A little over a year ago, I began a journey. I had a rough start to 2014; January just kinda…sucked. I was dealing with some injuries and health issues and was frustrated beyond belief. I didn’t like the way I looked or the way I felt at all. Toward the end of the month, something just clicked. I knew, in that moment, that I wanted to be healthier. I wanted- and needed- to feel better, look better, and live happier. I needed to be strengthening my body and fueling it properly. So I made a change. February 2, 2014, was MY new year and I set about defining my intentions for the year.
As my fitness journey began, I quickly realized that, if I did not have healthy meals ready to grab-and-go, I’d falter. Several months ago, I decided that I needed to start prepping meals ahead of time and, let me tell you, it has made a TREMENDOUS difference in how I eat. Many of my friends have recently asked for tips on meal prepping so I’d like to offer my advice. Please keep in mind that I am not a dietician; I adhere to a diet that I feel is working for me right now. I certainly would not push a particular diet on anyone beyond encouraging CLEAN eating: whole foods, minimally processed foods, as few chemical additives as possible (including artificial sweeteners…they’re the devil). As long as you are prepping clean meals, and eating them daily, you’ll be in a better place with your health than you are right now.
General thoughts about food prep:
1. Food prepping takes a certain mindset. You MUST be dedicated to it. You must be willing to sacrifice some time; food doesn’t just magically cook itself. I spend anywhere from 2 to 4 hours cooking on Sundays. I have accepted the fact that, to achieve my goals, I must sacrifice some of my time. During this time, we may also have laundry going, we may have a movie running in the living room, I may be enjoying a glass of wine but, for the most part, I am involved in making my food. When you start, it will feel like a chore. Ultimately, it’s no more time than you would spend in the kitchen throughout the week, it’s just all at once! But, as you see the results, you will come to embrace it and feel that the work is well worth it. Trust me on this.
2. Which family members are “in?” Don’t feel like you can’t do advance food prep just because the whole family isn’t up for it. Are you the only one? Fine! Prep for yourself. Just be sure that those who didn’t “sign up” don’t eat your goodies 😉
3. You need support. For instance, if my husband wasn’t also dedicated to our healthy eating journey, I probably would not get through my prep. He is my sous chef, my grill master, and my dishwasher. I produce a HUGE amount of dirty dishes while cooking and he just comes behind me and cleans it all up. I absolutely could not do it with out his help. You may be able to do it alone; just know what you can do.
4. You must be willing to eat the same food for several meals each week. You can’t practically cook five different meals for five different lunches during the week. You will eat the same meal a couple (or more) times…and that’s ok. You don’t really need the variety you have programmed yourself to think you do. There’s actually something comforting in just knowing what you will be eating for each meal. It takes a lot of stress out of eating.
Ready to jump in? Ok…some practical tips for you:
1. Find recipes that are easy to make in bulk, don’t require a bunch of special ingredients, and will keep and reheat well. For example, I try to limit dairy in my recipes, not only for my own health reasons but so that the food will keep longer. If you do prep a recipe that has dairy in it, know that it needs to be eaten first; meals without dairy will keep longer and can be eaten later in the week. Also, keep recipes somewhere where you can easily access them, whether on recipe cards or Pinterest. Whatever works for you. I have a lot of my go-to recipes stored as photos on my iPad so I can just open it up and cook. And don’t be afraid to tweak recipes you may have been making for years to make them healthier. Shake it up a bit 🙂
2. Plan a menu for the week. Some weeks, I may be feeling overwhelmed with life and decide to stick to tried and true stuff because, for me, there is some comfort and stress relief in keeping it simple. Other weeks, I may be up for trying new recipes. You decide what works for you in any given week. Ok, so what all do I make?
-Breakfast: I may prep only one breakfast item (for instance, my favorite high-protein waffles) and make 2-3 days worth. I can easily eat peanut butter toast, oatmeal, or yogurt on the other days, as those are fast and easy to make.
-For lunches, I will generally prep “plates” consisting of a lean meat or bean dish, a grain of some sort (usually brown rice or quinoa), and lots of roasted or steamed veggies. Maybe a chicken, rice, and veggie casserole. Or a Mexican style quinoa skillet dish. And I try to make a soup of some sort every week as well.
-I tend to cook dinners on the day we will be eating them, but I usually at least have some part of the meal prepped ahead of time. I’ll make extra veggies and grilled chicken breasts on Sunday for dinner use, have my favorite salad mix handy. This way, I only have to cook a part of a meal and mix it with prepped items. Maybe I grab some salmon on the way home and cook that and serve it with some veggies I roasted or the soup I made on Sunday.
-I also try to brew up some decaf green tea for the week. It’s good for you, tastes great, and helps you shed excess fluid if you’re retaining it.
-And finally, I try to make a healthy sweet treat of some sort as well 🙂
3. Make your grocery list. Be sure you have staples on hand (brown rice, canned beans, limes, olive oil, sweet potatoes, veggie (or chicken) broth, etc. You know, the basics…) Also, I try not to shop and cook on the same day as it can just wear me out! I detest grocery shopping 🙂
4. When you are ready to cook, start with a clean kitchen. This may just be my obsessiveness but I can NOT cook in a dirty kitchen. I need clean surfaces, dishes (including all of my storage containers), and room in the fridge to store the glorious meals I will be creating.
5. I cannot stress the importance of portioning out your meals ahead of time. You will need lots of microwavable storage containers. This helps with two things. First of all, if you tell yourself you will just dish out your food in the morning as you are rushing to get out the door, you are fooling yourself. It won’t happen. Secondly, you are more likely to stick to reasonable portion sizes if you are plating all the meals at once: 4-6 oz of meat, 1/2 cup grains, etc… If you do it when you are hungry or thinking about eating the food, you will over-serve yourself. If your fridge space or available storage containers limit your ability to dish out a week’s worth of food at once, prep a minimum of two days worth. Then do another two day’s worth a couple of days later. At night. Not when you are trying to leave in the morning.
6. If you have a buddy who is meal prepping too, that’s great! Some of my friends at work also do some advance prep and then we share with each other. This helps increase the variety and cut back on repeat meals. Just be sure that you and your buddy have the same dietary ideals. If one of you is a strict vegan and the other is sticking to a high-fat, high-protein, low-carb plan, you won’t jive too well.
7. Look for new ideas. Ask friends for tips, surf the web, try new things. Here’s a great post to take a look at from the FB page/website, Clean Food Crush. They also post a ton of great clean-eating recipes.
Now, for those of you interested in more specific info regarding diet and nutrition, I am happy to share some of my thoughts. Like I said though, I am not a dietician or nutrition expert so this is just what I am currently doing that is working for me. My goals have been to get lean, with lean muscle mass, while eating a clean, nutrient-dense diet.
1. Get to know and love fruits and veggies. You don’t have to get fancy. Veggies are often best when little is done to them. Roast (with or without oil) with salt and pepper, maybe some garlic. Or steam and add you favorite dry seasonings. Green is good: embrace broccoli, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, spinach, kale, beet greens…they do a body good! Eat fruit but limit fruit juices: too much sugar, not enough fiber. I try to limit fruit consumption to breakfast and lunch.
2. Protein. With regard to meat, we eat a lot of chicken and fish/shrimp. We limit red meat but, when we do eat it, it’s pretty lean. Bison is great. Meat portions have gotten pretty small around here too. I eat about 4 oz per serving, my hubby eats 4-6. As far as seasoning goes, try to stick to herbs and spices. We frequently use lime juice as well. Even soy sauce, Worcestershire, etc. Just avoid oils and fats like salad dressings, etc. And hey, guess what? Gonna let you in on a secret here. Meat isn’t the only place to get your protein 😉 Can you say nut butters? Yum! Get the ones that have no oil or sugar added. Many grocery stores now have the option for fresh-pressed nut butters in their bulk food sections. And, although it is dairy, I love my Greek yogurt. Finally, plenty of veggies and legumes have protein. We eat beans a LOT at our house. All different kinds 🙂 Here is some info on non-meat protein sources.
3. Carb control. Carbs are confusing. (When I talk about carbs, I am NOT including the carbs in veggies, although I do limit potatoes, corn, starchy stuff like that. Eat all the veggies you want!) I generally eat no more than one piece of (whole grain/whole wheat) bread/tortilla per day. Believe it or not, you CAN eat a sandwich with just one piece of bread 😉 Or sub lettuce and do a wrap. Brown rice and quinoa are great (my lunch portion is usually 1/2 cup cooked, a bit more for my hubby). Oatmeal is great. I have found recipes for muffins, cookies, cakes, etc., that don’t even use flour (or sugar, butter, eggs, milk, for that matter….there are some good ones out there). Also, when possible, I try to limit carbs at night. We eat our rice, pasta, breads, etc. in our breakfast and lunch and try to keep dinner to lean meats, beans, and lots of veggies.
4. Limit processed or prepared foods. If you must have lunch meat, pick meat with no nitrates/nitrites. Just meat, nothing added. Stay away from frozen foods, aside from frozen fruits and veggies. “Lean” or “healthy” frozen entrees may be low in calories and fat but are generally loaded with chemicals. Learn to make your own salad dressings. Avoid artificial sweeteners!! Chemicals in food make you crave bad stuff AND make you hold onto fat and toxins. If you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it 😉 I skip so many aisles at the grocery store now…the middle of the store is mostly stuff you shouldn’t be eating!
5. Back to sweeteners: Honey, molasses, REAL maple syrup, real sugar, agave, stevia. Use those if you must. But stay away from the others. They are hidden in everything these days! Avoid corn syrup, etc. You’re better off dealing with the calories from a real, natural sugar than the chemicals in artificial ones.
6. Dairy. Oh, how I love cheese. And sour cream. And ice cream. But they just don’t do a body good, like the milk industry would have you believe. Do I still eat cheese? And ice cream? And sour cream? Yes, I do. But WAY less than before! I used to put cheese on everything, now I limit it. And I limit it to lower fat versions. I use Greek yogurt instead of sour cream so that I’m at least getting a protein punch along with it. And, while my daughter still drinks cow’s milk, my hubby and I are pretty much on almond and soy varieties (and use very little, at that). Try different milks (there are so many varieties) and see what you like. Stick to non-GMO products; avoid carrageenan (additive found in many milks). (Added bonus: my acid reflux has pretty much disappeared since I reduced my dairy intake.)
7. Eat snacks. If you eat mid-morning and afternoon snacks, you are less likely to over-indulge at meals. And I don’t mean a snack from the vending machine or a donut from the break room. Or even one of those 100-calorie packs; those are awful! Find healthy alternatives: fruit, Greek yogurt, nuts, nut butters, even a protein shake or bar.
8. Don’t drink your calories. Fruit juices, sodas, and frappucinos aren’t exactly good for you. I’m not a water drinker myself but I pretty much only drink water and green tea now.
9. Don’t deprive yourself. You have to indulge sometimes. The more you feel deprived, the further off the wagon you will fall when you allow an indulgence. If you must eat something that is less than healthy, just try to do it in moderation 🙂 Going out for Mexican food? Try the veggie enchiladas instead of beef and cheese, with extra beans and no rice. Or the chicken or shrimp fajitas and lay off the flour tortillas and cheese. Decrease the portion size by taking some home for the next day. Is it the best meal you could eat? No. But it’s better than what you would have done and that’s progress. I have even abstained from chips and queso and, if you know me, you know this is a freaking miracle. Seriously. Just keep making little changes and eventually they will add up to a big one.
I’m going to try to start posting ideas, recipes, etc. on Pinterest again. Feel free to follow me, specifically my “Food Prep and Clean Eating” board.
So, my friends, that’s it for now… I hope something in here helps you. Encourages you. Maybe inspires you. The work is worth the benefit and rewards. Your body will thank you for high-quality fuel and you will feel so much healthier! Now, get in the kitchen! That’s where I’m headed 🙂