“Failing to plan is planning to fail.” This axiom is attributed variously to the late war-time British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and to self-help guru Alan Lakein. Regardless of who said it, it rings true in many realms, not the least of which is health and wellness. “Fitness starts in the kitchen,” is another popular adage. I believe both of these statements to be patently true, especially when you are first starting out with healthy eating and active living.
Changing habits is hard work, and until better-for-you choices become reflexive and automatic (this comes with experience and practice), it can be nice to set yourself up for success in as many ways as possible. Planning and preparing for healthy meals (and snacks) can help to take the guesswork out of your day and help you to make good decisions when hunger pangs strike you at 2:43pm on your way past the vending machine (or even 2:43am when the middle-of-the-night-munchies strike). Being able to get healthy, family-friendly meals on the table in less time than it takes for the pizza delivery to arrive also means that you will be less likely to pick up the phone for takeout in the first place!
This post is dedicated to bringing you guidelines, tips, tricks and suggestions for healthy meal planning and preparation. This will support your wellness goals and hopefully save your sanity during the weekday dinner rush!
Healthy Meal-Prepping Tips
I’ve mentioned certain time-saving meal preparation (meal-prepping tips) in many of my Fitness Foods (Meals) Recipes. Here is a handy listing of my top tips and tricks:
1. Prepare your protein(s). Foods with a high protein content are generally the quickest to spoil, so you do need to be a little bit strategic about what meat/fish or other protein sources you’d like to incorporate during the week. This will help you to know what to buy (and hopefully cut down on repeat trips to the grocery store) and also whether the items should be stored in the fridge for near-term use or in the freezer for later. I feel as though you can never go wrong by baking a pan full of boneless, skinless chicken breasts (plain or with various seasonings) or browning a large package of extra-lean ground beef or ground chicken or turkey. Store these in large, sealed containers in the refrigerator and they’re ready to go at a moment’s notice as part of a brown-bag lunch or as part of a dinner recipe. Other good purchases include white fish, salmon or trout, shrimp, flank steak and pork tenderloin.
2. Get ready with your grains and/or beans and legumes. Planning a lot of stir-fries or risottos? Want to try the mysterious quinoa (“keen-wah”)? Cook a large pot of rice (or quinoa) at the beginning of the week (for more fiber, protein and nutrients, opt for brown rice over white – if you’re not currently a brown rice fan, try starting by cooking a small pot of white rice and a small pot of brown rice and then mixing them together so that your tastebuds can adapt slowly. Increase the ratio of brown rice over time until you are eating only brown rice). If you’re not using canned beans/legumes, pick a day where you’ll have time to let the dried beans soak. Store your grains/beans/legumes in sealed containers in the refrigerator until ready to use. I like to store individual 100-gram (~3/4 cup) servings in separate small containers so that I can easily grab one to throw into my lunch bag. If you prefer potatoes as the starch for your meal, wash and boil several large potatoes (ideally sweet potatoes/yams) and cut into cubes to be served as is or easily mashed for a recipe.
3. Make fruit and veggies “to-go” ready. Wash, chop/dice/slice as necessary so they’re ready to go straight into a recipe (or straight into your mouth). In general, only peel fruits with an inedible skin. Else, wash the surface of the skin and then eat it – much of fruit and veggies’ fiber and nutrients are concentrated in the skin. Store fruit and veggies in easy-accessible, sealed containers in the refrigerator. Keeping them at eye level makes it more likely that they will be top contenders for snacks. Having them prepared cuts down on meal preparation time and makes you more likely to for recipes with lots of vegetables that might have otherwise seemed overwhelming due to all of the washing and chopping.
4. Build up your spice stash. Until you learn your (and your family’s) preferred spices, buy small sachets to try. Then load up your spice rack (or cupboard) with regular-sized bottles of your favourites (I don’t recommend buying spices in bulk because they lose their potency and flavour before they are used up – unless you are feeding a family of ten or more, that is!). Spices are a great way to add flavour to a dish without added fat and calories.
5. Stock good stuff. You’ll be hard-pressed to prepare a nutritious, wholesome meal without nutritious, wholesome ingredients on hand. Plus, if you have a lot of processed, convenience foods on hand (and/or several takeout restaurants on speed-dial), you might be less likely to make the better-for-you choice in the first place. You can see from the points above what I consider to be “good stuff”: lean cuts of meat, poultry, pork and fish; whole-grains, beans and legumes (canned or dried), and your favourite fresh fruit and vegetables; plus your favourite spices and seasonings. Check out my Healthy Snack Ideas for the types of portable, “convenience” foods I suggest you should have on hand for snacking (at home, at work, in the car, at the gym – wherever you might be hungry!).
6. Shop strategically. In order to stock the “good stuff,” as per the above, you’ll need to hit the grocery store (or farmer’s market and/or butcher and/or fish monger – might as well hit the baker and the candlestick-maker while you’re at it too!). Obviously you have to pick a time that is convenient for you/your family but you can save yourself some hassles if this time is NOT the same time as what seems to be convenient for every other family. Weekday evenings and weekend mornings seem to be grocery store peak times (and for good reason, based on many of our schedules). However, you might find it worthwhile to check out the store away from these peak periods, if your schedule permits it. Being able to shop and navigate in a less-crowded store might just lower your stress levels and help you to be a bit more mindful about your choices. Other shopping tips: avoid shopping when hungry (you’ve got healthy snacks in the car, right?) and focus your shopping on the perimeter of the store. These areas outside the aisles are generally where you’ll find most (if not all) of the “good stuff” I mentioned. The actual “inside” aisles of the store carry far more processed options (but yes, you can venture in for your spices!).
7. Learn to read (food) labels. If and when you do end up picking up something in a package, box or can, have a look at what it says is inside. Chances are, it’s more than just the name or picture on the package! In general, the fewer ingredients and the more of them that you can recognize and pronounce, the better. As a tip, almost anything ending in “-ose” is a form of sugar. As far as nutritional information goes, don’t get too hung up but do use this as a good way to compare one brand against another. You’re likely looking for the choice that has fewer grams of sugar per serving and more grams of fiber and protein. If you’re watching your blood pressure and have to follow a reduced-salt diet, sodium content will be relevant as well. The other vital piece of information is serving size. You need to know if it’s 200 calories per cookie or 200 calories for the whole box of cookies, and pick your portion size accordingly!
8. Treat yourself on a regular basis. Make this extra-special by going out to your favourite cafe or restaurant (even if it’s fast-food!) or bakery and ordering a single serving of your desired treat to eat yourself or to share with a loved one (going out reinforces the message that you are special and deserve to enjoy ALL foods in moderation AND has the added benefit of leaving no leftovers in your house to tempt you later!). I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: No matter what your health and wellness goals (weight-loss, athletic performance, etc.) I firmly believe that there is no such thing as an inappropriate food choice, just an inappropriate portion choice. Indulging in an appropriate serving of your favourite “treats” from time-to-time, especially when you are craving them (cravings DO have a reason for them!) means that you are far less likely to over-indulge in the same item later. If your current diet plan restricts or completely eliminates these foods, how likely is it to be healthy, enjoyable and sustainable in the long-term?
*As always, I am NOT a nutritionist or a dietitian. I encourage you to consult with your trusted health professional on any dietary advice or strategies that are unique to YOU as an individual, especially if you are dealing with food allergies or intolerances.