Feeding an Entire NFL Team: Inside Scoop
The next time you’re stressed about what to make for dinner, think about feeding an entire NFL team. The woman leading it all; how it’s done, and what she’s learned that can help you feel your best.
For the past 24 years, Geji McKinney-Banks has devoted most of her waking hours to feeding an NFL team. As director of food service operations for the Minnesota Vikings, she works nearly 12 hour days, from 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., six days a week. During the regular season, she oversees a staff of eight to feed 53 NFL players, coaches and support staff.
Throughout her time with the Vikings, McKinney-Banks has learned that food not only fuels dreams on the field, but off the field as well. She passes on the lessons she’s learned: Do the hard work, never stop learning, and build good relationships with mentors and colleagues.
“People bless people, and being likeable has taken me a long way,” McKinney-Banks says.
Her way started before grade school.
“I wanted to be a chef when I was just 5 years old,” says McKinney-Banks.
In 1994 her mother happened to live next door to the Viking’s team chef, James “Big Jim” Muse.
McKinney-Banks, then 20, was put in charge of the team’s salad bar. During her time with the Vikings, she worked full time and went to school full time, earning two culinary degrees. She became director of food service operations in 2008.
Up until a few years ago, McKinney-Banks, Chef Geji as she’s known to the players and staff, sometimes worked 17-hour days. She arrived before dawn to supervise the breakfast shift and cook. When the team moved its headquarters to the TCO Performance Center in 2018, McKinney-Banks decided to make herself a priority. She cut back her hours, focusing instead on managing her food service team.
“I tell my team, we’re just as important as any other department to help them get to the Big Game. It’s important how we fuel them and take pride in what we’re doing to give them our very best,” she says.
When she started with the team, most NFL players ate junk food, McKinney-Banks says. Players often went on fast food runs between practices. Before she was hired, there was even a hot dog truck parked outside the Viking’s former practice facility.
“We didn’t know what we were doing,” she says. “We were just giving them what they wanted, from fried bologna sandwiches to french fries.”
Today, McKinney-Banks is part of an effort by NFL teams and other pro sports to implement sports nutrition programs to boost performance, including helping players get better quality sleep. Twenty NFL teams, including the Vikings, have a sports nutritionist on staff, according to The Chicago Tribune. And, the NFL recently partnered with Sleep Number as the official sleep+wellness partner of the NFL to further help improve athlete lives, as shown in this video.
To develop a healthy and balanced menu, McKinney-Banks works with the Viking’s sports nutritionist, Rasa Troup. She then collaborates with the team’s chef to make those healthier meals something the players will enjoy eating.
“If a player gets hurt, we have to know what would fuel them to help them heal properly,” says McKinney-Banks.
When the team played in the International Series in London, McKinney-Banks traveled to London several times to taste the local fare and ensure the food provided by the hosting hotel matched the players’ palates. She had food shipped directly from the United States, such as Bisquick mix, hot sauce and tart cherry juice concentrate for smoothies. Tart cherry juice helps fight inflammation, has high amounts of natural melatonin and is beneficial for sleep. You can learn about tart cherries and other foods that make you sleepy here.
“I always want to make sure the guys have what they need and that they’re happy and content,” she says.
Players may no longer get junk food, but they do have a say in what they eat. When unveiling new food, such as quinoa salad, McKinney-Banks offers samples to players. She may bring samples home for her husband and son to try first. If they like the new dishes, she’s confident the players will, too.
Among the player favorites, according to McKinney-Banks, is Chicken Wing Thursday, when players get to choose the flavor. Popular tastes include lemon and pepper, apricot Thai chili and a dry rub made with McKinney-Banks’ secret seasonings.
Food can also help, or hurt, players from getting a good night’s sleep. For example, certain acidic foods can increase heartburn, which could keep them awake at night. Most players don’t eat dinner at the team facility, so what they eat before bed matters.
For players who don’t hire a personal chef at home, McKinney-Banks offers cooking demonstrations, where she teaches players healthy basics, such as roasting vegetables or grilling chicken breasts.
“The guys really respond well to that and have even asked me for recipes,” says McKinney-Banks.
The long hours she puts into her job have also taught McKinney-Banks the importance of self-care. Game day is her one day off.
“I get my hair done every week. I enjoy getting my scalp massaged. Just doing that for myself every week is huge,” she says.
She’s currently working on starting a culinary summer program for kids. In her spare time, she often gives presentations to Girls in Action in Minneapolis and to the High School for Recording Arts in St. Paul, Minnesota.
“I’ve heard so many of them say, there’s no way out. I can’t even dream. And I’m here to tell them, you can dream,” says McKinney-Banks. “When I tell them my story, I can’t tell you how many hugs and thank yous I get. It’s overwhelming. I know I’m not giving them $1 million, but I’m giving knowledge and hope and encouragement. That’s why I give back.”
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Photo credit: Minnesota Vikings