There’s a running joke in the fitness industry that young and naive personal trainers often give laughable lifestyle advice to “real” adults with careers, spouses, and kids.
Here’s what I’m talking about:
(By the way, Eric Cressey is a great guy to follow for a mix of experience and research-based athletic performance advice.)
I used to be one of these young and naive coaches, and I quickly realized that coaching parents with little kiddos was way out of my league back then. However, since becoming a parent myself, I’ve been able to level more and more accurately with my fellow parent clients.
It’s easy enough to write up detailed programs with progressive phases and complex periodization schemes, but the reality for most of us is that a plan like this – no matter how fast it would theoretically help us reach our goals – is simply not all that helpful. In college, our assignments often included client case studies in which we were given their stats and goals and told to write a full-fledged program based on this information. Once learning even a basic level of human physiology, it became a pretty simple task to “plug and play” the exercises and meals into a template that was bound to lead to success.
I typically aced those case study assignments in school, but there was one big problem.
Case studies are not real people.
These hypothetical clients didn’t have real lives with real interruptions and real priorities other than fitness. Case studies are great for learning how to program around contraindications for specific movements, foods, etc. But they don’t help much in the way of working around constantly shifting environments, i.e. parenthood! Within a fitness training program, one workaround is writing shorter and/or less frequent workouts that can be done nearly anywhere at nearly any time. That approach actually works really well for many of my parent clients. However, one of the other areas which non-parent fit pros have a lot of difficulty coaching clients through is the arena of nutrition – specifically with the inherent challenges that come with cooking for a whole family each day.
Perhaps you can relate with a scenario like this: You and your spouse have very different food priorities.
He likes eating out because it’s fun.
You like cooking at home because it’s fresh.
She enjoys eating the same thing everyday because it’s easy.
You enjoy eating different things because you like variety.
He prefers eating a huge dinner because he likes feeling full before bed.
You prefer eating a smaller dinner because you want your stomach to settle before bed.
Do you see how this can complicate things a bit?
Further, there’s another, even bigger wildcard in this equation for many of us…
One day they like chicken, the next day they don’t.
One meal they lick the plate clean, the next meal they hardly touch.
One night they eat with the family, the next night they’re hungry hours earlier.
One child loves your cooking, the other child only wants frozen tater tots.
With all of these factors (people, actually) in the mix, how in the world are we parents supposed to even attempt to take our own fitness goals into account for each day of eating? How do we prioritize meals that are healthy and easy and fast and appealing for everyone at the table?
There is obviously no single right answer (me as a young and naive coach may have tried to create one), but here are a handful (4!) of principles my clients implement that can make a big difference in making meal time easier and better for you!
1. The Obstacle: “My spouse has different goals that I do.”
The Solution: Make plates that you can scale up or down to fit your macros
By far, the most common issue I see clients dealing with is trying to accommodate two different goals within the same meal. If you’re trying to keep your meals at a specific calorie level and your spouse has entirely different caloric needs, it can feel difficult to reach both goals at once. In fact, sometimes it even seems easier to just make two entirely separate meals!
Rather than cooking twice, cook up a single meal with multiple parts that can be portioned out individually based on your nutrition goals. A great place to start is by using the three parts of the Perfect Plate Formula: vegetables, protein, and carbs. A good starting point for many is to fill half your plate with vegetables, a quarter with a protein sources, and the remaining quarter with a carb source. Do you need more calories than this formula provides? Try switching your vegetable and carb portions so half your plate is from a carb source. Does your spouse need fewer calories than this formula provides? They can eat a slightly smaller portion of everything but keeping the same portion ratios.
2. The Obstacle: “My spouse prefers variety, and I prefer consistency.”
The Solution: Take advantage of mixing fresh meals and meal prep leftovers
This obstacle/solution combo can also point to wanting to cook two separate meals each night for those who have different eating patterns from their spouse. In this case, one person may want a totally different meal each morning/day/night of the week, while the other person may prefer to eat similar or the same meals each morning/day/night. A great solution to this issue doesn’t require cooking twice, it simply requires some planning ahead.
Cooking enough food to create an extra meal or two or three is the perfect way to save on cooking and cleaning time while maximizing your time and energy later in the week. For meals in which you or your spouse want a new, fresh meal, you can cook up a new fresh meal like usual. And if the other person would prefer eating something similar to an earlier meal, then you’ll be able to reheat some leftover food with minimal extra effort. Even if it’s not a whole meal, you could reheat part of the meal (your main protein, for example) and add it to whatever if fresh for that meal. At our house, we do this at least once per week, where we’ll prep a few pounds of chicken, and cook up fresh pasta, rice, vegetables, etc. for each meal, but using the same chicken throughout. It’s super easy, and helps meet everyone’s preferences!
3. The Obstacle: “My kids want food that doesn’t match my goals.”
The Solution: Meal prep leftovers save the day again!
While kids can certainly feel like an enormous obstacle to many personal things in your life (like your fitness goals), they don’t have to be a complete roadblock. If your kids are picky eaters or simply want a meal that you have little interest in, this is another great time to take advantage of your meal prep leftovers in the fridge. If your kids want fish sticks and french fries for dinner, that’s up to you – and also up to you is the ability to fix yourself some food that you would prefer to eat. If they want leftover pizza for breakfast, then the roles can switch! They can eat the leftovers, which gives you an opportunity to make something fresh for yourself!
4. The Obstacle: “Meal time with my little kids takes a lot of my attention away from my own meals.”
The Solution: Make yourself meals that are both easy to prep and easy to eat
This one is for all of my fellow parents of babies and toddlers. If you’re in this position right now, or if you’re heading their soon, you know how much time and effort it can take to feed your little ones. I can’t tell you how many meals my wife and I have had to heat and reheat because we simply weren’t able to eat them in between the “spoon airplane” and cleaning up the spills. Many a meal has been abandoned or forgotten during it’s peak freshness on the table.
Heating and reheating your meals is sometimes just part of the job of parenting, but there are a few ways of making this a bit easier to manage. First, think about making meals than don’t require both hands to eat. If you’re constantly having to pick up both a knife and fork in order to cut up and eat your meal (whole chicken breast, large vegetables, steak, etc.), you’re probably going to have to constantly put down either your knife or fork to use one hand to help your little one. Think of preparing meals that you can eat with your hand like a sandwich, with just a fork like pasta, or just a spoon like soup.
An additional pro-tip for this solution is that just about anything can be wrapped up in a tortilla and eaten as a burrito! Burritos are the perfect self-contained meals that can be eaten one handed, eaten anywhere, and eaten on-the-go. Try an egg and ham burrito for breakfast, or a turkey wrap burrito for lunch, or a chicken and rice burrito for dinner. The possibilities are endless, and you’ll be amazed at how easy they are to eat while also flying the “airplane spoon” or wiping up spills and messes.