An epic hunt for healthy food every time you’re hungry? Who’s got the time? Instead, try these 5 key strategies for having healthy food available when you need it. They’ll help make meal planning a no-brainer.
One of the many important lessons that I hope you get out of this strategy: Keep it simple. Think less. Make fewer decisions. Let your environment do much of the work for you. If healthy food is around you and convenient, you’re more likely to eat it. If you have a trusted system for making healthy food available, you don’t have to decide to eat well… you just show up and do it.
Meal planning (or as the meat-heads like to call it meal prep) simply means you set aside a bit of time to prepare some healthy food in advance so that it’s ready, available, and or convenient when you need it. How you choose to ritualize healthy meal prep is up to you. Here are some strategies that have worked well for both my male and female clients and athletes.
The Sunday Ritual
This is often what most think of when they hear "meal prep". You don’t have to do this on Sunday, of course. You can choose any day you like. Sunday is often a time when people are more free, more relaxed, and more able to devote time to this type of task. And it’s a time when we’re usually thinking ahead to the upcoming week. Whatever day you choose, set aside 2-3 hours once a week to do the following.
1. Look ahead to your upcoming schedule and see what’s happening. What nutrition challenges or opportunities might pop up? Where might you need some special preparation in advance? What are quiet and busy times?
2. Come up with a general menu for at least the next few days. It doesn’t have to be anything in-depth. Just get a basic sense of the food you might need to have on hand for the week ahead.
3. Build your shopping list from your menu. This will help you be as effective and efficient as possible when you hit the grocery store, and you’ll be less tempted to buy random (and non-goal-supporting) things.
4. Go to the grocery store and stock up on what you need for the week. Consider grabbing a few extra “just in case” emergency items as well, such as canned beans, frozen vegetables, or other easily-stored healthy options that you can use in a pinch.
5. Once you’re back home, start prepping and cooking. Store meals in glass containers and place front and center in your fridge for easy access.
Some clients choose to prepare most of their meals for the week on Sundays. Others prefer to figure out which meals will be easy to cook “in the moment” and save them for later, and only pre-prep meals for super busy times such as lunches at work or dinner after a late meeting. Do what works best for you, and your schedule. If possible, give yourself a little extra buffer zone. You never know what unexpected challenge might strike at 6pm on Wednesday, and when it does, you’ll be glad you socked away an extra meal in the freezer.
The Side Maker
I've found that most times the sides in your meal take up most of the cooking time—baked potatoes, wild rice, quinoa, and or baked sweet potato fries all can take up to 45 minutes to make. The Side Maker approach helps to save cook time so you can make meals super quick.
1. Pick a time in your day or week to prep sides that are staples for your meals like baked potatoes, rice, quinoa, fruit salad, etc.
2. Make a bulk batches for the week (or at least for a couple of extra days) and store in your fridge for quick access.
3. Save proteins and produce that are faster to cook and better made fresh. Reheat the sides and add them to your meal. This method can sometimes save 15-25 minutes of cook time.
The Two for One
Why make one serving or meal when you can make double in the same amount of time? This strategy is often used with dinner. Cook an extra serving and store in a glass container to enjoy for lunch the next day.
Making hard-boiled eggs? Cooking 8 takes no extra time.
Whip up a batch of lean protein — for example, by grilling or roasting several chicken breasts/thighs at once. Cooking several servings takes no extra time.
Try some one-pot meals that can be easily cooked in a slow cooker, then divided into containers to be frozen or refrigerated, such as soups, stews, curries, chili, etc.
Make a double dose of your post-workout super smoothie, store it in a mason jar in the fridge, and enjoy it for breakfast or lunch the next day. Not every meal has to be a solid, hot meal.
In a Jar
Keep these pre-mixed meals handy at home or at work for instant breakfasts or lunches.
Prepare smoothie ingredients in jars in the freezer. Pull out, add liquid, and blend for an on-the-go breakfast or lunch.
Mix up some eggs in a blender with some dried herbs if you like; keep the mixture in a jar in the fridge for up to a few days. Dice onion, garlic, and any other veggie you would like in an egg scramble; store in the fridge alongside your eggs. Pour and cook as needed.
Make one or several no-sog salad jars. Poor a servings of salad dressing into a large mason jar. Add hard toppings and grains in the middles—think cucumbers, peppers, quinoa, or cheese. Top the jar with a big serving of greens and a protein servings of your choosing.
Blend 4 scoops protein powder, 6 spoons full of chia seeds, 2 cans of unsweetened coconut milk, 4 cups of your favorite (or a mix of) fresh or frozen fruit like an assortment of berries, and anything extra like a couple dashes of vanilla extract or cinnamon. Poor into a glass container and cover for at least 4 hours (overnight is ideal). The chia seeds will soak and the result will be a delicious pudding consistency. Scoop 1 serving at a time into a bowl for breakfast or divide into 4 mason jars for a quick grab and go meal.
Make one or several overnight oat jars. In a large jar, combine equal parts dry oats, a liquid like water, milk, or nut milk, and greek yogurt. Mix in toppings like cinnamon, berries, coconut flakes, nuts, seeds, or protein powder. Cover and store in the fridge overnight.
Do quicker prep tasks like washing, chopping, or mixing when your schedule allows. Or better yet, work with your routines and add these tasks into activities that you are already doing like making coffee, watching the news, listening to a podcast, or while on a work call (just make sure you put yourself on mute).
Jam out to music while you chop veggies and whole fruit for the week or for future recipes in the week. Store it front and center in your fridge so that you can easily add it to salads, wraps, sandwiches, omelets, or for a quick snack to pair with Greek yogurt or hummus.
I find that this saves time that can quickly add up throughout the week. By doing a little recipe prep by chopping recipe staples like onions, bell peppers, and kale it saves some cook time and effort so you don't feel overwhelmed to cook a whole meal when you're hangry. Store in containers for the week and use it when needed.
On the Go?
Many grocery stores — from your average Safeway to more upscale Whole Foods-type places — now offer a wide range of grab-and-go meals. Think salad bars, pre-washed and cut vegetables, and individually-portioned lean protein. There are also many specialty food store chains that offer healthy food takeout and delivery. Some people even sign up for a healthy meal delivery service, if only for one or two meals a week.
If you don’t enjoy cooking or are extremely busy, you may find that having a break from the time and hassle of meal prep is worth the money. It might just mean the difference between a delicious, nourishing, physique-friendly lunchtime salad and another regrettable fast-food run. Google “healthy meal delivery” in your area and see what pops up.
Do what works best for you — your life and your goals. You can mix and match all of these food planning options, in any way that works for you. In the end, it is all about knowing your life, anticipating obstacles, and strategizing how you can plan for the unplanned.