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Meal Prep: The Basics

Sunny Ammons


Six months ago I began actively prepping all of my meals for the week. Meal prep has made a huge difference in the way I look, feel, and in how I think about food in general.  I have always wanted to cook, but between college, adapting to the crazy schedule of a Personal Trainer, and living on a cruise ship where all of the food is prepared for you daily, I never made it a priority.  Eating out for the majority of my meals, I lived off of sushi, sandwiches, and salad bars.
Choosing to cook all of my meals at home and in advance is the most transformative thing I have done for myself in this past year.  I am amazed at how enjoyable and empowering it is.  Like anything, some weeks are easier than others and sometimes it feels like a chore.  But whether I spend 4 hours prepping each meal for the week, or 1 hour prepping a few meals, it makes for a healthier, more organized week.  Many people ask me for tips on how to get started so here is the rundown on what has worked for me. If you want specific recipes, I post all of my weekly meals with pictures on my Sunny Ammons Fitness Facebook Page. Good luck and let me know any questions you have!



Step 1: Plan


Choose what you want to eat and make a menu for the week. At first this took me some time (45 minutes or so). But as time goes on and you try more things, you have a great stash of recipes that you love and know work, so eventually you will spend less time planning. Ask yourself…
What kinds of protein will you prepare for your main dishes?
What kinds of vegetables?
What are you eating for breakfast?
What are your snacks?

I use Google, Pinterest, and various food blogs to find recipes. I almost always choose a ground Turkey meal, a chicken meal, a fish meal, and an extra meal of sausage, steak, chicken drumsticks etc.
I start off by googling ‘chicken breast healthy recipes’, or ‘ground turkey crockpot meals’ and sift through recipes to find the ones that I want that week.
I choose my vegetables next. I always make kale salads with peppers, tomatoes, nuts and dried fruits. I choose two more: brussel sprouts, green beans, asparagus, butternut squash, sweet potatoes, etc. I google different ways to prepare these meals, ie: ‘how to bake butternut squash or ‘ways to season asparagus’ or ‘how to prepare sweet potatoes’.
My breakfast is always the same, cold oats. But I have also tried egg muffins and protein pancakes in the past. I usually eat my oats at 4:30am on my way to work, so I keep it simple, but if I had more time in the morning, I would probably get more creative here.
My snacks are usually fruit smoothies, protein shakes (I use Isopure 100% whey from Mariano's), hard-boiled eggs, cottage cheese, unsalted nuts, bananas, avocados.
Once I choose my meals, I write down the full recipes in a notebook, so I can reference them as I cook and in future weeks. I used to take screen shots of recipes online, but I prefer to have the paper copy especially so I don’t have to worry about using my phone when my hands are full of food.
After creating your menu for the week, make your complete shopping list.

When I started prepping, I made seasoned chicken breast and salads.  That is extremely boring and not many can realistically eat that every day and find it enjoyable! There are so many recipes out there…mix it up! It will be important to find a balance between being creative and keeping it fresh but also not overextending yourself and being too ambitious at first.


Step 2: Purchase


I do most of my shopping at Aldi and Trader Joe's.  I also go to Mariano's and Stanley’s Fresh Market.  If you prefer Whole Foods or Jewel, go for it. I try to keep costs between $75-$120 weekly.  That being said, if you don’t have many staple items, initially you will have to spend money on acquiring things like spices and cooking oils.  There are also some items that you can buy in bulk and will only buy every few weeks, such as protein, rolled oats, and rice.  When I find a deal on meat, I buy extra for the next week and freeze it.  It takes time to figure out which store has the best produce or meat and where you can get the best deals. I keep records of my costs and my receipts so I can compare and make sure to get the best deals.


Step 3: Prep


I choose to do all of my prep on the same day. Many people choose Sunday. Sunday is my one day off from work, so I usually prep Monday or Tuesday.  When I started prepping, I would take hours on hours (usually 5-8) because I wasn’t confident in my ability and googled everything from ‘how to boil an egg’ to  ‘how to cut brussel sprouts’.  Overtime, small things like this become second nature and my abilities improved at a remarkable speed.  Currently, I try to keep my prep time less than 4 hours. I always use the crockpot, so that saves a lot of time. I also want to purchase a food processor, so that will help in the future.  Again, to start you may have to purchase various pots, pans, measuring utensils, and absolutely invest in a good knife and a can opener. There is no point in trying to go cheap on a can opener, trust me.  You naturally start to develop a system and a logical order of doing things. This takes time and practice and trial and error. I like to cut all my veggies at the beginning, get the crockpot going, and then move on to stovetop work. I also plan crockpot timing based on my schedule for that day. Warning: sometimes you make disgusting food. Suggestion: Don’t make it again.


Step 4: Package


I own a lot of Tupperware.  I portion all of my food out right from the beginning.  Sometimes I leave some in larger bowls to eat at home. I have a huge lunchbox that I keep all of my meals in for the day.
 


Summary:


Plan: Make your menu. Write down recipes. Make grocery list.
Purchase: Go shopping for ingredients.
Prep: Cook your food.
Package: Put it in Tupperware.

Tips:


*Don’t get overwhelmed. Start small. Choose easy recipes and build off of those.

*Mix it up. Don’t eat the same old chicken breast everyday.
*Sometimes your food turns out gross. Don't eat gross food.
*It may seem time consuming at first, but it will save you time later in the week.
*Invest in a crockpot, a sharp knife, and a good can opener.
*It may be expensive at first, but once you have your staples, you will save money.
*You are going to have a ton of tupperware and therefore a ton of dirty dishes.
*Food prep is hard on your manicure. I plan my meal prep days around my nail appointments because life is all about priorities.


FAQ

Don’t you get tired of eating the same thing everyday for a week?
The short answer is no. I am not a picky eater, and for the most part the recipes are delicious.  Also, I usually choose 3-4 main courses so that I can mix it up day to day. The key is to keep trying new recipes on a weekly basis so the food is exciting.

Do I have to prep all of my meals?
You can take it as far as you want to. Perhaps you want to prep only your breakfast and lunches and cook your dinner fresh every evening, or maybe you like to go out for lunch and prep dinner…do what works for you.  Some weeks I prep every single meal and I don’t let myself eat anything that I haven’t prepared myself. Other weeks, I am easier on myself and maybe only prep a few staple meals and veggies and know that I will be buying food from ‘Goddess and the Grocer’ and my beloved sushi lady.  Obviously, I find that the more food I prep and the more I stay to the plan, the better I feel and the better my better responds.

How healthy is it?
It can be as healthy as you want it to be.  When I started prepping, I gave myself a challenge to not eat out at all for 30 days. While that was a great kickstart, I would never set that expectation for more than a short period of time.  I like to go out with friends and try new restaurants, and sometimes I just want Chipotle. I don’t beat myself up about it.  Set some guidelines for yourself if you need them and hold yourself accountable. I often find substitutions for ingredients that I know aren’t very healthy. If I have a craving for something, I try to make it in a healthy way, but not always. Sometimes I find a recipe I like but it looks boring, so I find one less healthy, but more delicious and I am fine with that. I don’t really like chicken breasts, so I use chicken thighs and drumsticks often, even though I know the breast is leaner.  I also look forward to making healthy desserts in the near future.  I keep it healthy but also enjoyable and realistic.

Do I have to prep everything on the same day?
Nope. I usually do all the prep on the same day, but sometimes I prep meats one day, and all my vegetables the following day. Or I will add an extra crockpot meal in halfway through the week. One of my clients historically hates leftovers and can’t stomach eating a meal more than 3 days after it has been cooked, so she has 2 smaller prep days. Find what works for you and your schedule.

Where do you get your recipes?
I google a lot. I use Pinterest and various blogs. I also talk to a lot of my friends and clients about food and what they are eating. It really becomes this new shared passion and you learn a lot of tips from people who are experimenting with you.

What about alcohol?
Again, this is totally up to you. If you want to drink alcohol, go for it. Obviously drinks are going to affect your workouts and your results regardless of your goals.

What about bread?
I don’t really eat bread. If I do, it’s usually on my cheat meal of French toast or pizza. I used to love sandwiches and even considered that prep, but most sandwiches have little nutritional value (processed meat, cheese, and condiments gives you nada).  If you need some bread every now and then, just make sure you eat it within an hour of working out. Also, I usually use oats as a substitute for breadcrumbs in my meatballs and meatloaf.

What about pasta?
I don’t eat much of this either. Sometimes one of my meals will call for some pasta so I use whole grain and don’t overdo it. I also eat brown rice and quinoa here and there.

Can I use various bars for snacks?
If you are going to eat a bar as a snack, make sure it is low in sugar and high in protein. Try a Mark Bar (locally owned and great ingredients) or a Quest Bar.  Use these sparingly.

So I can have a cheat meal?
Sure. I usually eat pretty lax on Sundays.

What about Paleo, gluten free, dairy free etc?
I don’t have food allergies, so I eat pretty much everything besides sauerkraut because it’s disgusting.  At this point, I don’t follow any specific food plan other than eating as clean and natural as possible. I try to use fresh ingredients that are not processed and keep it fairly healthy.

Should I freeze anything?
Currently I haven’t tried freezing meals, but this might be something I try in the future especially for chili and soups.