Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Practice of Meal Planning

Have you ever made a trip to Home Depot for some random items and accidentally forgot your shopping list?  The list wasn't that long so you convince yourself you'll be able to remember everything without a problem.  You know lawn fertilizer was the first item so you pick that up right away.  Next was a new air filter but once you arrive in the aisle you can't seem to remember the correct size.  Was it a 20 x 24 in or 16 x 24 in?  Who cares, just pick one, because look at that awesome 50-pair shoe organizer that would fit perfectly in your closet!  Gotta have it, so in the cart it goes.  The thought of your shoes having a happy little habitat produces an instant high but it's time to come back down and get what you need to caulk the sink in the half bathroom.  Got it?  Good.  On the way to the check-out, the calming spa tones of the paint section beckon and lure you into a drunken state of relaxation.  Now's not the time so you shove a few samples in your bag and are on your way.  All in all, a successful trip!

Until you get home and realize you have the wrong size air filter, a giant monstrosity of a shoe shelter that doesn't allow for walking in your "walk in" closet, an awesome caulk gun but no caulk, and the sudden urge to repaint the entire first floor of your home.  The results are a far cry from the original plan when left unguided.

"By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail," so the saying goes.  It holds true for trying to accurately navigate Home Depot sans list and trying to eat healthy.  You can't expect to to consistently make enough solid nutritional choices that produce significant results by just winging it.  Good plans make for good execution.  Without planning your meals, you're left to rely on whatever fast food chain is on the nearest corner, whatever pre-packaged food is handy, or whatever your craving is dictating at the moment.

When you prepare your food in advance you are in control of what goes into your body.  You don't have to worry about hidden ingredients or what your meal was cooked with.  You aren't left disappointed that the protein serving wasn't enough or that you're falling short on servings of vegetables for the day.  And you don't have to worry about a moment of weakness steering you in the wrong direction when there's a full, nutritious meal right in front of you. 

It takes some time.  It takes some effort.  But it produces results.  Here are a couple strategies to help. 

Post-Grocery Shopping Prep
Take a few extra minutes to sort and organize your groceries when you return from shopping.  Wash and cut all your vegetables and fruits.  Pre-portion items like nuts and dried fruit into smaller baggies.  Dish out some Greek yogurt or cottage cheese into smaller containers and throw some berries on top.  The only thing left to do is grab what you need when you're hungry or ready to cook. 

Always Cook for Leftovers
Automatically double up your dinner recipes.  Not only will it save you time from having to prepare something for lunch the next day, it will make you use up any ingredients unique to the dish that might otherwise go to waste.  When cleaning up the table, package the leftovers into single portion-sized containers to eliminate another step the following day.

Establish a Weekend Ritual
This requires a little more of a time commitment but can pay off for several days.  Take a few hours out on the weekends and make meals for the entire week.  Season four to five chicken breasts with different flavors and grill.  Try one to two new vegetable dishes as well.  As always, package everything into smaller containers so you can operate on autopilot.

I prefer to do a combination of all of the above on a weekly basis.  To give you an idea of how this can play out practically, here was my "to do" list for my weekend ritual this past Sunday:

  1. slice and cook all-natural chicken sausage
  2. trim and cook chicken breasts
  3. wash, cut, and roast vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, and kale)
  4. wash, cut, and bake 2 yams
  5. wash, cut, and grill zucchini
  6. start meat sauce for zucchini lasagna

veggies galore
What it yielded:
  • two breakfasts from the chicken sausage
  • chicken breasts for four meals
  • five 2-cup servings of roasted vegetables
  • three 1-cup servings of yams
  • full tray of zucchini lasagna for that night's dinner, plus about 5 individual meals of leftovers for the week

baked coconut (top) and honey mustard (bottom) chicken breasts

Every spare inch of the fridge is taken up, but I can easily navigate it in my sleepy morning stupor to pack meals in my portable cooler for the day.  It saves me from selecting some edible mystery from the company cafeteria and the inevitable snowball effect one bad decision can have on the rest of the day.

In addition to a weekend prep day, I make a mental plan of dinners for the week.  Having this in place eliminates the temptation to order pizza upon walking through the door.  Don't forget, double the recipe and there's more meals to get you through the remainder of the week. For example, I made enough of a delicious bone-in chicken breast for dinner last night which produced another protein serving or two to fill up any free space in the fridge.

If you want to see some serious health improvements, you must take the time to plan.  Simply wanting to eat better is useless unless it's backed up by some preparation and action.  It's like dreaming of winning the lottery without buying a ticket.

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