A few weeks ago, I spoke with Fernanda Castaneda, APRN, and Dr. Linda Marquez, D.C. on the topic of meal prep for health and fitness goals. This prompted me to write a little more on the topic.
If you don’t have a meal plan that corresponds to your health goals, you may not be setting yourself up for success. It is important for most people to plan and prepare meals. For those with busy lives, often it’s even more important to prepare meals in advance. Let’s discuss why meal planning and prep are important and some effective strategies for various goals.
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Why is it important to create meal plans?
If you do not plan your meals, it is more likely that you will make poor last minute decisions. If you put some thought into planning your meals, you are setting yourself up for success. Depending on your schedule, preferences, and what you are prepping, lunches can be easily prepped the night before. I prefer dinner leftovers. If your schedule is pretty regular, it helps to pick a day or two for planning and/or prep, as this will help you establish the routine as a habit (and mitigate decision fatigue around when planning and prep will happen).
Planning is especially important for those who have a specific goal (such as weight loss), are transitioning to a healthy lifestyle and diet from a more “westernized” or poor diet, and/or are not home around meal times. With that said, there are situations where meal planning and prep are less important.
When is meal planning less important?
I admit – I’m not a perfect “meal planner”.
I admit – I’m not a perfect “meal planner”. Just because I have a passion in food and nutrition, does not mean that I have all my meals perfectly planned and prepared every week. I wouldn’t expect you to be perfect either! As I’m typing this, I’m willing to admit I haven’t done much planning in weeks. Life happens. However, I did loads of planning in the past and over time I’ve gained skills that require me to plan a little less.
I have become quite creative and knowledgeable about creating a healthy meal with the staples I keep stocked in my kitchen. I also keep quick and easy options around for a last minute healthy meal. In addition, I am home most of the day which allows me the flexibility to cook at any time.
Environment may have a positive or negative impact on your ability to improvise, and planning and prep can help mitigate any less than ideal situations to be caught in when you are hungry. For example, bringing along a healthy snack or meal when you know you will be out for several hours (in a world full of hyperpalatable and convenient fast food options) is smart planning. With that said, I do think for most people and situations, meal prep and planning is a very important routine to establish if you want to live a healthy lifestyle and/or reach your health goals.
What are effective strategies?
Your approach will depend on what your goals are. With all goals, eating predominantly whole foods and getting adequate protein, carbs, fats, and lots of veggies is important. For someone with a weight loss goal, I would emphasize volumizing your meals with lots of vegetables paired with lean protein and carefully portioned healthy fats and complex carbohydrates. For a general health goal, additional emphasis would be on getting a variety of every color of fruits and vegetables as these provide various phytonutrients to combat diseases and retain a high level of overall health. Muscle building, body recomposition, and goals to resolve targeted health issues would vary as well.
How to meal prep for health benefits?
- Plan to cook with various colors of fruit and veggies.
- Include veggies with most if not all meals.
- Experiment with plant-based protein sources in addition to lean animal products
How to meal prep for fat loss?
- Prepare meals with lots of veggies and lean proteins.
- Keep lean and filling snacks in view, for example, cut veggies with hummus, apples and pears, low-fat cottage cheese, protein powder. Ensure to get an optimal amount of healthy fats and carbs.
How to meal prep for muscle gain?
- Ensure you have a variety of both whole food protein sources and quality protein powder.
- Baseline-2 palms of protein a meal
Your plan can be as detailed as you like, but it doesn’t have to be rigid. In fact, rigid plans often become overwhelming, which can limit your adherence. I think of meals as a formula of an estimated ratio of protein, vegetables, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats. While amounts vary by person and goal, typically for a meal you should aim for 1-2 palms of protein, 1-2 fists of vegetables, 1-2 cupped handfuls of complex carbohydrates, and 1-2 thumbs of fat. This formula is demonstrated in the image below.
You could also bypass picking and choosing recipes with my guide on “How to Create the Perfect Meal“. This infographic is awesome. You can print it out and it basically shows you how to build a meal with whole food ingredients with suggestions for seasonings organized by region.
How To Master Meal Prep
There are basically five steps required to master your meal prep for the week.
- Look ahead. What meals will you need to prepare for the week? Take note of which meals you will need to prep in advance. Also, create events in your calendar to remind you of when to prep your food and perform tasks such as grocery shopping.
- Jot down ideas for your pre-prepped meals. Try to avoid overwhelming yourself with gourmet meals. Simple is good. Also, keep in mind how long it takes for certain foods to perish. Keeping an ongoing Pinterest board or bookmarks on Yummly for recipes you want to try is helpful. Again, you can also just follow my “How to Create the Perfect Meal” template. There are ideas for recipes in the infographic below as well.
- Shop for ingredients.
- Cook for the week. This is where you’ll want to cook ingredients that will save you time later in the week. For example, preparing rice or dry beans.
- Store Conveniently. Investing in some good food containers would be ideal for storing food portably.
The infographic below is excellent for understanding a good process for meal planning. You can get the printable version, here.
Kitchen tools for efficient meal prep and planning:
- instant pot-crockpot
- air fryer
- a good knife
- cutting board
- learn to chop and how to use a knife
- to-go containers
- ziplock bags
Additional time-saving strategies for meal prepping:
- cook in bulk
- eat leftovers for lunch
- let your produce guide your meal planning (load up on produce and then center your meals around what needs to get used before it goes bad)
I hope these strategies and tips help you master your meal planning and prep! What challenges do you have with meal planning and prep? Perhaps I can help! Please let us know in the comments!