Meal Planning and Preparing (Major 🔑)
Welcome to your introductory guide into one of the most powerful fitness and nutrition habits you can have in your arsenal: your Sunday meal-prepping ritual.
It's worth noting that there are few other meal-prep approaches, not just the Sunday Ritual, that will be added at a later date.
Meal prepping is a simple enough concept. After all, we’re just preparing meals in advance of eating them.
But since this might be a drastically different approach that what many of us are used to, it might be counterintuitive to what you know or what you've been doing
For most of us, we likely prepare one meal for ourselves and possibly our family, and then we immediately eat it. At most, we may have enjoyed some accidental meal prepping (i.e. leftovers).
If this is all you’ve ever done, then it’s all you know. So while meal prepping is conceptually simple, it may not be the easiest to bring to life.
It will only be challenging because it’s new. Like anything that you’re just starting, you’re supposed to suck.
I don’t care if it’s meal prepping, back flips, or juggling. You don’t have the established neural pathways nor the muscle memory for anything cohesive.
Let me repeat this because this is critically important even outside of the realm of fitness & nutrition: you’re supposed to terrible in the beginning. If you’re not, that’s great. Consider it a gift. But know the next one is probably going to get you and if you don’t keep practicing what you’re good at then the person who is just starting out will quickly surpass you.
But I digress because that’s an entirely different story. But once more for good measure, because this is my site and I do what I want (meh, sometimes): you’re not supposed to have it all figured out in the beginning. So be nice to yourself.
To tie this back in, if you’ve struggled with meal prepping at all, then it’s likely you haven’t yet found the right set of guidelines or support.
That's where I come in.
What we need first is a foundation. A base level knowledge and understanding. Once we become somewhat proficient, say 60%, or so, then we get to start tweaking and adapting to our unique environment and circumstances.
This is going to be written primarily for the former. Maybe I’ll do a Part II depending on where this goes from here. So if you have had some success with meal prepping, then some of this may be redundant so be sure to look out for Part II.
One word of consideration: just because you currently meal prep doesn’t mean you’re doing it in a way that is supportive of what you want. Let me ask you this: “how’s that working for you?”
I ask this because I care. Sometimes, our routine is our routine simply because it's our routine. What I want for you is to practice acting deliberately and with intention. This is something we can always deepen our practice.
So, if you do have some experience, please give this a thorough and honest read. Knowing what to do is one thing but doing what we know is what really matters. Be honest with yourself. It’s super important.
Now that you have a little context about the purpose let’s talk this through.
Why Practice Meal Prepping?
Failing to plan is planning to fail. Somebody said it. I'm not sure who. And if I looked it up, it would probably be attributed to Abe Lincoln.
Attributes aside, that opening statement is super powerful.
Meal prepping allows us to plan ahead for our week. Health and fitness goals aren't run amok by mere temptation rather it's when temptation meets ambiguity.
When we run into any challenge, obstacle, or anything unfamiliar, we turn to what we know. Our old habits kick in regardless of whether or not these support what we want to do.
When we remove the ambiguity, temptation still might stand a chance, but it's much easier to follow a roadmap than directions from a vague memory.
Look, our weeks get busy. This is no secret. By carving out some time on the weekends when the amount of free time increases, we're making the rest of the week easier.
You can't brush your teeth when you already have a cavity and expect it to magically go away. The time to take care of your teeth was well before that and has since past.
The same thing goes for our food. It takes 5 seconds plus 5 minutes to grab something prepared from the fridge and pop it in the microwave (if necessary). Starting from scratch could take 10x that. And if you don't have 30-60 minutes to prepare AND eat (little good comes from rushing through our meals), then you're likely to grab whatever you can find.
Maybe it's an apple. Maybe it's a donut. Who knows? But the whole point is to avoid this scenario as often as possible.
Once you become more proficient in the kitchen, this story changes a bit. But for those of us just starting out, the more we can have ready, the more likely we're going to be able to stick with it.
I'm a big believer in optimizing our environment for success. While this sounds like some fancy mumbo-jumbo, what I'm saying is make things so stupidly easy that it's tough to fail than it is to succeed. We'll talk about how I don't believe in failure another day, but for now, you get the point.
Where Do We Start?
No matter what it is we are working on, we will likely be best served to start with the end in mind. This is conveniently one of the habits in the book, The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People. This is the least woo-woo personal development book I know and for it to hold a top spot on an Amazon bestseller list for this long is tough to ignore.
So that’s what we’re going to do.
Our end game is to have the appropriate amount of food prepared in advance of eating for the number of days that best aligns with our current and ideal lifestyle.
Let’s break that down in a bit more detail:
"Having the appropriate amount of food prepared" is focusing on the meal itself. We want to make sure this is going to be enough food for that meal.
"For the number of days" is pretty self-explanatory but often overlooked. For how many days will we be preparing food (most opt for 3-7 days depending on what it is)?
"That best aligns with our current and ideal lifestyle" - this is where we use a bit of our awareness and foresight to inject some purpose in what we’re doing. It’s important that we are honest with ourselves about our current environment. A grand overhaul rarely sticks. Instead, we want to focus on doing a little better each week as you learn what supports your body the best.
If you’re a meat and potatoes kind of guy or gal, don’t just toss the potatoes because you think carbs are evil (hint: they aren’t). Eat what you normally eat but try to add in a bit more of the good (meat, potatoes, and broccoli, for example). This is what’s going to allow us to move toward our ideal eating habits. Don’t eat chicken, brown rice, and broccoli all day every day because you think it’s what you’re supposed to do. That won’t last, and it probably doesn’t match your ideal. With the proper portions and a bit of awareness paired with some supportive habits while you’re eating and you can pretty much eat whatever you want (did he just say that!? yup, yup he did!).
With that understanding, you can start to define your end goal. I invite you to answer the following questions in as much detail as you can. The more specific you are, the easier it will be down the road. And it’s ok to be vague right now, but focus on cleaning up the details as you practice this each week.
What do you hope to accomplish by meal prepping?
For how many days are you going to prep? * How many meals each day? = the number of meals you’ll be preparing.
What “equipment” will I need for this? This is another super important yet often overlooked piece of the puzzle. To prepare a certain number of meals we’re going to need the right kitchen equipment and even more importantly the right number of containers. Keep it simple to start and add to your arsenal as you go. Focus on having enough containers first.
Will I need a midweek prep day for certain meals? Due to perishability, it might not make sense for you to prepare seven days in advance, or not entirely. You might be able to set a base for each day but may need to do something additional midweek. Again, keep this simple to start. You may not need this extra day just yet.
Will any non-prepped meals be able to support some meal prepping efforts? Ideally, this question is intended for anyone who cooks for more than just him or herself and really we’re just talking leftovers. If you know you have tacos every Tuesday, then you might be able to have a taco salad on Wednesday versus preparing seven taco salads on Sunday night.
What do I want to eat? We talk about this more next.
How To Select Our Meals
What I’d like to do first is provide some additional guidelines to the questions above specific for anyone who is brand new to meal prepping. Moments ago I mentioned that we must meal prep in a way that best aligns with our current and ideal lifestyle. If this is the first time you ever meal prepped and you answered that you’re going to prepare three meals for each of the seven days then nine times out of ten, I’m going to call your bluff. You might get it right the first time. But for the vast majority of us, you’re going to end up with a fridge full of uneaten meals or the raw ingredients that were never touched.
Making 21 meals in advance takes a good bit of planning and preparing. It doesn’t take exponentially more effort. In fact, we enjoy some economies of scale prepping in bulk. But for most, it’s still going to be overwhelming and won’t stick.
My recommendation is to start with one meal for 2 to 4 days the following week. Lunch is usually the easiest since it’s most likely our most consistent meal. If it isn’t, determine which is your most consistent and go for that one.
Again we’re trying to keep it simple to start. We can then add more as we progress. If I might suggest a development schedule, I think it would look like this:
Week 1: 1 meal, 3-4 days (3-4 meals total)
Week 2: 2 meals, 2-3 days (4-6 meals)
Week 3: 2 meals, 5 days (10 meals)
Week 4: 2-3 meals, 5-7 days (10-21 meals)
While I call out weeks specifically, consider these more like phases. Spend more than one week in a phase if you need to. By the time you get to Phase 3, you’re going to start fine tuning what works for you. For me, I usually have breakfast and lunch meal-prepped, and then I prepare dinner each night. But I like to cook, and I’ve been working on this whole “healthy eating thing” for more than a decade, so I don’t have as much reliance a meal prepping as I did 5+ years ago.
So now that we have an idea of how many it’s time to figure out what we’re going to be eating.
There isn’t a right way to pick this, but I will note that consistency is your ally. Preparing ten different things is going to require much more work than 1-4 unique dishes. And the more overlap you have, the quicker it will be.
So yes, most of you will be eating something similar most days. In the short run, as long as it something you decently enjoy you shouldn’t have much of an issue. So that means I do recommend eating what you enjoy and switching it up every week or two. You could have a few go-to's that you cycle through every 4-6 weeks. That’ll extend the amount of time before you get bored of eating what you’re eating.
If you aren’t sure where to start here, I’m going to recommend this. Here is a list of proteins, healthy fats, smart carbohydrates, and vegetables. Pick one of each, starting with protein and piece together your meals that way. You can focus on more cohesive dishes as you progress.
Regarding how much for each meal, you have two options: You can work backward based on a particular macronutrient profile you’re trying to hit and weigh out everything, or you can use the hand portion guide I use with the majority of my clients. This simple concept, championed by my friends at Precision Nutrition (it might be worth disclosing that I’m a PN ProCoach so naturally I’m going to be a bit biased toward their teachings), makes building each meal a breeze. Once you know what you want to each, use the following hand-based measurements to build out each meal. Below is both the portioning guide as well as some guidelines for how much of each depending on your body type.
At this point, you should have a good idea of where you’re going to start and what you need to make your way to the starting line. Once you have everything planned out, it’s time to go shopping and cook the food.
While this might seem crazy, I recommend carving out three hours on a Saturday or Sunday to go through all of this. Again, this is just to start. This is going to make sure you have ample time to use this guide to build out a plan, hit the grocery store, and then prepare everything immediately upon your return.
Let's break this down:
-5 minutes - Looking ahead at your schedule and figuring out how many meals you want to start prepping
-15-20 minutes - putting together a "menu" for the week and our shopping list
-45-75 minutes - grocery shopping (including travel)
-30-90 minutes - cook everything for the week
-15-30 minutes - storage and clean up
Will it take you this long? Maybe. Maybe not. Will it always take you this long? Probably not.
Seriously, make an event out of this. Learn to enjoy going to the grocery store to buy foods that are going to help you feel incredible. Go with a friend or your partner. Enjoy the quality time together. Then when you get home to do the prepping, setup a speaker, put on your favorite tunes, a podcast, or an audiobook, and enjoy the time to yourself.
Once this becomes a habit for you, you're going to look forward to your Sunday Ritual. Seeing the fruits of your labor in a well-stocked fridge always leaves me with an immense feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction. Since much of what we create in the world today is digital (this guide is no different), it's nice to create something in the physical world. Let cooking become your art.
Now, I’m not a mathematician (although I was somewhat proficient with the maths in high school), I would say that I’ve noticed a direct relationship with the time between grocery shopping and actual prep work and the likelihood that the food doesn’t get prepped and/or eaten.
Don’t let your money go to waste. Give yourself enough time to do all of this as soon as possible after shopping. It might not take you the full three hours, which is great. And you might even be able to cut your time in half the second time you go through this. Also great. But on Day 1, give yourself the time and space figure this out as you go and grow.
Bringing This All Together
For someone who rarely writes over 650 words, I’m pretty impressed with how this all came together. And since it’s working doc, it’ll only get better from here.
If you made it this far then, you should have a pretty good idea of both the conceptual and practical components of the how-to of meal prep. If you don’t have much experience cooking in the kitchen, do the best you can.
You can get some precooked frozen chicken, frozen broccoli, and frozen potatoes that you can divvy up into your containers and microwave when it’s time. You might run the risk of a little excess sodium (a common pitfall of frozen foods for no real apparent reason since the freezing reduces the need for preservatives), but it’s a step in the right direction. If that’s where you’re at, great.
Do a little better next time by learning how to steam or roast fresh broccoli. Then the following week learn how to make or boil potatoes. Then the following week, learn how to bake, broil, or grill up some chicken.
Keep it simple. Make it easy. Take it step by step. That’s the moral of this entire story. You’ll likely pick up meal prepping pretty quickly. But don’t skip steps. Do it the right way, and this will be one of the most powerful tools in your health and fitness arsenal.
What happens if I get into a rut or lose motivation? What are some tips on how to prep more efficiently and creatively?
-Your motivation is going to wax and wane all of the time. This is why we focus on starting simple and making this a habit/ritual, so the process becomes something you ultimately find enjoyable and not a chore. When we connect this to something deeper than just wanting to lose five pounds or doing it because we feel like we have to, we tend to find ways to show up even when the initial motivation isn't there.
Efficiency is going to come with time as your kitchen skills develop. When this becomes a habit, you'll have muscle memory on your side, and you'll move much quicker and precise.
Creativity is largely on you. I don't know what you like, so it's tough to make recommendations. But I will say this: keep it simple by focusing on one macronutrient to change up a bit. Completely changing out meals works fine too but again we want simplicity for the sake of sustainability. So find a new way to spice or marinate the protein. Or cook your rice in vegetable stock with other spices instead of water. Try a new vegetable instead of broccoli. This can help keep your go-to meals fresh without getting tired of them.
But please, by all means, explore recipes that you might like and make it in bulk. You can honestly meal prep anything you want. If you like chicken marsala, make a huge batch and eat it all week.
Don't make meal prepping out to be more than it is. You're cooking in bulk. That's it. Keep it simple and do it in a way that is fun for you.
What Are Your Recommendation for Vegetarians/Vegans?
-I follow a plant-based diet myself, so 95%+ of what I eat is vegetarian or vegan. When it comes to meal prep, the approach is the same. The main difference is with your choice of protein. Admittedly, many of the vegan protein options on the market are soy-derived which isn't ideal for everyone. But with the popularity of plant-based diets continuing to grow, more and more companies are coming out with new meat alternatives.
What About Snacks?
-Build out snacks the same way you would your primary meals just generally with smaller portions. If you find yourself frequently snacking throughout the day, you might not be eating enough at each meal, or you might not have enough of each of the macronutrients. Low sugar protein bars, fruits with a nut butter, and hard-boiled eggs are some great "snack" additions and the first two don't require refrigeration which is great on the go.
What If I Don’t Have Time To Meal Prep?
-Look, I know you’re busy and that I’m asking a lot with this whole three hour Sunday Ritual. See if you can find a way to make it work for a couple weeks. I want you to have the skills and insight to be able to successfully carry this out for yourself. This is taking control of your life at it’s finest. Once you have a basic level of proficiency and you still find it challenging to make the time, then let’s look at outsourcing. There are a whole list of fantastic services that will sending you prepared meals that support your goals. But the important thing to remember is that we’re outsourcing not because we just don’t feel like it, but rather after careful consideration we acknowledge there may be a better use of your time. You’ll pay a premium but it all comes back to how you prioritize what everything means to you