The act of planning meals is a stumbling block for many fitness clients mostly because of the perceived time and effort planning meals and clean eating can require. The reality is nutrition and fitness are not mutually exclusive. To achieve fitness goals, nutritional practices must be aligned with those goals in a way that supports their achievement. We can help our personal training clients reframe their perceptions of meal planning by providing meal prep hacks that maximize nutrition and minimize time spent in the kitchen.
Selecting Menus in Advance
When helping clients navigate the all-important nutrition piece of the fitness puzzle, common complaints revolve around time: time to plan healthy meals, shop for quality ingredients, cook, and repeat. While this issue merits consideration, once clients adapt to a new lifestyle approach, they wonder how they ever managed without the advantages of meal prep.
In order the get the entire family together and on board with any new culinary process, begin with foods they already enjoy. Menu planning tops the list of meal prep advantages ~
Step 1: Choose the family’s favorite healthy meals…and toss a few surprises in the mix as well. Pay attention to grocery store weekly promotions to further stretch food dollars.
Step 2: Categorize the grocery list: produce, bulk pantry items, frozen foods, dairy, and protein sources.
Step 3: Clip coupons…and remember to bring them to the store.
Step 4: Visit farmers’ markets for seasonal produce. By arriving later in the vendors’ scheduled time, bargain prices abound as sellers need to unload their remaining stock.
“Handy” Portion Control
Clients seeking basic nutritional advice frequently inquire about serving/portion sizes. Sharing this “handy” reliable method simplifies the process without needing a kitchen food scale.
A serving of protein, from fish to eggs to poultry/beef/lamb, approximates the size of one’s palm. Typically, men require more protein than women because of their weight, and tend to have larger palms, thereby making this rule consistent regardless of gender.
The size of a fist represents a serving of veggies/fruits. Keep in mind that produce, whether cooked or raw, should occupy half of one’s plate (or in the case of meal-prepping, half of the single-meal-sized container).
Carbohydrate measurement gets a bit trickier. A cupped handful works well for approximating a serving of cooked rice/pasta/potatoes and dry cereal. Crackers’ serving sizes usually appear on the boxes.
Freezing in the Freshness
Many meal-preppers count heavily on their freezers to store cooked foods, either in casserole sizes for family dinners or individual serving-size portions for grab-and-go convenience.
Tricks to Save Time and Money
Busy clients love time-saving tips. Substituting plant-based proteins for meat in a few dishes each week offers variety, health benefits, and less cook time. High-protein pasta, edamame, lentils, quinoa, and split peas/beans prepared ahead of time make for quick meal assembly. If it suits the tastebuds, keep tofu on hand as well. One night’s dinner can easily transition into a variety of fun lunch options for the next 2 days.
Establishing a tight grocery budget means remaining open to brands owned by specific stores. Shoppers usually find little difference in the quality or nutrient density of generic brands when compared to the pricier options. Also, frozen and canned vegetables work wonderfully in place of fresh when making casseroles.
Sheet pan dinners, ideal for delicious, inexpensive family meals, do not require much prep/cook time. Such recipes lend themselves to larger quantities, making them perfect for storing/freezing leftovers in single-serving sizes for future lunches.
Include the Children in Meal Prepping
Keeping kid-friendly foods on hand eases advance meal prepping. Stock the fridge with these options ~
- Cut-up apples/pears (stored with lemon water to retard browning)
- Oranges/grapes/kiwis/melon balls
- Hard-boiled eggs
- Cut-up variety of colorful veggies for lunches or snacks: carrots/celery/cucumbers/peppers/broccoli/cauliflower/tomatoes/beans
- Homemade granola/trail mix
Meal Prepping for Breakfast
Clients who rush getting children fed and out the door to meet the school bus often do not make time for their own breakfast. Older kids who drive themselves to school tend to prioritize arriving early and socializing over eating a healthy morning meal. To meet everyone’s needs in the household, thaw a frozen pre-prepped breakfast sandwich. A short time in the microwave can ensure a warm and nutritious start to the busy day.
- Bread ~ Choose whole-grain options with at least 3 grams of fiber/serving: sandwich-type breads/bagels/English muffins/whole-grain pocket pitas.
- Eggs ~ Scrambled eggs freeze well.
- Meats (optional) ~ Turkey sausage/lower-sodium ham/turkey bacon/Canadian bacon.
- Cheeses (optional) ~ Choose low-fat options that melt well.
- Veggies ~ Pepper strips, or fresh sliced tomatoes (added post-reheating)
After prepping, place items individually into freezer bags or airtight storage containers. They should stay fresh for close to 3 months, depending on ingredients.
Lower the carb count with omelet muffins. Prepare eggs/meat/cheese/vegetables in muffin tins; bake until set. Cool, and freeze.
Here are 10 of our Favorite Meal Hacks:
The right containers are a must for successful meal prep. Encourage clients to invest in a variety of sizes and styles of containers. Select options that allow for freezing leftovers, storing produce for the week, and pre-packing lunches and snacks. Yes, clients will have to spend some money if they don’t own these handy tools already, but they are an investment that will pay for themselves in short order.
2) Plan Menus Ahead
Select one day each week that will be devoted to “menu planning” and help clients be creative with their meal ideas. Tacos on one night can turn into taco salads the next. Menu planning with grocery lists also reduces that sneaky impulse to buy random items at the grocery store, which not only helps keep clients on track nutritionally but aids in reducing unnecessary (and often expensive) purchases that are devoid of nutritional benefits.
3) Cook Once, Eat Twice
This meal prep hack is all about leveraging leftovers, repurposing ingredients, and cooking in bulk. With their busy schedules, it can be tricky for clients to prepare a full meal every night of the week. Selecting one day a week to prepare several items allows clients to plan for leftovers and dinner/lunch redesigns throughout the week.
For example, grilling or baking several chicken breasts on one day provides a lean protein for that night’s dinner as well as a key ingredient for chicken salads for a meal the following day. This reduces cooking time and makes meal prepping faster on subsequent weeknights.
4) Prepare Produce
One of the biggest downsides to meal-making clients identify is all the chopping and general prep work related to produce. After coming home from the grocery store, wash, prepare, and store produce to make cooking meals quicker. Already chopped veggies are easy to toss on a salad, roast in the oven, or throw on the grill. If produce is already prepped and ready to go, clients are more likely to use them in meals and consume them as snacks.
To keep vegetables looking and tasting fresh upon thawing, blanch them prior to freezing. To store fresh berries at their peak of ripeness, place them in a single layer on a wax paper-lined cookie sheet and freeze. Once frozen, store them in a freezer-appropriate bag or container. They will keep for months without sticking together.
5) Keep it Simple and In-Season
Better yet, reduce the pressure to prepare and cook produce on a daily basis. Attending local farmer’s markets or investing in a local CSA produce delivery will provide the freshest, most nutritious and delicious produce that can often be enjoyed as-is after a quick wash. And if those aren’t options, a bag of pre-washed baby spinach can be munched on like chips, baby carrots and celery sticks with healthy dip, and fresh fruit all make fantastic, no-fuss snacks.
6) One Pot Meals
There’s little more fuss-free than a one-pot meal. Toss prepped ingredients together with a little olive oil, salt, pepper and a variety of spices and roast in the oven. Or encourage clients to invest in a crock pot or instant pot and experiment with making homemade soups and slow-cooker meals. A little chicken or vegetable broth with fresh vegetables, diced sweet potatoes, and lean protein (such as chicken or loin meats) make a tasty and nutritionally balanced meal.
7) Freezer Friendly
Freezing leftovers and made-ahead meals is genius. Or if the budget allows, buying supermarket-prepared frozen meals, either in a bulk section (as some offer) or in the freezer aisle, can be healthy if labels are read carefully! (Homemade is always best!) When time is lacking or energy is waning, clients can pull out a frozen veggie lasagna or soup a day or two in advance and have meals ready to go after work or when the kids come home from activities.
While some foods transition perfectly well from cooked to frozen to thawed, others definitely do not!
Foods/meals offering the most successful outcomes include the following:
- cooked pasta/rice dishes
- lasagna/other casseroles
- cooked pork/beef/ poultry/seafood
- cooked beans
- steel-cut oatmeal
- breakfast sandwiches
The following foods do not take kindly to freezing/thawing:
- dairy-based yogurt (coconut-milk yogurt freezes well)
- raw watery produce (zucchini/tomatoes/cucumber/cabbage/green beans/mushrooms/potatoes)
- processed lunch meat
8) Mason Jar Madness
Mason jars work well for prepping overnight oatmeal breakfasts and salads in jar. They are easy to wash and store. Use this trick for a grab-and-go meal.
9) Go Meatless
Proteins take time to cook – it’s just a fact of life. If time is not on your clients’ side, encourage two nights a week of plant-based proteins in place of meat dishes. Items like quinoa and beans can be prepared ahead of time and stored safely in the fridge for easy meal assembly. Eggs are a high-protein, but quick-cooking option that can be made in countless tasty ways either on the go or in advance.
10) Serve Safe
Regardless of how your clients prepare for weekly meals, it’s crucial to remain aware of food safety rules and guidelines. No matter how short time is, skimping on conscientiousness can backfire. No matter how carefully we prep weekly meals, they should still be considered as leftovers. After about four days in the refrigerator, bacterial growth may kick in. While the idea of cooking an entire week’s worth of menus on Sunday, for example, appeals to the busiest professionals, allocating two prep days each week significantly lower the risk of food spoilage.
Share this link with your clients as you teach them about healthy nutritional practices.
Economical meal planning reduces the impulse to buy random and perhaps less-than-nutritious items at the grocery store/vending machines. By preparing meals/snacks ahead of time, clients not only maximize their money-to-nutrition ratio, but also free up hours in the day for recreational activities and/or leisurely family time.