Ahh yes, meal prep. The often touted #hashtag of fitness enthusiasts all over Instagram. At first, this might seem like a simple concept. You make food at the beginning of the week; you eat it throughout the week. Yes, at a macro level (oh, the irony) this is what is happening. But a GOOD meal prep takes understanding, consistency, and an ability to eat leftovers and not feel like you are missing out on the finer things in life (for many this is an acquired skill). But seriously, a properly executed meal prep will set you up for nutritional success every day of the week, and that is exactly what we are looking for!
In order to see the results you are looking for, whether it be losing body fat, gaining muscle, training for sport, etc., consistency is key, and your nutrition HAS to be consistently leading you towards your goals. If it isn’t, you are wasting your efforts over the long term, it will take you longer to reach your goals, and the process will become frustrating. Consistently following whatever nutritional protocol you have aligned yourself with is what will allow you to reap the benefits of said nutritional plan.
What better way in this busy world to stay consistent than to have all your meals made, put away, and ready to be eaten whenever you decide – especially when you know those meals are helping you get to where you want to be with your health/fitness?
Enter: meal prep.
Nutritionally, your meals should do the following, in general priority of importance:
- Provide sustenance for you to survive
- Not cause GI/health issues
- Help you reach your health/fitness goals in a sustainable manner
- Make you satiated until the next time you eat
- Be accessible when you are ready to eat
- Taste good
Notice taste good is at the bottom of the list. Now, what you need to understand is that your food CAN and SHOULD taste good. However, if you are looking to achieve any sort of fitness goal, you need to shift your thinking about eating away from it being a short-term comfort or a social activity, and towards it being a means to an end.
Your food is what is getting you to where you want to be. Once you have achieved your goals, or are a healthy, fit individual, you can have the luxury of eating out with friends more frequently or being a bit less strict with what you eat in general. However, if you are just getting started with a nutritional protocol, or are on the path towards a fitness goal that will take time, whatever it may be, I have news for you: you have to have discipline, and often times it is not going to be easy. When people tell you it is, they are lying. Reaching your goals can be hard, and that is what makes it worth it in the end.
However, don’t get that confused with people thinking your nutrition should be a punishment, or that the harder you are on yourself the more results you will see. This is not the case. The name of the game is sustainability. Your nutrition protocol should be set up to get you in the best shape of your life in a sustainable manner, while not sacrificing any of your mental well being (which oftentimes is an unfortunate byproduct of many fad diets).
And this is exactly why people meal prep. It is an easy way to make sure they have access to healthy food that will help them reach their fitness goals. Step one is to consider what your nutrition plan is, and what food you need to have access to at specific times throughout the day when you plan on eating. Then, you have to plan if you will have time to make your meal when you will eat it, or prep it before hand. So, for most people, breakfast can be made in the AM (or prepped if you are strapped for time) lunch should be prepped, and dinner is up in the air depending on your schedule.
Personally, I LOVE the egg meal I make in the morning. I sauté onions, peppers, spinach, tomatoes, mushrooms, a small portion of meat, and sometimes nuts, then add my eggs/egg whites. I get up earlier than I have to each day so I can make and eat this meal fresh. It is my favorite start to my day, it doesn’t interfere with the start of my morning, it is a meal that is helping me reach my fitness goals, and I enjoy it enough to eat consistently seven days a week. Knowing this, I only have to prep lunch and dinner. Before I do this, I consider the following (and encourage you to do the same!):
Will these meals provide with me with the micronutrients and macronutrients I need to maintain proper bodily function and lead me to my health/fitness goals (vitamins, minerals, proteins, carbs, fats, etc.)? Will they help me achieve all the checkpoints on the priority list above?
If not, what needs to change?
If I can’t change anything, what can I supplement to make sure I am staying healthy? (For me, the answer is vitamin D and fish oil. I encourage everyone to have blood work done to check for any deficiencies.)
Will these meals keep fresh throughout the time I plan on eating them?
For me, this is 6 days, and I home cook all meals on Sundays because I have the time and I love spending the day with my little family.
If not, then you should consider doing two meal preps throughout the week: One on Sunday, and one on Wednesday/Thursday depending on your preference in food and your time available. Nobody wants to eat 6-day-old fish.
Will I get sick of eating these meals throughout the week?
I’m a creature of habit, so the answer for me is no.
If the answer is yes, consider the following:
Meal prep for Sunday-Wednesday, and Wednesday-Saturday to spice things up
Cook more than one option of each food source when you meal prep
Cook a base item, like chicken, and then add various seasonings or toppings throughout the week. You could have chicken and veggies with salsa, with hummus, with hot sauce, and with curry all using the same meal prepped chicken.
Will I have access to a refrigerator at work/during my travels to keep these meals fresh throughout the week?
If not, then get a lunch box (like you had in third grade before it was cool to take paper bags), get an ice pack or three, and bring this with you wherever you go. When I finish my morning training sessions, I go home, write programs and articles, and then pack my cooler for the afternoon/evening I spend at the gym.
Boom boom boom and boom. Once you have all of these questions answered, it’s time to start your actual meal prep. Knowing exactly what you need is step one, and step two is making it! For most people, you will want to base your meals around protein and vegetables, and you can add in starch from there if it’s necessary depending on your goals. So, for lunch and dinner, your best bet is to do the following:
Pick at least two proteins that keep well (chicken, beef, turkey, and all their variations are a good bet)
Pick at least two vegetables that you enjoy eating with your proteins (broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, and spinach are some of my favorites)
Cook them. It’s very easy to bake chicken, oven-roast vegetables, and cook ground turkey/beef on the stove all under an hour.
Put them in your tupper ware containers, portioned out by meal. And you are set! You have your protein and veggies for lunch, and you have a different protein and veggies for dinner. Need a starch? Chef up some rice and you are ready to rock!
Just like that, you are part of the #fitfam that meal preps. You are ready to CRUSH your week of eating, training, and getting to whatever fitness goal you are chasing! As always, don’t focus so much on the little things, like:
“What spices should I use?”
“Should I put my meals in one big container or little ones at the beginning of the week?”
“How many preps should I do in a week? 1? 2? 3?”
The answer to most of the questions is as follows: Pick your foods, prep them, and see how it goes. Don’t like pre-portioning your meals and you would rather keep them in one big container and portion them as you go? Remember that for the next week. Find yourself enjoying chicken every week? Keep making it. The answer is to see what works for you, and keep doing that. As always, don’t worry about being perfect, worry about getting started, and from there, perfect your meal prep as you go!
Yours in health,
-Max Gordon, CSCS, FNS, Nutrition Coach, Fitness Instructor & Coach