Best Meal Prep — Guide and Strategies
Meal Prepping 101
Whether to lose a few pounds for your health, or in preparation for a bodybuilding contest, the concept of meal prepping represents a solid opportunity for anyone with a goal. Meal prepping constitutes planning out and preparing the meals you’ll eat in advance, whether for the day, or perhaps even the week, depending on your goals. In terms of dieting, there’s just no question meal planning and pre-preparation is superior to randomized grazing, with an extra slice of pizza here and there, which is why IFFB pros and fitness models live by these plans.
The first step in meal prepping is to determine your “Why,” as in, why are you doing this? Is this a meal prep for weight loss, muscle gain, cardio/endurance training, general cost savings, or wellness?
The Basics of Calories and Macros
Most folks are familiar with the term “calorie,” which is actually a unit of energy representing the amount of heat needed to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree Celsius. Different foods have different calories associated with them by volume, as each requires a different level of activity energy to burn them. So if a portion of food has 500 calories in it, that’s the number of heat units needed to burn it off. One pound of body fat equals about 3,500 calories, so depending on how active one is, and what their metabolic rate is, you’ll want to adjust according whether gaining or losing weight.
But calories represent a pretty generalized view of food which ignores nutritional composition. The basic breakdown of food goes a little further into macronutrients: Protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Protein is the building block of muscle, while carbohydrates generate immediate energy, and fat is stored energy. Every gram of protein, irrespective of food source, contains 4 calories, as does every gram of carbohydrates, no matter what the source. Each gram of fat contains 9 calories. But as everyone knows, there’s a big difference between a 2,000-calorie diet of marshmallows and a 2,000-calorie diet of broccoli. That’s because marshmallows are almost exclusively carbohydrates and fat, with nearly no vitamins. Broccoli on the other hand is primarily carbohydrates and protein, with nearly no fat, and lots of vitamins.
To meal prep effectively, one must first know what kind of calories and nutrient profiles they’ll need to achieve their goals, and prepare the meals accordingly. Free sites and apps like Calorie King can really help here, as they contain a comprehensive list of foods and brands with a nutritional breakdown of calories, protein, carbohydrates, fat, minerals, and vitamins. Once you’ve established what your daily diet will contain, you can plan it out for the week.
Meal Prep for Weight Loss
To lose weight, one must create a caloric deficit whereby they burn more calories than they consume ever bearing in mind one pound of fat equals about 3,500 calories. The big value to meal prepping for weight loss is that you can calculate the exact number of calories you’ll need each day to achieve your goal. This helps you avoid the temptation of cheating on the diet and keeps you safely away from fast food restaurants and convenience stores where it’s just too easy to grab an extra snack. If you need to use a 1,600 calorie daily diet to achieve your goals, then meal prepping allows you to prepare this right down to the dot without error.
The next step in meal prepping for weight loss of course is food selection, and here you’ll be looking for some degree of standardization. When losing weight, experts agree one should try to space out several meals throughout the day, perhaps five or six. This not only staves off cravings, but it also keeps the metabolism running on high so your body burns off stored energy called fat. Make sure to include a few snacks here and there so as to stave off cravings. Cucumbers, celery, and leafy vegetables are great ways to store up on low-calorie fiber to keep the body feeling full without adding to the poundage. Consider that 1 pound of green beans – roughly one can – is only 464 calories, and comes with just 19.7 carbohydrates, 1.7 grams of fat, and 5.8 grams of protein. Selecting containers to store the daily meals in is also important, especially if you’ll be preparing these meals several days in advance and storing them in a refrigerator. Food storage containers with individual compartments are available online as well as at stores. A critical factor here is that the containers are freezer safe, dishwasher-friendly, microwavable, stackable, and of course, reusable.
Meal Prep for Muscle Gain
Mathematically speaking, eating for muscle gain is the opposite of eating for weight loss, and the same goes for meal prepping. To gain muscle one must consume more calories than they expend, which means more food, particularly protein. And to gain one pound requires 3,500 calories above those burnt during daily living. Building muscle as opposed to simply adding bulk fat requires planning and spreading those extra calories over time, and ensuring that enough protein is involved to actually build the muscle. Whereas prepping for weight loss is used to help one avoid cheating and snacking, prepping for muscle gain is used to ensure that you’re actually eating enough. A typical muscle gaining diet for a 200-pound man might be 300 grams of protein, 300 grams of carbohydrates, and 100 grams of fat, for a total of 3,300 calories. Whereas with weight loss, you’ll want to spread meals throughout the day to prevent snacking and cravings, with muscle gain, you’ll want to spread these calories throughout the day to avoid too big a load at once.
Simply trying to cram all the calories into one meal will result in lot of valuable nutrients lost by way of the body’s flushing system, this means more food storage containers are required than with weight loss, as you’ll be loading up with more chicken breasts as opposed to low-calorie greens. Consider that an 8-ounce chicken breast represents 249 calories, with 52.4 grams of protein, 2.8 grams of fat, and no carbohydrates. This gives you an idea of how much food you’ll be consuming throughout the day, with as little junky snacks as possible. Meal prepping for muscle gain helps considerably because you’ll plan out in advance what you’ll be eating and have it all ready to go in the packages ready for use, thereby eliminating the time spent trying to decide what to eat. Remember, when eating to gain muscle, eating is almost like the workout itself and every rep matters.
Meal Prep for Cardio/Endurance
Distance runners and bicyclists are familiar with the term “carb-loading,” a strategy where athletes consume large volumes of carbohydrates to sustain their energy levels while performing. Consider that a 200-pound man bicycling over distance for two hours can burn more than 2,184 calories. As carbohydrates are the body’s primary source of quick energy, this means you’ll need quite a bit to get you from start to finish. Like meal prepping for muscle gain, when it comes to cardio/endurance, athletes might have to utilize their discipline to actually consume all the food required. As with all prepping, planning is key from the start, but the time spent prepping alleviates time wasted when the event comes. Completely different containers may be required for these types of events as runners and bicyclists may be bringing larger quantities of high carbohydrates offerings like pasta with sauce, as well as fruits which must be kept cold. Endurance athletes will also want to make sure their bodies remain properly hydrated from start to finish, which means plenty of room for sports drinks or bottled water.
Things to Avoid
There are many tricks to the trade when it comes to meal prepping, and as such, many teachable moments. One pitfall to avoid is impulse shopping, and the remedy is a shopping list. If purchasing food for five meals per day across a 5-day workweek, make sure you don’t go overboard at the store and take home items you won’t actually need. Another problem to avoid is scheduling conflicts with friends and family. Meal prepping can in fact be a fun family exercise, or it can be a burdensome chore. Depending on whether your family is on-board with your goals, they can go a long way in assisting or blocking this endeavor. Probably the biggest obstacle in meal prepping is follow-through. It does require commitment, and yes, there’s a fast food restaurant just across the street from your office. Again, the peer pressure issue can work for or against you in this regard. There’s really no question that you’ll save good money over the month by planning your meals in advance, and of course this can always be applied to a splurge here and there.