“If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” This is particularly the case with food. If you’re trying to achieve a certain physique, your eating plan is as important as your training. If you don’t prepare your meals in advance, you’ll often find yourself eating junk or the wrong foods over and over.
By doing what fitness pros call “meal prep,” you are essentially preparing, cooking and storing most of your coming week’s food menu in one go, to be eaten later at your convenience. It means that every mealtime you have exactly the right food in the right amount for your training goals.
Use this step-by-step guide to prep your meals like a champion.
STEP 1 — KNOW YOUR MACROS
You need the right amount of energy (calories) not only for building muscle and getting lean, but for muscle recovery. This is really important. A macro is a breakdown of what your daily energy intake should be and can be calculated either by using an online calculator or metabolic equation and working backwards from there. Then find out how much protein you need for the day, and split this amount across meals.
For example, a 6-foot-4 32-year-old male weighing 182 pounds will need a total energy intake of 2,935 calories per day to maintain his weight. If he’s looking to gain weight quickly, he can add anywhere between 500 to 1,000 calories to that figure.
He might now aim for 3,935 calories daily as part of a rapid bulking program. From this, protein requirements can range from 0.7 and 0.9 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. This gives him 166 grams of protein per day to aim for.
When you know your macros, use a calorie and macro counting app to figure out what the numbers look like as amounts of real food. For example, 150 grams of grilled chicken breast will give you only 34 grams of protein. This means that if you were relying of chicken alone for protein that day you would need 732 grams of actual chicken to reach your protein target.
This part of food prep can be very difficult for most people, so if you need help putting a macro plan together see a sports dietitian for a tailored program.
STEP 2 — THINK ABOUT HOW TO FLAVOR DISHES
The best food preps are often derailed by bad-tasting meals. Let’s face it, if you are going to eat, you might as well eat something that tastes good. Explore online recipes that are easy to make and can be created in bulk. Websites often have 15-minute recipes or simple ways to flavor chicken or meat with herbs and spices. Print them out so you have them on hand week after week.
Consider what type of food items freeze well. These include roasted potatoes, sweet potatoes, noodles, rice, quinoa, meat, chicken, fish, broccoli, beans and carrots. Watery vegetables and starches like pumpkin, zucchini, capsicum, salad vegetables, pasta and steamed potato lose visual appeal and texture after being frozen. You may not find them appetizing after a few days.
Recipe books and websites will often have symbols to indicate if the dish is freezer-friendly or reheats well, so you may want to focus on these recipes. In addition, think about food that is easy to eat and prepare. For example chicken wings, fish with bones or T-bone steaks are time consuming to de-bone, chop and cook. On the other hand, fish fillets or chicken breasts are easier to slice and dice.
Classic prep dishes can include:
Grilled chicken thigh fillets with lemon; roast potatoes with chicken, and garlic and olive oil with steamed broccoli.
Grilled steak with onion and steamed basmati rice with green beans.
Omelet with veggies, roasted sweet potato and green peas.
Prep meals don’t have to be boring or tasteless to be effective. Most herbs and spices are calorie-free and can easily be added to dishes to make them yummy.
STEP 3 — WRITE A SHOPPING LIST
Once you have structured a meal plan that’s going to complement your training sessions, it’s time to go shopping. Remember, the amounts that you have allocated to each day have to be multiplied by seven, for each day of the week. Keep in mind that you might eat out on weekends, so don’t over-buy and waste food.
It’s also important that you get everything you need so you don’t waste time running to the shops for missing ingredients.
Worse still is not buying enough to eat for the week! If you’re buying meat on sale from a supermarket, beware that it may have been sitting in the fridge for a number of days. This can be a food safety risk. If you buy meat on special make sure you cook it the same day. Don’t leave it sitting in the fridge for a few more days to potentially grow microbes.
When selecting your food containers you have a choice of disposable ones, plastic or glass. Look for those that are the right size for the meals you’ve calculated. A very important check is to make sure they have tight-fitting lids that are leak-proof. There is nothing worse than opening your gym bag to find your food container has leaked, and cheaper throw-away containers tend to do this. Remember that foods with high liquid content and soups may expand in the freezer, so allow some space when packaging those items to freeze.
Also make sure you buy enough containers for the week if you’re using disposable ones: for example, five meals per day, seven days a week equals 35 containers.
STEP 4 — START COOKING
Cooking in bulk has a lot to do with timing. Start off by making a timeline of how long certain items will take to cook. Foods that are easy to cook, like rice, can be set to boil in a rice cooker immediately. Longer-cooking items like potatoes should be chopped and prepped first and thrown straight into the oven.
While potato or vegetable items are in the oven, other ingredients like chicken can be cooked on the stove or you can steam vegetables simultaneously. If you can, cooking multiple ingredients at once will save you a lot of time in the kitchen, leaving you more time to train.
When you have finished cooking, let all your dishes cool before spooning them into their containers and refrigerating or freezing them — especially if using glass.
STEP 5 — WEIGHING IN
Let the kitchen scales be your best friend. Start dishing up your most important ingredient first, protein. Put each container on the scales and allocate your serving of protein. At this point, you can choose to chop meat or chicken into bite-sized pieces to make it faster and easier to eat.
Do this for every container that needs protein. You may have planned to have chicken for lunch, and steak for dinner. This means you need seven containers containing chicken, and seven containing steak or whatever combination you have come up with. Do the same for the rest of the meal components.
STEP 6 — LABEL AND FREEZE
When food is frozen, it’s often difficult to see what’s inside the containers. You may find it useful to label meals by using a marker on the container lid. Others prefer a surprise, and that’s okay, too.
STEP 7 — DEFROST AND EAT
Contrary to popular belief, frozen meals don’t last forever, and can start going off in the freezer after a few months. If you do miss a couple of meals and end up with a freezer full of prepped meals, do an inventory every so often and prep less that week to eat your way through the meals you have frozen.
When you eat your meals, don’t defrost them slowly at room temperature, unless you want to take a chance with food poisoning.
Defrost your meals overnight in the fridge, or if you are time-strapped, in the microwave just before you want to eat. Microbes love growing in uncontrolled temperatures (room temperature), but are less likely to get out of hand in the fridge — a cooler, more stable environment.
If you’re taking your meals to work or the gym, make sure they travel in a cooler bag and transfer them into a fridge when you arrive at your destination. Defrosting chicken under your office desk, to be ready for lunch, is not a good idea.
Most of all, if you are getting bored with your meals after a few weeks, months or even years, don’t give up. Go searching for new recipes and experiment with different food combinations. Meal prepping is a sure-fire way to accelerate your training goals.