“What do you want to eat?’”
On the surface, it’s such a simple question. And the answer has endless possibilities. But the simplicity combined with the variety is the exact reason why this question stops you in your tracks and makes meal prep — and deciding what to eat — feel much harder than it should.
It can keep you standing still in long cereal aisles, staring at a restaurant menu, or sitting for in front of a blank page that’s supposed to be your grocery list.
The point of meal prep is not to be perfect. It’s to make it easier for you to be imperfect.
The time you spend thinking about what you want to eat is considerable. Add it up across your lifetime and it probably feels like a lot of wasted time.
Making matters worse, these choices literally wear you down—and make you more prone to bad decisions. After all, willpower is an exhaustible quantity. Studies show that the same is true of sound decision making. Researchers have found that the more decisions a person made, the less self-control they had. Psychologists call the phenomenon “decision fatigue.”
Don’t think you’re a willpower weakling for falling victim to this. The phenomenon runs true for even the most trained of minds taking on their most common tasks. For proof, look no further than this analysis of parole board decisions.
Researchers found that the judges were more likely to rule in favor of a parolee on two occasions:
1) earlier in the day, or
2) nearer to a meal.
As the day wore on, judged drifted toward automatically choosing the easier decision: rejecting the application.
You’re not a judge, but each day, three times a day or more, you’re making judgments about what you should eat. And you know what happens when you run out of energy and start looking for easy answers: It’s drive-thru. Or a vending machine. Or a bag of nachos in the cupboard because it’s right there. And hey, pizza is a vegetable, right?
Look, when it comes to healthy eating and meal prep, less is more.
That doesn’t mean less food. In fact, sometimes the problem that’s holding someone back is that they aren’t eating enough—not enough calories to build muscle, or not enough protein, or not enough healthy fat to feel full. Coaching clients are often surprised to find out that they can eat more and get leaner.
No. What we mean is less thinking.
What if you could make healthy eating or meal prep so simple it was almost reflexive? Then you could give your body exactly what it needs, spend a whole lot less time worrying, and enjoy the results—both at the table (with delicious meals) and at the beach (hey look, abs!).
The good news is you can simplify the meal prep and planning process. Start saving time today by using these tips to declutter your grocery list (and your brain), and make it easier for you to choose the meals that are best for your body (and taste buds).
Break down recipes into simple blocks
When meal prep consists of choosing which recipes you want to eat out of a 500-page cookbook, the process is undeniably overwhelming. Here’s the thing: You don’t have to pick a new recipe for every single meal. Instead, you can follow a formula that hits on all of the macronutrients you need—and does so in a format you like.
Take stir-fry, for example. It really only has four elements:
- vegetables (broccoli, onions, bell peppers, snap peas—whichever ones you like),
- a protein source (chicken, fish, steak, or tempeh tofu for example),
- a carbohydrate (quinoa, rice, or sweet potatoes), and…
- healthy fat (olive oil or coconut oil) to cook it in.
You can pick what you like from each category and eat it the same way every time. Or you can choose different options and mix it up in almost countless ways. However you go about it, instead of having to write down a laundry list of ingredients, you can walk into a store knowing you just need those four things.
You can repeat this process with almost any meal. For example:
- Cheese (if you like)
- Stock (perhaps made by boiling the protein)
- Leafy Green
- Protein source
- Additional veggies (or even fruit! Ever tried blueberries or strawberries on spinach salad? They’re legit.)
- Dressing (we like olive oil and balsamic vinegar, but go with what works for you)
When you narrow down your list of needs for meal prep, you free up brain space. You can use that extra RAM to get creative and put a new spin on your favorite standby. Or you can just speed through the grocery store for the four (or eight, or whatever) things you need, get in, get out, and get on with your day.
Embrace “last-minute” meals
Look, it’s fashionable nowadays in nutrition circles to say that you should “eat whole foods” and “avoid processing.” And yes, if all things are equal and you have the time, it’d be ideal if you could drive yourself down to a local, organic farmer’s market, pick out the items that look the freshest, then drive back to your house, chop all of them up, and turn them into a delicious meal. But let’s face it, there will always be days when don’t have time for that.
In fact, there are going to be days when you don’t have time for washing and chopping. And that’s fine—if you have a backup plan in place. Let’s go back to the stir-fry example.
If I’m in a hurry, I’ll take that same formula, combine it with a little bit of frozen convenience and make this 10-minute peanut stir-fry. It’s just frozen organic veggies, eggs and whatever carb I have available from meal prep day (more on that in a sec). You can make it more involved if you like, but if you’re in a hurry, that combo will get you a tasty meal in—you guessed it—10 minutes or less.
The takeaway here? Buy and prepare fresh whole foods when you can, but it’s also a good idea to have frozen veggies (or fruits for smoothies) that work in your meals on hand. And bonus points if you’ve got a healthy carb source ready-to-go thanks to…
How to Master Meal Prep Day (with imperfection in mind)
Instead of thinking, “What will I eat?” every day, draw up a plan one day per week (I prefer Sunday) for meal prep, and then follow your menu. That could mean putting together an entire meal (soups are especially good, since they keep well), or it might just mean preparing the more time-consuming essentials that you’ll know you’ll need during the week, like boiling brown rice or roasting sweet potatoes. The hour-ish cook times on these items is way less daunting when you already did it two days ago.
[Editor’s note: The point of meal prep is not to be perfect. It’s to make it easier for you to be imperfect. Look at it this way, if meal prep feels daunting, just focus on the meals that are most difficult for you. For many people, this means lunch. Try to prep 80% of your lunches for the week. This could mean just 4 meals (for weekdays). When 80% of your meals are covered, the day that you decide to go out for lunch or eat something different won’t derail your plan, and it can fit in perfectly with your goal. When you enable imperfection within any plan, it gives you the freedom to eat what you enjoy and see results. – AB]
Use simple cooking techniques
If you’re relatively new to cooking—or your relationship with the kitchen is less based on love and more based on need (as in: you need to eat)—then the seemingly endless array of ways to cook can feel pretty daunting. Roasting, steaming, blending, pan-searing—there’s a lot to learn. You shouldn’t expect yourself to master all of those techniques overnight. In fact, some of them you probably don’t need to learn at all. (Will you ever really broast something? Probably not unless you work in a restaurant.)
To make the learning process easier, choose one method of cooking (roasting, steaming, blending, etc.) and stick with that. You’ll be amazed at how far learning just one technique will take you.
Do you know what vegetables taste great roasted? Answer: All of them. Roasted brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, asparagus—they’re all seriously delicious. When you work your way up to pro status, then sure, go ahead and roast one thing while steaming another and blending together a sauce. But until then, simple and easy always wins.
Fill your freezer with “in case of emergency” items
Making larger servings for everything can save you those times when you’re in a pinch. Freeze soups, casseroles, homemade breads, protein cookies, veggies, cooked proteins, etc. for grab-and-go meals. Think of these as your backup “911” options. That way, when life happens and you need something to eat right now, you don’t have to wonder what you’re going to do. The decision is made for you, and it’s healthy, homemade, and delicious.
McKel Hill, MS RD, is a registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Founder of Nutrition Stripped.
Editor’s note: If batch cooking and meal planning for every day of the week sounds dreamy but like something that’s not gonna happen, then check out the NS Society: A Guide to Master Meal Planning can help you learn how to eat well for life with simple tools, a yearly meal plan, 100+ healthy recipes, cooking videos, and support from a global community. Born Fitness has no financial stake in Nutrition Stripped, but we do believe it’s a valuable resource and community. Learn more here.