Tips. Tricks. Hacks. Shortcuts. Magic bullets. Magic potions.
These certainly aren’t all the same things, but they all run in the same vein:
Whatever it is that you’re doing, you want to make sure you’re not wasting your time or effort.
In this multi-post guide of meal prep for parents, you’ll find a lot of great information that will help make sure you’re not wasting your time or effort. However, your health and goals are bigger than any list of simple tips, crazy tricks, or weird hacks could cover adequately. Your health and goals are worth investing in beyond looking for any magic bullets or potions.
Today you’ll get a list, but it’s the most helpful kind of list you can get. It’s a list not of tips and tricks, but of principles.
Learning the general overarching principles behind whatever you want to do or achieve will help guide you toward the specific actions and decisions you’ll need to take. This is infinitely more helpful than a list of arbitrary do’s and don’ts that may or may not even apply to you.
The backdrop of this post is quite simple: from training hundreds of clients of the years of my coaching career, I’ve seen a number of trends play out across my most successful clients. Even across different goal sets, the clients who reach their goals with the greatest joy and least resistance follow similar patterns. In the way of meal prep, specifically for physically and mentally busy parents who want to lose weight, there are at least 10 patterns that I’ve witnessed, and I’d like to share them with you here.
10 Helpful Principles To Make Weight Loss Easier
Traditionally, I believe this stands for “Keep It Simple, Stupid,” but we’re going to change it to “Keep It Super Simple” haha. This is going to look different for different people, but keeping your goals and methods simple when it comes to weight loss is one of the biggest pieces of advice I could ever give. Think of how many times you or someone you know has tried to lose weight by way of adopting a really complicated diet plan or workout program. Day 1 involves prepping 2 weeks’ worth of food, a grueling 2 hour workout, and 30 minutes of boring cardio – talk about going from 0-60 in a heartbeat! An approach like this seldom leads to anything beneficial in the short or long-term. Keeping things super simple allows you to build a bigger, stronger foundation one brick at a time. The simple habits, routines, and skills you work on at the beginning of your journey will serve you well over the course of time, rather than trying to run, walk, jump, and skip all at once. Most of the principles on this list will help you to KISS, but it’s definitely worth keeping this first general principle as a big filter that you use for any of your health and fitness actions.
2. Don’t worry what it looks like
In a social media world filled with beautifully organized, rainbow-colored, picturesque meal prep inspiration, I’d advise to completely ignore it all. If scrolling through photos and videos like these actually inspires you to actually prep out your meals, then go for it! But for most of us, we’re left with a feeling of “Well I could never make my meals look like that, so I’m not even going to try.” This response is wildly unhelpful, but the good news is that it’s completely avoidable too. How do you avoid this trap? For starters, recognize that meals that are (literally) thrown together are going to taste just as great and be just as healthy as the ones that are perfectly lined up and portioned out. It’s also helpful to recognize that you don’t need to prep 8902347598 of the same meal all at once for the sake of a Instagram photo. The amount of work to do this versus the payoff of easy meals is usually not worth it, especially for most of us parents. Here’s a suuuuuuuuper easy tip for finding a balance and making your meals look appetizing and appropriately portioned out: use meal prep containers that are separated into compartments, and fill each compartment with a different food item. Easy and practical!
3. Put your kitchen on autopilot
Employ cooking methods and tools that do the work for you as much as possible. Importantly for most of us, choose methods and tools that remove the need for you to be present and standing over a hot stove top for hours. Instead of babysitting chicken sauteing in a pan, put it on a baking sheet to roast away while you tend to more important things. Better yet, put it in the slow cooker for a super tender/super low effort way to prep a lot of chicken/protein. For carbs, I can’t recommend a rice cooker enough. Get the biggest, cheapest one you can find (it doesn’t need all the fancy buttons; we got ours at a garage sale for $5 five years ago and it’s the best), and put it to work! Fill it with uncooked white rice, brown rice, quinoa, lentils, beans, or any carb of your choice! You can double-up your rice cooker efforts by also using it to steam vegetables, although I usually prefer roasting them in the oven – you can cook more at once, and they get crispy which helps them hold up better when reheating them later. Other helpful time and effort-saving tools include a grill/smoker, food processor, pre-cut vegetables, pre-cooked protein, and one pot meals.
4. Same, Similar, and Family
This formula is one you may already closely relate to, and establishing it as a diet strategy can take it even further. Many of my most successful clients employ these principles to each of their three meals during the day. Their breakfasts are always the SAME each day. Their lunches are always SIMILAR each day. Their dinners are always shared with their FAMILY each night. Having a template of any kind for your meals can be a great way to reduce the time and effort required to build your meals. Most notably, creating a template drastically reduces the decision-making aspect of each meal, which is often a huge barrier to why people don’t make better food/nutrition habits. This “same, similar, and family” template works so well for a few specific reasons, too. Keeping breakfast the same each day ensures that you get a great start to your daily protein goals, and makes for one less decision to start your day off. For most people, breakfast is a “you’re on your own” meal, which makes it easy to tailor to your goals. Making similar lunches each day means using a similar set-up for each of your lunches, but occasionally swapping one protein for another, one vegetable for another, one sauce for another, etc. This keeps things fresh and exciting without adding much extra effort to figure out what to have for lunch each day. Dinner is still a great opportunity eat a meal that supports your goals, but this is usually the meal that you would share with your spouse, kids, or family. One of the big obstacles with this type of dinner is that you aren’t just cooking for one – your whole family might not be up for having chicken, rice, and broccoli every night along with you. Instead, keep your family’s food interests in mind, and adjust your portions of each ingredient to match your own goals.
5. The Perfect Plate Formula
Most personal trainers and coaches are familiar with this concept and recommend a version of it to their clients. In the same vein as creating templates for your meals to help make them easier and more manageable, we can take this a step further to make sure they help take care of your goals and your needs. Most fat loss diets stand on the same few foundational principles: eating, few enough calories to actually cause weight loss, eating enough protein to help retain/build muscle mass, and eating enough food in general to keep you as full as possible. It turns out that there’s a near one-size-fits-all template that most people can follow to achieve all three of these principles. Ready for the perfect plate formula? Here it is: for each meal, fill up half of your plate with vegetables, a quarter of your plate with protein, and the remaining quarter with a carb source. Of course there are plenty of exceptions, modifications, and additions to this basic template, but it’s truly a fantastic place to start for most weight loss goals. The best part is that this template can be scaled up or down too: whether you’re eating 1500 calories per day or 3000 calories per day, this perfect plate will help keep you full while ensuring you get sufficient protein and staying within your target calories.
6. Start with your schedule
Have you ever seen a diet plan online or in a diet book that gives mandates eating at specific times of the day? “You must eat breakfast at 6 am, lunch at 12 pm, dinner at 6 pm, and two snacks at 9 am and 3 pm…” It’s almost nauseating thinking about changing your dietary habits while also trying to work so hard to change your meal timing habits to adhere to some arbitrary meal pattern! Not to mention, your work/home/hobby schedule may not fit so nicely with that sort of meal plan. Instead of changing your foods, your food quantities, and your food timing all at once, you can safely choose not to worry about the timing aspect. You already know when you get hungry and when you’re physically able to eat (lunch break at work, kids are down for a nap, etc.), so why not start there? Look at your own schedule and figure out a few meal time slots that generally work for getting in a good, healthy meal. Don’t stress about trying to space out your meals according to anything other than what you’re actually able to do.
7. See through the marketing
I’ve written about this before, but beware of food marketing that’s aimed at those trying to lose weight. Walk into any grocery store and you’re bound to see terms like “clean eating,” “heart healthy,” “ingredients you can pronounce,” and “natural.” The problem with these terms is two-fold: so many of these terms are not specifically defined, and most of them have absolutely no bearing on their helpfulness toward your weight loss goals. The term “gluten-free” also comes to mind here – there are certainly some groups of people who need to be aware of the presence of gluten in their foods/ingredients, for sure. But I’ve even seen fruits, vegetables, and water labeled as gluten-free! Do you think the marketing experts behind these products were more concerned with cautioning those with Celiac Disease, or with selling their marked-up products to vulnerable “health enthusiasts?” Anyway, this is a call to be conscious of the world of health marketing, and to make your grocery decisions based on what you actually need and not what’s being sold to you. Stick to the outer perimeter of the grocery store as much as possible to avoid these marketing tactics – it’s hard to go wrong with fresh produce and lean proteins.
8. Keep fast protein, carb, and vegetables on hand
It’s 8 pm. You’re leaving work or are picking your kid up from soccer practice much later than you had expected. You don’t have anything ready for dinner, and you’re considering ordering fast food for the family – for the third time this week. What do you do? Well, the best way to handle this scenario is to take care of your family’s needs, but the second best way to take care of this scenario is to prepare in advance so you can avoid it altogether. (There’s nothing inherently wrong with going out to eat of course, but fast food/restaurant meals tend to not line up well with most weight loss goals due to their higher calorie/less filling nature.) The idea is to avoid “panic meals” which are purely chosen based on their speed and convenience rather than any nutrient content. Instead, stock your fridge and pantry with fast protein, carb, and vegetable options. And I mean super fast – 90 seconds or less fast! Think of items such as frozen pre-cooked pre-sliced chicken, microwaveable rice packets, and vegetable steamer bags. Pop them all in microwave for 90 seconds each and you will instantly have a full-blown filling and high-protein meal ready for you and your family. Deli meat sandwiches with a side of snackable vegetables also work well for this! We personally utilize meals like this at least once per week, and they continue to save our wallets and our waistlines!
9. Single-portion bags, boxes, and bottles
There is a great paradox here that feels a little bit counter-intuitive at first, but it might just be the upgrade your snacking needs. Snacking between meals is not usually helpful for most fat loss goals because the calories add up so quickly and so subconsciously. Typical snack foods tend to be higher calorie/less filling already, much less the size of the bag, box, or bottle tends to make it difficult to gauge how much you’ve truly consumed at any given time. Because of this, it can be immensely helpful to buy single-portion bags, boxes, and bottles of the snacks that you would otherwise binge on. One of the popular versions of this is the “100 calorie pack” of different snack foods. I suppose the idea behind these is that you ought to only eat/drink one of them, and you’ll have had enough to satisfy your snack craving. This works quite well, but I’ll let you in on a little secret: you can certainly eat more than one of those kinds of packs and still reach your weight loss goals. The benefit is that even if you eat multiple packs, you’ll still be able to track exactly how much you ate or drank instead of guessing by way of a large bag, box, or bottle. The paradox, though, is an additional reason to give this a shot. Buying single-portion snacks with cost more per serving than buying them in bulk. However, you are more likely to eat more servings if you’re pulling from the bulk packaging, so it actually saves you money by spending a little bit more up front. In relation to how important your goals are, this price different is usually pretty negligible, but if you’re disciplined enough you can always try meeting in the middle and meal prepping your snacks into separate bags or containers.
10. Double your recipes
Perhaps the easiest of these ten principles, this one is for those who are already in the habit of cooking some meals at home. Rather than cooking single-serving portions for your own meals (or only enough for one serving per person), it takes nearly no extra effort to double your recipes and cook enough to have leftovers. Any time that you simply cook enough for one leftover meal, that means that you have one less meal to cook later on in the week. If you don’t feel up to setting out some time to prep out all of your meals for the week, you can at least double or even triple your recipes to give yourself a head start for the rest of the week. If you would normally cook one pork chop for dinner, use a bigger pan and put two or three in there. If you would normally cook a single-serving of pasta, add a few extra noodles and save them for the next day. If you would normally grill two burger patties, make a few extra and fill the grill grates that would otherwise be wasted space. The more extra portions you cook, the less time and fewer decisions you’ll have to utilize later on! You can scale this principle as much or as little as would be helpful for your goals!