One of my earlier posts touched on nutrition, and how knowing and understanding how to balance your intake of proteins, carbs & good fats is key to paving the way toward a healthier lifestyle. But “knowing and understanding” that side of the coin is really only half the battle. The other side of all this actually requires the most work: preparing the food and cooking the meals that are part of your overall plan.
For the kitchen-savvy, meal preparation is likely less intimidating than it is for those who might get anxiety over boiling eggs. If you happen to fall into that latter bucket, that’s ok! The reality is not all of us are meant to be top chefs or even functional cooks. Luckily, I am one of those who loves to experiment in the kitchen. My mom is a self-taught master in the kitchen, especially when it comes to classic Philippine dishes. My dad, on the other hand, is more of the epicure when it comes to cooking. While not classically trained (he got his start in the mess halls of naval bases and on board ships during his early years of deployment with the U.S. Navy), he worked his way through various kitchens and eventually landed jobs cooking for a number of U.S. Labor Secretaries and their guests (including Queen Noor Al-Hussein). So while mom perfected her versions of sinigang, kare-kare and other Philippine dishes, dad was the one regaling us with stuffed fowl, exotic salads, different cuts of beef cooked in varying degrees of heat and sauces, and desserts that my grade school classmates would only wish they could have had on a daily basis. At times it may have seemed like I took my parents’ cooking for granted, but the truth is I did pick-up a lot of what I know now from cautiously watching them in the kitchen for years. Add to that all the countless hours spent watching the Food Network and other similar programs; if you ask me, I’d say I am not at all useless in the kitchen.
Aside from being able to throw down from behind the apron, I am also an avid food enthusiast. (Note: I do not, and will not, ever consider myself a “foodie.”) I might follow global and local celebrity chefs, try to keep tabs on the new wave of restaurants that come to my city, and research the top places to have meals and drinks before I go on travel within the States and abroad. (And contrary to popular belief, while I may contribute reviews to Yelp or TripAdvisor now and then, I actually never rely on their reviews to make any of my decisions.) While indulging in table service and sifting through old world wines and top shelf spirits are something that I enjoy, the truth is I had the hardest time striking the balance between enjoying these things and seeing real results from all the time I was putting in the gym. I essentially became that person who worked out to eat out & drink. It was a place, I realized eventually, that I did not want to be.
From Indulgence to Moderation
I turned to meal prepping the first time I decided to work with an online coach, although I was already familiar with the concept. After all, meal prep isn’t for the fitness community only. People have been meal prepping to save time, or to reign-in their daily intake of food, or to save money – among other reasons – for a while now. And all of those reasons apply for those who meal prep with a fitness slant as well. Additional benefits of meal prepping include 1) pre-planning of your daily menu according to your macros goals, 2) helps to minimize the amount of useless time you might spend aimlessly wandering grocery store aisles, and 3) reduces the “guessing” time of unknowing what to consume for lunch or dinner (or both!) the next day.
Meal prepping can be tackled by a couple of approaches: you can plan to have a set menu for breakfast, lunch, dinner and even snacks that you can put on repeat each day of the week, or you can prep different things per meal per day. One approach will take more time than the other, but hey – it all comes down to your preference at the end of the day. Personally, I use both approaches depending on whether or not I am following a specific track. For instance, if I am working with a coach or trainer on something specific (i.e. cutting, lean bulking) for a set amount of time then I will likely take the “prep the same meals for each day of the week” strategy. In between these plans, I take a less constricted approach and curate my meals on a day-by-day basis; usually much more flexible with my eating, but still ensuring I stay within my set macros.
With either scenario, the meal prep process can still be daunting. From conceptualizing your menu according to your daily macros goals, to making your grocery list, to making the appropriate grocery run (It is a BITCH, btw, when the store you go to does not carry the 96%-lean ground beef that you are looking for!), coming home to chop vegetables, cut meats, measure out carbs… COOKING the meals… and then finally packing the meals into those plastic food containers so that you can easily grab and go as you head out the door each morning. It is a song and dance that takes a lot of getting used to. Each time I change up a menu, I tend to take more time with my prep. But the silver lining is that once you get in the habit of doing it, you learn how to get more efficient with the process. Now, I comfortably spread out my meal prep across a couple of hours during the weekend: one to actually cook the different components (I usually cook my proteins and carbs one day), and then another to measure out and pack the meals.
Meal Prep Hack
While I may have gotten the process down to a science, for those who might be toying with the idea of meal prepping – this all may come off as super intimidating. But it doesn’t have to be! For those first timers, or even for those meal prep vets who sometimes run into scheduling or timing issues due to, umm, life, here is a quick hack to help you along. Keep the following four components top-of-mind as you plan out your meals:
- Carbs (“Starchy” carbs: rice, potatoes, quinoa, etc.)
- Fats (“Good” fats: nuts, avocados, coconut or olive oils, etc.)
- Protein (chicken, beef, pork, fish, soy, etc.)
- Veggies (Carbs nonetheless, but with extremely low calories & high in fiber)
These four things combined are the essential building blocks for a well-balanced meal. Of course you’ll want to make sure you are consuming each source according to your macros goals. With these four components in mind, you can create different meals: rice bowls, pasta dishes, salads, soups, stir-fries, etc. While you may not exactly be eating beef bourguignon or flavorful pintxos, you will not be devoid of tasty meals that will get you through the day, and keep you energized even for your workouts. Take things a little further and monitor your sodium intake as you choose spices and sauces to keep your meals interesting, and you’ve got yourself the makings of meals that taste good and are good for you.
To save yourself even more time, don’t think twice about buying frozen vegetables to stash away in your freezer for those days you just can’t seem to set aside for chopping away. Or cook larger amounts of rice or potatoes, and measure out portions that you can stow away in the fridge or freezer for later. When I am on a specific cutting or bulking plan, I aim to prep meals for all 7 days of the week. If I feel I can scale back a bit, then I usually reserve one day of the week (usually Sundays) to schedule my cheat meal (Not MEALS! It’s a cheat meal NOT a cheat day!), and the rest of the meals for that day are relegated to a more flexible approach.
No matter which approach you take, remember to work toward your daily macros goals. And don’t get caught up in being overly calculated when it comes to your meal prep! If your lunch meal requires 5 oz. of baked chicken breast, and you happen to measure out 5.2 oz instead (oops…), don’t stress yourself out. If your meal calls for brown rice, but all you have left in front of you is white rice –just pack the white rice. If you are running out the door, and have a choice of grabbing an apple or a Pop-Tart, you best grab the apple… BUT if you gank the Pop-Tart instead, make sure it fits within your daily macros for carbs. Learn how to work within the guidelines I’ve shared here, steer clear from alcohol (or at least limit it if you are taking a more flexible approach), and have an exercise plan in place that pushes you each day. You’ll be on your way to a better you in more ways than you know.
Want more info? Check out these links:
- myfitnesspal.com: Essential Guide to Meal Planning
- Mayo Clinic: Menu planning: Eat healthier and spend less