AT THIS POINT, EVERYBODY HAS LIKELY HEARD OF meal prepping. But as simple as the concept is—doing some preparation work ahead of time to make mealtime easier for the upcoming days—it’s still an often overlooked way to save time, money, and mental stress. The idea of spending a chunk of precious free time portioning out a week’s worth of meals and snacks can seem intimidating (and unappealing) to the uninitiated athlete, but it doesn’t have to be that intense and the payoffs are numerous. Like with triathlon training, you just have to put in the work up front to reap the rewards down the road.
“Busy athletes usually have more than just their sport to think about—family, work, and school also compete for their cooking time,” said sports dietitian Marisa Micheal, owner of Real Nutrition in Portland. “Meal prepping helps streamline the meal process by taking away the daily guesswork and decision-making around mealtimes.” She adds that if the meal is already decided and prepared it helps reduce the mental load of fueling your body, which can be especially tough when you’re tired. Decision fatigue is a real thing.
Putting together some of your meals ahead of time makes it easier to eat healthier, too. We tend to make better choices for our future selves than we do for our current selves. Micheal says you’ll be motivated to select wiser choices—say, more veggies and healthier meats—when you map out your menu in advance and can turn around nutritious dishes in just minutes, instead of getting stressed in the moment and opting for something unhealthy and fast. One study in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine found that being short on time was one of the most significant barriers to achieving a healthy diet. And meal planning is associated with increased food variety that, in turn, increases the likelihood of meeting nutrient needs and makes healthy eating a lot more inspiring.
And then there are the cost savings. “If you prep your own meals, you’ll save a lot of money by not buying more expensive prepared meals or eating out as often,” Micheal said. When you have nothing ready for lunch, you may choose to head to the nearest salad bar and spend way too much on a pile of vegetables and sketchy dressing. While meal prep requires paying more money on groceries upfront, over the long run you’ll stretch out those ingredients, making it a budget-friendly decision. This will leave you with more cash in your pocket that you can use elsewhere, like race entry fees and the infamous n+1 bike.
The only downside is, in order to prepare for the upcoming week, your Sunday afternoons may no longer be such a lazy affair.
While meal prepping may sound daunting, it’s actually quite simple with a little know-how. We’ve outlined the basics and provided some tips to make it a bit less overwhelming. And to make it even easier, you can start with the three recipes we’ve laid out to get your meal prep cooking.
Busy athletes usually have more than just their sport to think about—family, work, and school also compete for their cooking time. Meal prepping helps streamline the meal process by taking away the daily guesswork and decision-making.
- 1 1. MARK YOUR CALENDAR
- 2 2. DO THE MATH
- 3 3. KEEP IT SIMPLE
- 4 4. THINK SMALL
- 5 5. GIVE YOURSELF SPACE
- 6 6. LEARN TO MULTITASK
- 7 7. SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED
- 8 8. SPREAD IT OUT
- 9 9. DEEP FREEZE
- 10 10. KEEP TRACK OF EVERYTHING
- 11 PUMPKIN APPLE OATMEAL CAKES
- 12 ROASTED SALMON QUINOA SALADS WITH SPICY MANGO DRESSING
- 13 BIG-BATCH SMOKY TEMPEH CHILI
1. MARK YOUR CALENDAR
Harried lives make it easy for meal prepping to be put on the back burner. It’s worth blocking out a set time each week (and, no, it need not be on Sunday) where your only task is to get your ingredients ready and prepare some meals.
2. DO THE MATH
Calculate how many breakfast, lunch, and dinner meals you want to prepare in advance. Knowing which repasts you just want to pull from the fridge on certain days lets you zero in on what you need to make during your meal prepping sessions. That way you can plan more efficiently. And do you have to map out every single thing you’re going to eat for the entire week? Nope. “Just choose one meal to start with. Then once you get a handle on that, start adding in more,” Micheal said.
3. KEEP IT SIMPLE
If you’re new to cooking, Micheal recommends staying away from recipes that require too many ingredients or use complicated methods. She adds there is no shame in using convenience foods like canned beans, jarred sauces, frozen veggies, canned fish, and rotisserie chicken to help make your new life as a home chef easy.
4. THINK SMALL
To maximize the benefits and set the tone for smooth eating all week, be sure to include snacks in your planning sessions. This can include preparing a big batch of hummus and slicing up a bunch of veggies for dippers, assembling trail mix, or packing a container full of homemade energy balls. That way, you won’t have to hit up the vending machine when you’re struck with the munchies.
5. GIVE YOURSELF SPACE
It’s tough to get motivated to cook up a storm if your kitchen is a mess. Before your meal prep session take a few moments to clean your workspace, clear clutter, and organize your work tools, like cutting boards, knives, and storage containers. And clean as you go, so you aren’t faced with a kitchen that looks like a massacre of pans, cutlery, and chopping boards afterwards.
6. LEARN TO MULTITASK
When it’s time to cook, think about ways to maximize your efficiency as much as possible. Meal prepping shouldn’t take more than a couple of hours, if you multitask the right way. For instance, if you’re firing up the oven, roast your vegetables and meats at the same time. And while those are cooking, simmer up a big batch of grains.
7. SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED
Meal prepping need not result in finished dishes. Instead, you might want to prepare a few large batches of meat, grains, hard-boiled eggs, beans, vegetables, and dressings that can be used in various ways throughout the week. With those ingredients chopped, simmered, and roasted in advance, throwing together dinner will feel like a breeze. For instance, you could think of a meal as roasted chicken, steamed brussels sprouts, and quinoa—all items that can be made ahead of time in large amounts and stashed separately in the fridge. Make a big batch of shredded chicken every week and use it for a variety of dishes, like salads or fajitas.
8. SPREAD IT OUT
Remember, you can press the easy button and eat yesterday’s dinner as today’s lunch. “That can be so much easier than trying to make different meals for lunch and dinner every day,” Micheal said.
9. DEEP FREEZE
Meal prepping doesn’t mean you have to eat the same thing for four days straight. Big batches of items like chili, soup, and casseroles can be enjoyed for a couple of meals and then frozen for meals down the road when you once again have an appetite for them.
10. KEEP TRACK OF EVERYTHING
Make note of when you prepared perishable items. Cooked meat can safely be stored for three to four days in your fridge. After that, it’s time to freeze.
PUMPKIN APPLE OATMEAL CAKES
Makes five servings
1 cup steel-cut oats
½ cup oat flour
½ cup walnuts, chopped
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ginger powder
¼ teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
1 cup pumpkin puree
2 apples, chopped
½ cup milk or unsweetened non-dairy alternative
1 ½ cups plain Greek yogurt
2 tablespoons pure maple syrup
In a bowl, cover oats with water and soak for four hours or more. Preheat oven to 350°F. Drain oats and add to a large bowl along with oat flour, walnuts, cinnamon, ginger powder, and salt. In a separate bowl, lightly beat eggs and mix with pumpkin, apples, and milk. Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients and stir to combine. Divide oat mixture among 10 standard-sized greased or paper-lined muffin cups. Cook for 20 minutes, or until set. Let cool for several minutes before unmolding.
Stir together yogurt and maple syrup.
Serve cakes topped with dollops of maple syrup and yogurt.
ROASTED SALMON QUINOA SALADS WITH SPICY MANGO DRESSING
Makes four servings
1 ½ pounds salmon fillets
2 cups cubed fresh or frozen (thawed) mango
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
Juice of 1 lime
2 teaspoons chili sauce, such as Sriracha
1 tablespoon chopped fresh ginger
1 garlic clove, chopped
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cucumber, sliced
1 large red or orange bell pepper, sliced
1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
2 cups cooked quinoa
4 cups baby spinach
2 ounces crumbled goat cheese (optional)
¼ cup pumpkin seeds
Preheat oven to 300°F. Season salmon with salt and pepper, and place skin side down on a parchment paper or silicon sheet-lined baking sheet. Bake fish for 15 minutes, or until just barely cooked through in the thickest part of the flesh. Let rest for 5 minutes, then break apart into 2-inch chunks.
Place mango, oil, lime juice, chili sauce, ginger, garlic, and salt in a blender container and blend until smooth. Divide mango dressing among four large mouth Mason-style jars. Layer in cucumber, bell pepper, tomatoes, salmon, quinoa, baby spinach, goat cheese (if using), and pumpkin seeds in that order. Seal shut with lids, put in the fridge, and eat for up to four days.
BIG-BATCH SMOKY TEMPEH CHILI
Makes six servings
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
1 yellow onion, chopped
½ teaspoon salt
1 package tempeh, chopped
2 large sweet potato, chopped
3 garlic cloves, chopped
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 teaspoon cumin
3 small or 2 large canned chipotle chili peppers, chopped
3 tablespoons tomato paste
2 cups vegetable broth
1 28-ounce can chopped tomatoes
1 28-ounce can black beans, drained and rinsed
2 cups frozen corn kernels
3 cups crumbled tortilla chips
Heat oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add onion and salt; cook six minutes, until onion has softened. Add tempeh and heat for two minutes. Place sweet potato and garlic in pan with onion and tempeh, and heat two minutes. Add oregano, cumin, chipotle peppers, and tomato paste; heat 30 seconds. Add broth, tomatoes, and black beans in pan, bring to a simmer and heat 20 minutes, or until potatoes are tender. Stir in corn and heat five more minutes. Serve topped with tortilla chips.