Anyone else out there obsessed with cookbooks? I love a good recipe collection. I not only enjoy just looking at pics of delicious food, but also love how flipping through the pages really gets my creative juices flowing. When I get my hands on a new cookbook, you better believe I am itching to get some of those things into my meal plan ASAP! Meal planning really speaks to the Type A in me - it's so satisfying to lay out a plan for the week's meals, buy fresh ingredients, and stock my fridge full of healthy, tasty ingredients.
Unfortunately, my awesome meal plans don't always stand up to reality - no surprise there, right? I usually start off strong, but a few days into my carefully crafted strategy, something inevitably happens. Whatever I had planned doesn't sound good anymore, or I forgot to thaw my chicken breasts, or my husband had a bad day at work and wants burgers from the place down the street. All of a sudden, I feel like my nutrition game is taking a backslide, I've eaten takeout three nights in a row, and I'm tossing food that's gone bad into the garbage! Anyone else out there able to relate?
Most of us have a tendency to get a little ambitious when it comes to something like meal prep. We can start off with great intentions... but all too often we end up passing on those nutritious leftovers and picking up takeout, wasting the ingredients we bought, or totally changing the plan midway through the week when we get thrown a curveball. Is there any way to stop the cycle, or should we just give up completely? I mean, meal planning is so much work, right?
Well, I have good news - it doesn't have to be! Meal planning can be a really helpful tool for athletes who need to simplify their nutrition process, and fortunately it doesn't have to be a giant headache - even if you don't like to cook.
Have a Plan
Okay, listen. It's called "meal planning" for a reason - it requires some kind of plan. It doesn't have to be elaborate, it doesn't have to be set it stone, but it does help to have a strategy. I think a week is usually a good period of time to plan for, but some people would rather go to the store every 3-5 days or closer to 10 days. I wouldn't recommend going any longer, as your food will start to go bad before you can use it. And I wouldn't recommend any shorter, unless you love buying your meal ingredients every single day. I like to sit down with a calendar and plan out dinners, taking into account any evening activities we've got going on (dinner with the in-laws, plans with friends, etc) and my training schedule. I keep a list of what I need to buy organized by food group (grains, produce, dairy, protein, fats, and "other"). Then I add in any ingredients I'll need for breakfast, lunch, and snacks if it isn't already included in the dinner ingredient list.
Keep it Realistic
Listen, maybe you have the time to prepare elaborate meals from scratch every day. Maybe you have a personal chef. I don't have that luxury, so when I plan meals, I take my own schedule into account. Like I said, I enjoy trying out new recipes. But I know that on a weeknight, I don't have three hours to make dinner. I also know that if I try to make seven fancy dinners every night of the week, I'll be calling in a Thai food order for pickup by Wednesday. That's why I pick 2-4 nights during the week to try something new or exciting, and fill in the rest of the evenings with easy go-to's that I don't need a recipe for or that come together quickly. Those could be leftovers, a simple meal like pasta with chicken and veggies, or we might plan to get takeout once or twice a week. I recommend you choose days you know you'll have time to make those more elaborate meals, and save your quick stuff for the evenings you're busier.
Don't Reinvent the Wheel
You don't need to be buying groceries to make seven completely different dinners every week (not to mention breakfast and lunch). Part of planning out your meals is seeing where you can repurpose different ingredients throughout the week. If I make a rice bowl with chicken on Monday, I'll typically cook extra chicken and rice to use in meals later in the week. That saves me time cooking later on. This is especially helpful when you have extra of something to use up. If I buy ricotta to make lasagna, I'll be using the rest of it on a pizza or in some Saturday morning ricotta pancakes. This strategy reduces food waste and gives you the opportunity to cook foods in bulk so you can save time prepping later. Keep in mind that not everything needs to be a "recipe" - instant oatmeal, yogurt and a banana is a completely appropriate breakfast, and it's a lot easier than prepping overnight oats every week or eggs every morning.
Do not be afraid to buy items that save you time, either! You don't get any nutritional benefits from slicing those Brussels sprouts yourself. Pre-cut veggies, frozen or canned produce and beans, and instant rice are all perfectly fine to use and can really save you a lot of time. You can't go wrong with a good rotisserie chicken, either!
Be Flexible - and Prepared
Life happens, which means that inevitably, your dinner plan will fall apart. So what happens if you need to figure something out on the fly? I like to keep a few things on hand that I can use to come up with a new meal in a pinch. For me, that means things like canned beans, brown rice, eggs, spinach, sweet potatoes, olive oil, and a frozen chicken breast or two are almost always on hand. Those staples can be used for a bunch of different balanced meals when I've got nothing else around.
And if you just can't get it together for any reason, hey, it happens! Picking up dinner to go or eating grilled cheese and canned soup one night isn't a big deal. If you've got a realistic meal plan, you can probably switch some things around so that you don't waste the food you already bought, and no single meal (or even a few days' worth of meals) is going to be a make-or-break situation for your nutrition or training.
With a few simple tricks, you can save yourself a lot of meal planning headaches and make a big difference in your day-to-day nutrition. It's all about figuring out what works for your life and what you can reasonably manage. What's your favorite meal planning strategy? Let me know in the comments.