Meal preparation. Two words every fitness coach throws at their clients and every fitness and nutrition writer loves to write about. Especially at this time of year.
You know, “holy crap I’m out of shape and have to fix my diet” time. Also known as January.
When you think about it, it’s really not fair. You start the year off great. You hit the gym, clean up the diet, maybe even do something about those ridiculous levels of stress all over your life.
By spring, the 10 or so percent of you who are still with it are feeling pretty good. Maybe even looking fairly good.
Then, it happens. Life starts tempting you. First, it’s summer. The grilling and outdoor life just feels better with a beer or an adult beverage. And who can resist a little cheat here and there…and here and there and here.
Because you’re active, you don’t really see the weight creeping back. Those loose food habits stick around into the fall, when you become a little less active.
Of course, fall is for football, or the World Series, etc, etc., Then Halloween shows up. Yay! Kit-Kats for breakfast! Not all that candy is for those kids.
Because you’re wearing more clothing (it’s getting nippy, after all,) you don’t notice the pounds slinking their way back on.
Then, before you know it, you’re in the Thanksgiving to Christmas to New Year’s calorie and cocktail extravaganza! By year’s end, you’re starting to need the old “fat” clothes you put away a few months ago.
Top all that off with the reality of your busy life and trying to clean up your nutrition for the long haul just doesn’t seem realistic. So when you hear the words “meal planning and preparation,” your eyes glaze over and you sort of throw up in your mouth a little.
But that’s the answer every trainer gives you and every article on improving your nutrition features, like a flashing neon sign.
“All you have to do is nail down your meal planning and preparation and everything will fall into place.”
Meal planning? Meal preparation? Are you looking for a swift kick in the shins?
In the real world, people don’t work out 3 times a day and spend the rest of their time preparing perfectly macro- and micro-nutrient balanced food.
In the real world, people are busy doing real world, real people stuff.
While I understand that perfectly, I’m going to risk a swift kick in the shins and tell you that if you don’t plan and prepare your meals, your nutrition is screwed. It’s true.
The difference between me and Mr. or Miss Shiny Trainer is that I also live in the real world. So I’m going to give you a strategy for meal planning and preparation that works – in the real world.
The crazy part is that when I share it with you, you’re likely to think “yeah, that IS simple!” So here we go.
1. Review your schedule – Just because you’re creating a meal plan doesn’t mean the rest of your life comes to an end. You’re busy. Work, kids and school are all time priorities. Add to that the prospect of having a social life and the truth sets in: you are just NOT going to stay home and cook every night.
But I bet you can find a 2 or 3 hour stretch of time where you can cook some meals ahead of time. You can even cook double batches and freeze some for future meals. Put them in individual serving containers. Then on crazy days when you know you won’t be able to cook, you can move meals from the freezer to the fridge and let them defrost all day, then heat them up when you’re ready to eat that night.
You can even get the whole family involved. The kids can help, if they’re old enough. Make it a family cooking party!
2. Do a raid on the refrigerator and pantry – I don’t mean pull up a chair and pig out. You want to take stock of what you already have on hand. Think about it. Chances are good that you have some pretty healthy ingredients already in your house. Got some leftover beef or chicken, some bell peppers and maybe a can of black beans? You’re well on your way to making healthy meal prep burrito bowls!
You’d be surprised at what you already have on hand, most likely. So dig in to that pantry and fridge, but eat before you do so you’ll be less tempted to snack.
3. Choose your recipes – Whether you’re a paleo, vegan, keto or balanced diet eater, there are thousands of recipes available that are pretty simple to make and will satisfy both your palate and your schedule.
Go through your browser bookmarks where you keep your food porn. You know, all those sexy, healthy recipes you just knew you were gonna make “someday?” Well, it’s someday, so let’s get cooking!
I recommend recipes with ingredient counts of 12 or under and total prep to finish times of under 45 minutes. If something more complex really tickles your fancy, have at it, by all means, but my experience is that simpler is better.
Another idea is to employ your crock pot or slow cooker. Almost every household seems to have one and they are great for meal planning and preparation! If you need slow cooker ideas , here’s a recipe book with hundreds of healthy slow cooker recipes.
4. Strategize your leftovers – While we want to minimize waste, to be sure, you should cook enough food to leave several portions of leftovers. For me, my dinner one night is usually my lunch the next day.
You can also cook breakfast casseroles and other dishes ahead of time and keep them in the fridge for reheating as quick breakfasts. If you make one slow cooker recipe a week, like chili or stew, batching leftovers for lunches can eliminate the temptation to eat garbage at lunch.
5. Write it, plan it, list it, shop it – Put your meal plan on paper and put it somewhere very, very visible. On the refrigerator, on a cabinet, on the message board, wherever you will repeatedly see it. Check the meals off after you eat them. It’s like keeping score and will absolutely increase your compliance and accountability.
Make your grocery list. Be sure to include any staples you may run out of while cooking your next set of meals. Running out of chili powder in the middle of making slow cooker chili can really screw up your plan. If it helps, go check out my article “7 Ways Your Grocery Lists Fail” for some tips on avoiding grocery list, well, failure.
6. Follow through, then review (and repeat) – Follow your plan for a week. Stick to it and don’t forget to allot some time (minutes) for planning next week’s meal plan. At the end of the week, review and see how you did. If all went well, the system is likely the one that will work for you. If you fell down, see what the “tripping factors” were and see if they can be altered or eliminated.
The point of meal planning and preparation is to help reduce stress, get you on a healthy eating plan and even help save some money. Keep your needs and stress points in mind when developing the plan but understand that sometimes life will throw challenges or opportunities your way that entice you to stray.
For example, if you get invited out to dinner by friends to celebrate your promotion but were planning on eating stew you made in your slow cooker, go to dinner with your friends. The worst-case scenario is a little food goes to waste. You, however, got dinner and quality time with your friends.
Keep the faith and keep after it!