Meal Prep Basics for Fitness Results
“Meal prep” is a term you hear a lot in the fitness industry. In it’s most basic form, meal prep is simply the act of preparing your foods, in advance, and organizing meal options so that they are easily accessible and properly proportioned to directly address the fitness goals you have. So obviously there’s a little more to meal prep than simply preparing some healthy meals ahead of time, there is a built-in assumption that the nutrition values of each meal are in line with the goals you are wanting to achieve. In essence, meal prep is the craft of ensuring your body has the proper fuel it needs to do what you need it to do to progress your body from where it is, to where it needs to go.
The whole idea behind meal prep is one simple thing – take away choices. You never want to make food choices in the moment, you always want to make food choices days or weeks in advance and that is how meal prepping ensures your fitness success. Successful, organized meal prep ensures your food is always accessible and that you never have to make an on-the-spot decision about what to eat. Take all chance out of the equation and ensure your food/fuel is completely regimented and will go according to plan by following the guidelines below.
I will link to as many of the products I discuss as possible so you can see them. When possible, I’ll link to the exact products I use personally.
My 10 Key elements of meal prepping
1. Stock-up on meal containers
You’ll need a bunch of these to ensure you always have the food you need, when you need it. Go ahead and buy more than you think you’ll need (I recommend 30) because inevitably you will come home tired one evening, not feel like washing dishes, and be out of clean food containers when you wake up the next morning and situations like this can derail you mentally and emotionally and work against you by opening the opportunity for poor food choices to creep in. Also, buy a quality brand that makes their products from BPA-free materials so you are not poisoning your body every time you heat up your meal. Try these and I think you’ll like them, they’re made with health in mind and are super-cheap.
2. Use a food scale
You can’t know the nutritional values of your food if you don’t know portion sizes, so a quality food scale is an essential kitchen item for quality meal prep. There will come a point when 8 oz. of chicken and 6 oz. of chicken make a difference and you’ll need to ensure that the time and effort you are putting into your fitness results is paying off. Failing to know the differences that need to be recognized will slow your progress and frustrate you. Get it right every time with a basic food scale.
3. Have these tools handy
These items are not listed to waste your time, they’re listed to help save you time. All of these items are ones that I consider essential in my food prep process and while I do not necessarily use these every single week, I use them often and am glad I have them handy when it’s time to meal prep.
- Produce wash basket – pesticides and chemicals are the worst, so are people’s germ infested hands. Wash your produce well.
- Countertop convection oven – these will change your life and ensure you can cook things quickly without creating a big mess or wasting time.
- Electric Griddle – for bulk cooking pancakes, mounds of eggs, lean meats and anything else you want. A large easy-to-clean cooking surface is awesome.
- Cooking bags – these come in handy for steaming vegetables and even baking in the oven.
- Rice cooker – perfect rice every time. That’s hard to beat because you will probably be eating a lot of rice.
4. Prepare enough protein for 5 days
Five days is about as far as I’ll go with prepared proteins. Typically this looks something like grilling a bunch of boneless, skinless chicken breasts, and cooking a few lean steaks. These foods will keep very well for up to a week so with a five day window, you’re good. Things like fish and eggs will not keep very long and are always best prepared fresh so I tend to recommend eggs at breakfast when possible so you can wake up, prepare the eggs, eat them and get on with your day. Likewise, I recommend fish at lunch and/or dinner so you can prepare them the same day you plan to eat them. I typically eat fish at dinner so I know that I’ll be home from work and I’ll have time to cook the fish and eat it all within the course of 30 minutes or so. Different proteins stay fresh for different periods of time, but as a rule, chicken, turkey and beef are all going to last at least a week. Keep your primary protein cooking window to once every five days and you’re golden. Remember, keep it simple!
5. Prepare enough carbohydrate for 7 days
You really only need about 3 key carbohydrate sources to make up the majority of the carbs you will be eating. For this, I tend to recommend foods that are almost completely comprised of carbohydrate so that the calories are easily calculated and they are easy to work into your meal prep schedule. Rice, sweet potatoes and oatmeal are the three carbohydrates that have made up the backbone of my carb intake for the past twenty years and I strongly urge you to consider these as well. I like these three because they cook easily and keep relatively well too. Rice cookers, convection ovens, and microwaves make meal prep of most foods pretty simple. Other carb sources like quinoa, lentils and beans are all great carbohydrate sources, but they also contain significant amounts of protein which you’ll need to account for when calculating the calories of protein, carbs and fat that you need each day. You will probably be including some fruit sources like berries, plums, melon, apples and such into your diet and these are super-simple to work with because they require no real meal prep, you just have to ensure you have them handy when they’re needed.
6. Green leafy vegetables are a must
You have to find a way to get a lot of green, leafy vegetables into your diet. They provide fiber and quality micro-nutrients (vitamins and minerals) that keep your metabolism rolling and maintain cellular health. I tend to eat a ton of fresh spinach, kale, brussel sprouts and asparagus and luckily these are all very easy to prepare. I get most of my spinach in by wilting it and mixing it into my chicken/beef and rice dishes. It essentially becomes part of a type of stir fry. I heat a pan, coat it with a thin layer of oil to keep things from sticking, toss in a huge handful of fresh spinach and let it cook down a bit. Then I take my weighed and cut chicken and toss it in, measure the rice and toss it in, add a little low sodium soy sauce, mix it all up and bam it’s done! Put a little sriracha on it once it’s on the plate and it’s hard to beat!
7. Keep fats handy for easy access
Fats are so simple to keep in your diet, the challenge is ensuring you don’t get too many. You really only need about 15-30% of your daily caloric intake to come from fat and the exact amount depends completely on your body, your training and what you are trying to do. Typically, if you are cooking each day with things like safflower, coconut or olive oil, then you’re getting the fat you need in your diet. A small handful of nuts here and there or a couple of egg yolks will do the trick. Remember that chicken, lean beef, fish and most animal protein sources are going to supply you with dietary fat as well. So the quick version is this: keep things like oils, nuts, the occasional egg yolk and lean meats in your diet and as long as you are getting regular, small amounts of these things in during the day, you probably don’t have to worry much about your fat intake.
8. Get regimented with meal timing
Meal timing will work in your favor in many ways. There is a lot of science going back and forth on whether meal timing produces better, similar, or fewer results than simply eating the same amount of food each day at any time you want but this approach misses the point. There is something to the idea that says all you need to do is make sure you get all the foods you need in at some point each and every day, but meal timing allows you to do it in a way that is structured and that helps you stay consistent. I typically recommend eating every 3 – 4 hours. It is smart to prep your meals with specific time intervals in mind so that you ensure pin point accuracy in your food intake practices. These are the reasons why meal timing is so important:
- It stabilizes blood sugar. Elevated blood sugar is no bueno for fat loss, so small, frequent meals keep blood sugar levels steady.
- It keeps you mentally sharp. Knowing that next meal is coming in just a couple of hours keeps you from going crazy over food and making a spontaneous bad choice.
- It fuels your body as needed. There are no excess calories in your system. You’re providing calories as calories are needed, that’s a good thing.
- It allows you to tailor each meal for your workout schedule. The time of day and the kind of workouts you perform influence your metabolic state and therefore your nutritional needs. Small, frequent meals give you pin point accuracy to address all of these things with a high level of precision.
- It becomes a habit. Meal timing promotes habit and that is always a good thing when you’re talking about fitness results. Good habits win!
9. Seasonings keep things from getting boring
You’re going to be eating a lot of chicken, rice, sweet potatoes and fish so you may as well put a little thought into the process and learn how to literally spice things up a bit. I recommend low sodium soy sauce, low carb salsa and sriracha sauces as staples. My favorite seasoning of all time is Beer Can Chicken seasoning by Weber. Companies like this make a lot of great seasoning blends, so do some experimenting and find three or four that you really like and rotate through them to keep your meals tasting great without getting bored with the flavor.
10. Do not over-rely on supplements
Supplements are meant to supply your body with nutrition that you are unable to get from food. If you can eat it in whole, real food, that is where you want to get your nutrition. Now, having said that, supplements have their place in meal prep. A protein shake or two during the day will make life a lot easier and will probably fit nicely into your fitness goals as well.
Supplements that I find worthwhile are:
- High quality whey protein
- Branch Chain Amino Acids (BCAA)
- Green superfood powder
- Organic, raw, unflitered apple cider vinegar
A high quality whey protein ensures your body is supplying much needed amino acids to your muscles as they are recovering from training. Branch chain amino acid powders help curb any sugar cravings (because they’re sweet and tasty) and also support your tissue repair efforts while often being used as a no, or low, calorie method of maintaining muscle mass while following a restricted diet and rigorous training schedule. BCAAs are able to do some metabolic things (trying to keep it simple here) that other amino acids cannot while you are low on calories and high on exercise so having them as a regular part of your meal prep during times when your calories are low and you are training is a good thing. Creatine is a component of energy production and can volumize cells with water and there are some positive outcomes that result from all of this. L-Glutamine is an anti-catabolic agent meaning it helps your body keep its muscle mass and helps to resist loss of muscle mass from strict dieting and regular fitness training. Green food powder gives you a ton of the micro-nutrients that support metabolism and cellular processes that you may not be getting from food. Organic apple cider vinegar can aid in digestion and works hand-in-hand with probiotics to support a healthy level of gut bacteria – those little bugs are what help digest all the food you’ll be eating during your meal prep process and efficient digestion is what you want.
If you pay attention and work within the guidelines of my 10 key elements to meal prep for fitness results, you are going to be very successful with your nutrition approach. Food really is the largest component to getting lean and building quality, shapely muscle so you may as well get the most out of the time you put in. To maximize your efforts, meal prep intelligently using my 10 tips to meal prep for fitness results and work with people around you who are successful to learn their insights so that you can incorporate more and more information into your regular meal prepping process.
Much success to you my friends!