
“My chefs know when certain athletes come in it’s an extra spoonful of this or an extra spoonful of that,’’ Brunelli said. “Again, it’s to not make them think. Just to promote it on the back end where they don’t really know it’s happening.”
Brunelli helped revamp the entire nutrition program for training camp, the offseason and in-season -- even meals at hotels and on flights.
“We have seen benefits with player weights and with player strength gains and recovery,’’ head trainer Ryan Vermillion said.
Brunelli helped establish “action stations,’’ where players can customize their meals with various meats, vegetables and carbohydrates. She customized the crepe station, which is a favorite.
In 2013, when first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin suffered a bone bruise in his knee during training camp, she suggested adding pineapple juice to the wide receiver’s diet as a recovery aid.
“Proper diet and hydration are key for a successful training camp,’’ Vermillion said. “The daily demands of practice, weight training and meetings take a toll on the players, and we try to help them be their best at all times. Addressing the nutritional needs is an important part of the program.
“Jennifer helps drive that home to the players.’’
Brunelli also is willing to look the other way when players make occasional late-night trips to Krispy Kreme for donuts in Spartanburg and to Price’s Chicken Coop for fried chicken in Charlotte.
“When they love it, sometimes that mental break is so insanely important,’’ Brunelli said with a laugh. “So I don’t battle it. It’s how often are they having it -- if it’s something that is regular, then we’ll manage it.’’