I am sure you have all heard this saying before “failing to prepare is preparing to fail”.
While you know that there are so many variables to nutritional coaching and planning for athletes, one area that I would like to focus on today is MEAL PREPPING. As a coach, I must use evidence and outcome-based decision making when working with clients. One proven strategy for success is to prepare your meals in advance. This can be done on various levels from loose to strict, depending on the stage of the client. But for this blog, we will assume the client is psychologically ready and committed to take on this next step in their program. Let’s delve deeper into this paradigm.
Why meal prep?
You know that you have to eat several times per day (# of times per day varies per individual). If we know how important exercise nutrition is, then why is that that so many people leave their meal planning/prepping to the last minute and then wonder why they have so much difficulty adhering to a healthy nutrient dense, well-balanced program?
Preparing your meals in advance ensures conquering hurdles or setbacks before they occur. Some of the hurdles are eating out frequently, busy life and little food-prep time which leads to snacking, lots of travel, busy social life schedule, and nutritional boredom. There will always be instances of unexpected scenarios that will present a unique nutritional challenge, but your response will set you apart and determine your results. Always plan for the unplanned.
Oh and if you’re a bodybuilder, powerlifter, fitness model or athlete, you may want to consider meal prepping since your “body is your business” and surely “your business card”.
What is meal prepping?
“Meal prepping” is preparing some or all of your meals in advance
(# of meals differ per individual). This is a very common practice for serious athletes (i.e. college, professional & competitive) and for those starting new programs with nutritional/training coaches. It is known that preparation is key on any athletic journey (novice or pro)! One common mistake is not having healthier alternatives readily available, aka “prepped”. When we don’t have food
prepared, we tend to reach for items (snacks) that may not support fitness our goals and lead to a feeling of sabotage. This can become a viscous cycle. Whether out and about or at home.
Let’s talk numbers and days
The recommend average number of meals per a day is 5, with 4 being least and 6 being the most. It is common to space your meals out approximately 2.5-3 hours apart, but usually not more than four (once again varies per an individual). It is important to know your “trigger times” – this is either the time of the day where your hunger increases or the meals in which you are most susceptible to eating something off your plan or that is unhealthy. Being prepared can lessen the likelihood of you deviating from your plan.
Some users can prep all of their meals at once and I call this my Sunday ritual (but it can be any day of the week). My husband and I would start our week this way. We will set aside a handful of hours and prep all our food for the next 5 days. We like to make a variety of foods that can be portioned out into a conglomerate of meals. Others like to plan ahead by cooking your meals either every other day or split into 2 days of the week like Sunday and Wednesday. Either plan will provide you with enough food for the next few days.
At my home, we love experimenting with flavors, in particular spices and homemade marinades. This can be as simple as switching up your spices or protein (i.e. swapping your chicken for fish) every few days. For us variety works. But for others simplicity is key to success. Some clients like variety in their meals and for some find it overwhelming and intimidating, and prefer prepping the same meals. As a coach, knowing your client is key. But your client knowing himself or herself is also vital. With open communication and a constant feedback loop, tailoring can be made easy. The bottom line is sticking to the plan, no matter which way works best for you!
Schedules can dictate how many meals you prep. Currently, I normally eat breakfast at home unless I have an off-schedule day. So for me, that’s one less meal to prep. But previously, I would either start my day off with meal #1 with a protein shake or prep my 1st meal (breakfast) for work (future blog post I will go into the specifics of each meal, tackling the hurdles, macro types and great choices for all your meals. Of course meals vary per individual –all my coaching is individualized/so no 2 templates are the same). Even if you have a schedule that fluctuates, you can tailor your meals. You may eat breakfast at home one day and not the next and the same for your main dinner (with or without family). The meals that you don’t prepare ahead of time, you will just cook prior to that mealtime. REMEMBER the bottom line … this does not have to be a finicky, overwhelming ordeal, but rather the idea is to simply tap into your personality, your likes/dislikes, the way you operate and make the rest of your week easier by doing a little prep work in advance. The small time commitment goes a very long way in helping you to adhere to your goals. In the long run, you win by achieving your goals.
Sample ritual may consist of:
- Come up with a meal plan for the week (my be alone or coach-led)
- Generate a shopping list
- Go to the grocery store
- Cook for the week
- Store items in Tupperware
- Divide up the meals as needed daily, taking from all your premade foods
Side note: if adding shakes as complete meals (for example in a 5 meal/day plan, maybe meal 2 and 4 are shakes, aka your old snacking time), you do not necessarily need to make these in advance)
How much food do you prep?
As a coach, preliminary assessments help me decide on what kind of nutritional plan a client should be on, and there are levels to determine this. Nutrition programs should advance as the client advances.
For accuracy, as a sports nutrition coach, a designed nutrition program of meals will include macros for the day/week/month. Make sure to prep your meals according to your own specific program design. It was made for you, to help you achieve your personal goals. There are a ton of templates out there, available on the web or in magazines, but they are either generalized or made for a man (whoa Nelly if you’re a woman)! For example, if you’re carb cycling and you need 350 grams of carbs one day, but only 150 grams the next, know this ahead of time. Stick to your plan and package your meals accordingly. Keep your nutrition program accessible in the kitchen, so it is readily available, for quick review of your macros.
Some of the theories behind meal prepping with carb cycling according to your macros :
- Low-carbohydrate diets lead to more effective weight loss (both from fat and water weight loss)
- Rotating carbohydrates into your plan will provide for more energy for high-intensity training days
- Reintroduction of carbs help to bust plateaus and boost metabolism
- Basically cycling your prepped meals will provide enough energy for training but lower body fat for your program and goals
- Make sure you know which meals that are prepped are for which meal and day as scheduled
( a future separate blog will discuss carb cycling in full – be on the look out!)
Multitask your cooking
One of the best methods to preparing a mass of quality food quickly is to multitask your cooking. You can roast multiple vegetables at once! You can actually bake a protein like chicken, pork, steak or fish and even roast your veggies at the same time! NO EXCUSES!
In my home, it has become the norm for us. My husband and I team up, chop and prep all the food and then start cooking it all. We get to spend time together and talk about both our personal and professional life. If you live by yourself or you’re alone because your family is gone, it can still be fun, by watching television, listening to music or even studying while you prep. Learning how to cut down your time in the kitchen is critical for long-term success because you do not want to get burned out or let boredom set in. This “task” of “prepping” can be enjoyable, with both immediate and delayed gratification.
Simple Sample Steps for roasting a multitude of vegetables
- Set oven to 350-450F
- Slice/cut/chop/cube up your vegetable
- Place vegetables in a bowl & mix together with seasoning (basic perfect combo is olive oil or coconut oil, with Italian seasoning, pink or sea salt, pepper, garlic)
- Mix together well
- Spread the contents on a baking sheet (lined with parchment paper or tin foil or grease pan with coconut oil
- Place in the oven and bake for approximately 30 minutes or until browned
Here’s another option for prepping fresh vegetables. If there are meals/foods that I like to eat fresh, then I just “pre”chop them, store them in a container, in the fridge and then they are avail for mix/matching or cooking with different proteins. A stir fry is a good example as well to use fresh pre-chopped vegetables with.
Tips on food storage & reheating meals
When prepping for the week, the maximum that I recommend preparing in advance is 5 days worth of food. You can keep up to 3 days worth of meals in the refrigerator and freeze the rest of the meals, depending on the food and its shelf life. The temperatures of your refrigerator and freezer, as well as the types of containers you use, are vital in preserving freshness of your meals. Your refrigerator temperature should be 40F or below and your freezer should be at least 0F or below. If you are preparing several hot meals, you should allow the meals to cool down (nearly to room temperature) and then store them in the refrigerator or freezer within 1-2 hours of preparing.
I prefer glass containers because the meal/food is visible and they generally can be used in most microwaves. Less dishes and worry, especially when you’re on the go. But for weight or safety when using a traveling food storage bag, you can use plastic containers; just make sure it is BPA free. Watch out for freezer burn with food stored in the freezer. Make sure the seal of your container is tight. For all the details on food safety please visit the United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service at www.fsis.usda.gov. Another helpful link with suggested food storage times from FoodSafety.gov – http://www.foodsafety.gov/keep/charts/storagetimes.html
For success with traveling and meals prepped ahead of time, using an insulated bag to pack your prepped meals will surely increase adherence to your nutrition goals. Also, their controlled temperature can also help protect you from foodborne illness and keep your food fresh. You spent so much time prepping, don’t let it go to waste! Many amateur and professional competitors use them. They are not necessary but they surely add an element of adherence to your nutrition goals.
I hope you enjoyed this quick overview of what a meal prep is, what it looks like and more importantly, how to do it! Remember this is a multifaceted approach and there really is no wrong way to do it. Personalize it and make it fit your lifestyle. Even a little bit of prepping while first getting started is a step in the right direction. Over time, it will get easier and become very second nature to you. When you are reviewing your goals, progress pictures and food logs, you will surely see the benefit that meal prepping will add to your program. The advantages are 10 fold for success in achieving your goals and moving on to the next level.
Oh and ps… DO NOT worry that people are going to make fun of your for bringing your own food to work in multiple prepped containers. Its okay to not follow the crowd or eat what they are eating. Remember your goals and your health! You might even inspire someone else’s fitness journey!
I wanna know!
Have you ever tried to meal prep? How did it go? Do you mix it up or keep it basic? What type of results did you notice with your goals, after you introduced meal prepping into your regimen? What did you think about this blog? Let me know ~ Leave a comment below!
My name is Lisa. At 15 years old, I started to train and competed in my first physique competition. I won! My life was forever changed. Working out and lifting weight was officially in my blood. My journey continued after I enlisted in the US Army. However, I made a life change, at age 39, when I realized that I was a fat skinny…. Meaning I was always athletic, small, average fit, naturally muscular and I was a master fitness trainer in the Army. I was the “go-to” person to help others make smart nutrition and fitness choices during my 21 years in the Army. I looked great in clothes. But, I wanted more. I wanted to look even better out of my clothes. I realized that I had a new goal in mind and that was to compete again at age 40. I started consistently training (which was a comfort zone for me). But what was not so comfortable was the nutrition component. I hired a trainer, joined a competitive team and started to plan meals and training with her (online). It was a game changer. By incorporating a well-balanced diet to my workout, my body composition changes were much more dramatic. I realized how much I enjoyed this healthier, lifelong sustaining lifestyle of eating and how rewarding it was. I started to experiment in the kitchen, like never before. With my husband by my side, we were becoming chefs. It was proving to be the most important component of attaining the physique I wanted and to attain the success I earned on stage. My meals are never boring. They look and taste gourmet and they are the cornerstone to my success. Keep it fun! Keep it interesting! Change it up often and amaze yourself! Our bodies are built in the kitchen and sculpted in the gym.
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