You’ve probably, at some point heard someone make a statement like “you can’t out-exercise a bad diet” or “abs are made in the kitchen”. Much to my annoyance, I discovered both of these things were very true when I first started trying to change and improve my health and fitness.
For most of my life, I’ve gone through bouts of trying to “eat healthily”, time after time falling off track when I found myself in a hurry or just tired at the end of a long day. Convenience would win out over willpower and I would end up munching on fast or processed food that didn’t align with my nutritional goals. It was a repetitive cycle that took place again and again over the years and I never really got anywhere with my goals.
The problem was that I had a vague ambition of “eating better”, but never followed up with giving myself some specific goals for my nutrition and then putting a plan in place to help me stick with and meet those goals. When it comes to your diet, in a world of tempting and convenient junk food options, you cannot coast on willpower alone.
The biggest game-changer for me over the last couple years in setting and reaching new fitness goals has been learning how to plan for success in my diet by meal prepping. I’ve learned that I am most successful in sticking to my nutritional goals when I set myself up to succeed before those moments of weakness arise (when I’m too rushed or tired to buckle down and prepare a healthy meal from scratch).
So today, we’re going to look at three methods of meal prepping that have helped me make significant progress in moving out of a broken cycle of dieting and towards a sustainable lifestyle of eating well, fueling nutritional goals and having a better relationship with food and my body.
1. The Full Week Meal Prep
This is what I think a lot of people think of when they hear someone talk about “meal prepping” and is a popular method for planning out an entire week’s worth of healthy meals. It involves cooking large volumes of food at once to be divided in containers for equally proportioned breakfasts, lunches, and dinners.
It definitely takes some time to prep, cook, and process everything, so many people choose to do it on Sunday (or any afternoon where they have several hours of free time). It doesn’t have to be an overly complicated process if you do things in big batches. You can throw all of your vegetables (potatoes, asparagus, mushrooms, Brussels sprouts, or whatever) together with some seasonings in the oven or on the grill and 20-30 minutes later have enough veggies for a week’s worth of lunches and dinners.
This is the method I use for prepping my husband’s lunches for the work week. We’ll cook up a big batch of chicken, use different seasonings on different pieces, to be divided into lunch containers. Although not pictured here, we usually cook all our dinner proteins for the week this way too, along with a couple big batches of complex carbs (rice, quinoa, baked potatoes, etc.). We have different diets and don’t eat all the same foods (partly out of preference and partly out of food allergies), so when I’m cooking from scratch I usually end up making two different kinds of meals for each of us. Having some of the staple components of our meals cooked and prepped makes it easy to whip up dinner in a jiffy.
Our work schedules also have us getting home at different hours, where many nights we only have 2-3 hours to eat dinner and spend time together before bed. This kind of meal prep makes it easier to enjoy a hot, homemade meal and make that bit of quality time together during the week really count.
Once I have the base of his lunches prepped and packed, I will add finishing touches the night before when I put everything into his lunch bag (which this past week was adding freshly sliced apples, strawberries, and feta cheese into the salads along with two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for a pre-workout snack).
On the weekends where I have time to do a big prep like this, it’s amazing how much time, effort and clean up it saves me throughout the rest of the week. It also helps keep us on track on busy days when it would be easier to pick up fast food than come home late and cook a full meal. I love being able to open up the fridge and have full, healthy meals ready to grab at a moments notice.
2. The Pre-Chop Prep
This is more my preferred style of meal prep. While I love the convenience of pre-prepped and portioned meals (and will do them for myself here and there), I also enjoy cooking some fresh food throughout the week. (That, and there really just isn’t room in our fridge to stack and store enough containers for a full week’s lunches and dinners for both of us.)
All of this prep work does take a chunk of time to get done, so I typically do all my fruit and veggie slicing and dicing the same afternoon I am doing my husband’s lunches. Once I have the meat and baked veggies going in the oven, I’ll start chopping the raw vegetables. (I usually listen to music, an audiobook or watch Netflix on my laptop while I work.)
Most things (fruit, vegetables, a big batch of fresh salsa, etc.) I store in airtight containers. Asparagus, however, stores best like freshly cut flowers: Placed upright in a container filled with water. It keeps the stalks fresh much longer, which is why many grocery stores choose to store asparagus this way in the produce section. Once it’s all ready, I place everything in my fridge for the week ahead.
Some of my favorite complex carbohydrate dense foods I like to prep at the beginning of the week are potatoes and rice. I will use my cheese grater to shred a couple large sweet potatoes into an airtight container and then pull out a cup or so at a time to make a sweet potato hash, or pre-slice the potatoes for making sweet potato toast throughout the week. I will also make a big pot of Jasmin rice at the beginning of the week.
Having all of my fruits and veggies pre-prepped makes cooking a fast, enjoyable process that takes about half the time and clean up. It also helps add variety to be able to mix and match different ingredients and seasonings and keep me from getting bored with meals. And having everything chopped and ready makes it simple to weigh and measure out consistent portions so I can keep track of counting my macros consistently.
3. The Practical LeftOver Prep
Let’s be real. Life happens. Some weeks we just end up having a busier schedule that doesn’t allow a full afternoon to sit down and do a full week’s meal prep for three or more hours in a row. For some people, one big meal prep is just difficult to make happen any week. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t find a way to prep in a way that works to help keep you on track.
One very simple and effective way to get some meal prep in is by making a larger quantity of food at dinner time and letting the extra carry over into the rest of the week for meals. It can be easier to break your prep work up this way, were maybe 2-3 nights a week you are making a big meal that you can portion into lunches and reheat for a quick, healthy dinner when you get home over the next couple days. This will start giving you some convenient meal options and even save you some time and effort from having to cook every night (which is sometimes the difference in resisting the temptation to hit up a fast food joint).
Find What Works for You
My husband and I alternate between all three types of meal prep for whichever best fits our schedule that month. Some weekends I do a big, full meal prep that we munch on all week. But some weekends are just too busy for such an undertaking, so I do a couple smaller meal or chop preps during the week when it’s more realistic.
You do still have to be intentional, and take the time to prioritize a meal prep of any kind in your schedule. Some weekends it can mean skipping out on a social outing to stay home and prep one afternoon to set yourself up for the week ahead. It might mean staying up a little later one night to do a mini meal prep that will provide healthy lunches and dinners the next couple days when you just want to come home and crash after a busy day.
But it is worth the effort. And it will start helping you make the change from a broken cycle of dieting (that can often be riddled with guilt and self-disappointment) to real, tangible lifestyle change. It takes a few months of getting a knack for it and finding what method works best for you, so don’t be discouraged if you feel like a hot mess when you are first getting into the process (because that’s how I felt at first). Just keep at it and you will find your own rhythm for success!
All writing and images copyright © 2018 Rachel Elise Weems Woods