Ok, so you want to take the leap into full out dedicated grocery shopping, colorful Tupperware filling, weekly meal planning to fast forward your health goals. I have warned you, if this is your "step 1," please see my last post. It is best to take it easy, start slow, and implement steady changes that will last. Purging your old habits and just trying to replace them, cold turkey is a challenging task. For a deeper dive into habit-forming and making them stick, I suggest Atomic Habits by James Clear.
Anyhow, your mind is made up and you want to prep. Let's dive into a basic strategy and how we can get in gear to align our meal prepping with our new health goals. First, a reminder of the basic concepts. We are focusing on real, whole foods, reducing added ingredients, and working on slowly eliminating processed and refined carbohydrates, especially sugar. Most likely the goal is to prep lunch since this is the meal that is most easily compromised by our toxic food environment. We are convinced we are too short on time and energy and led to rely on the food industry to bail us out with microwavable mystery meat boxes or ultra-processed, ultra-marketed drive through solutions. To free ourselves from this we need highly nutritious, easy to plan, and prep meals that we can turn to when the lunch hour strikes. Let us begin.
There are many benefits to prepping our own meals for work, school, or just traveling. Simple ones include saving money on food and future health costs, manage our nutrition by knowing the ingredients, reducing the stress around meal time knowing that a nutritious meal is ready on demand, and the direct impact on our healthy lifestyle goals of feeling better causing us to be more productive. All these benefits are incredible to enjoy, but all journeys must have a beginning and ours starts with a plan.
Set aside a day of the week that you will do the shopping, cooking, and prepping. My favorite was always Sunday afternoon while the family relaxed. Another strategy is to split it up between two days if you have more volume (i.e. Sunday/Wednesday). Whatever your strategy, the day must have a solid 3-4 hour block to get it all done. Involving family members might make it more challenging upfront but will be worth it when you share the common benefits and build relationships around the experience. Once we have our day set aside and our team in place, we need to decide what meals we are going to prep and for how many days. Will it just be lunch or are we going to throw in some easy breakfasts? The number of meals will affect our grocery list and timing. Once we have a date and a number of meals, its time to hit the store. It all starts with a perfectly designed list. Remember, once we walk in there, we will be bombarded with deals, advertisements, and temptations to try and knock us off our game; however, sticking to a list alleviates all these issues. Another handy service these days is having someone shop for you; therefore, eliminating these possibilities altogether. Whatever your choice, we need to develop an efficient list. The examples below will focus on someone prepping breakfast and lunch as the meals that usually get affected by our busy lifestyles.
We can separate our list by meal and work backward from there. Each meal (breakfast, lunch, or dinner) should be comprised of a balanced ratio of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. Therefore, we will break our list down into these components.
Picking our proteins:
Eggs - focus on free-range or pastured (2-4 per meal per person)
Bacon - look for no artificial flavorings, nitrates, or curing
Sausage - look for pastured pork or grass-fed beef options
Chicken - Dark meat for more fat (4-6 ounces per meal)
Beef - grass-fed and finished (4-6 ounces per meal)
Canned fish - tuna, salmon, mackerel, sardines (1-2 cans per meal)
Hint - avoid fish/shrimp as re-heating usually causes unpleasant smells
When it comes to protein, bulk shopping is your friend. Also, do not be shy about choosing frozen options. Defrosting is easy and will usually save you some money.
Picking our carbohydrates:
We will primarily rely on fruits and vegetables for our carbohydrates. Therefore, each week it is best to choose 3-4 types of fruits or vegetables to mix and match as we build our meals. There is no restriction here as anything in the produce aisle, in its most whole form is free game. I'd also like to emphasize the frozen food section for these items as well. Frozen broccoli, cauliflower rice, and even mixed options are great for meal prepping. For now, there is no need to focus on organic vs. conventional as this plan needs to work for your budget so get what works for you. The most important thing is that we are choosing fresh produce over boxed and bagged items. For each meal, plan on 1-2 cups of veggies or 6-8 ounces. This sounds like a lot, and it is! That's the beauty of whole foods. Our bodies will thank us for nourishing it with so much nutritiously dense options.
For those that prefer more dense carbohydrate options, I like to suggest using sweet potatoes, squash, rice, quinoa, or beans. To provide variety, choose two of these to mix and match with the vegetable options above. Choose easy to cook items such as rice or sweet potatoes that we can just throw in the cooker or oven and let them go while we work on the other items.
Picking our fats:
Fats are my favorite as they are the most satiating and provide the flavor for each meal. Look to incorporate a hefty portion with each meal.
Easy options include:
Nuts or nut butter
Butter - grass-fed
Oils - Olive, avocado, MCT
Ghee or tallow
FAT HACK: The beauty of incorporating animal protein sources in our meals is that we will be providing ourselves with healthy sources of fats that come along with rich proteins provided by the meat.
Most likely if you are beginning to modify your lifestyle to eating more whole foods in their most simple forms and embrace the amazing benefits of healthy fat sources, snacks will become unnecessary. However, we should always have a plan in times of rush hour traffic, late work nights, or unforeseen changes to our plans.
Some go to's:
Half an avocado
I like to consider what I've had earlier in the day to see if my hunger is being caused by a deficiency in protein or fats and adjust my snacks accordingly. Be wary of food industry snack solutions such as nut bars, trail mixes, and other highly processed, sugar-laden, unsatisfying wrapped goodies.
Seasonings and Sauces:
To add variety, flavor, and even great fat sources, many turn to dips, spreads, and dressings. As discussed in a previous post, many of our favorite dips and sauces are filled with harmful oils and sugars that can easily derail the health value of our planned meals. Be sure to look at the packaging and ensure that your dressings and sauces are void of seed oils (canola, sunflower, safflower, etc) and added sugars, especially high fructose corn syrup. Many companies are beginning to incorporate olive and avocado oils in their dressings which a great step in the right direction. When cooking, its best to use full-fat versions of oils that will be stable at high heat such as lard, tallow, ghee, butter, avocado oil, or olive oil. These are great for baking, sauteing, searing and any other types of cooking.
Here is a little shopping list tool I created a while back that summarizes some of the discussion above. I often used it to keep me focused and free from over shopping.
So now that we have some ideas of what items we may be buying, it is time to start building our meals. Main meals will include 4-6 ounces of a protein source, a serving or two of vegetables, a dense carb (for those that need it), and a fat source. An example meal would be 4oz of ground beef with a cup of steamed broccoli dressed in butter, a handful of crunchy carrots, and half an avocado. Taking one item from the sections above and packing them together makes a delicious meal ready to go in a pinch.
Time to cook!
What you'll need:
Cooking tools (spatula, knife, tongs)
For those eating dense carbohydrates, discussed above, or grains, the best is to start with these as they take the longest to cook
Brown rice or quinoa typically take an hour to an hour and a half in a rice cooker
Sweet potatoes bake in about an hour and a half at 400 degrees in the oven
While we have set the dense carbs aside to cook, its time to chop the veggies and get them ready to roast or sautee. If you want, it's best to take advantage of the oven already being on for the dense carbohydrates and throw them in for the ride. Chop them to the desired size, mix to taste, coat in olive oil or ghee, and let them sit in the heat for 35-45 minutes checking in every 10-15 minutes. If you go with frozen veggies, feel free to microwave or sautee on the stove until they are done. Again, coat them in some seasoning and a fat source and they are ready to go.
I have found the most intimidating part of the prepping is the proteins. Again, we are aiming for simplicity, so for these meals, forget about braising, brining, basting, or any other fancy methods. Let's take advantage of the oven already being on and bake the proteins or just fire up the grill and let them rip. I have found that baking chicken or fish works best to get tender meat that reheats well for 3-4 days. Grilling is great for beef and chicken as well due to less cleanup and, I feel like, better taste. There is no need to think that meal prepping must include Instagram worthy dishes. Use google, ask your mom, and even grandma! We have lost touch with our kitchens and this transition will take time. Keep it simple.
In the beginning, you'll get some interesting looks and questions as you heat up your meal in the office kitchen, but trust me, your coworkers and friends will always envy your skirt steak paired with broccoli and sweet potato over their mystery microwave disaster. Soon, you'll chuckle to yourself when you get asked what restaurant your leftovers are from and they won't believe you when you tell them you cooked it yourself. Also, you will receive the pleasure of knowing all the ingredients in your lunch and will be free of the afternoon bloat, crash, or hunger pangs.
I will close out this advice column with a couple of tips:
Cook multiple items at once
Defrost items in advance
Involve your family
Clean as you cook
Shop early in the day
Buy in bulk
Frozen produce and meats are great selections
Start slow - stay basic
Keep a food log (App) to track which meals worked best
Food first, then supplements
Remember, there are no secrets. Our secret is dedication and consistency! Week one will seem daunting, week two a little less, but I promise, after 3-4 weeks, you will develop a groove, have favorite meals and start to see the real benefits of home-cooked meals. As I said at the beginning, there is no need to meal prep from day one, but as you adopt the whole foods lifestyle, home cooking will be a necessary modification as the food industry is just not there yet. Please share your favorite dishes in the comments and good luck!