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There are a million reasons to meal prep—not just the fact that a week’s worth of perfectly portioned meals looks great on Instagram.
For one, it saves you precious time when you're battling post-workout hanger. Second, it saves you money. When you have food ready to go (that you bought and cooked in bulk), you're likely to spend less money eating out or buying and cooking ingredients for just one meal at a time.
Most importantly, meal prepping allows you to be specific and intentional about the foods and portion sizes you're consuming—and that is exactly why Olympic athletes meal prep on the regular, says Mike Israetel, Ph.D., U.S. Olympic Sports nutrition consultant and cofounder of diet and training company Renaissance Periodization.
"When you prep your food with the intention of maximum health benefits, you're going to be eating a solid meal every time," says Israetel. "If you wing it, you add more decision fatigue, more stress, and cost yourself more time and money." And LBH, you don't always make the best choices when you're stressed and hangry. (Here are more tips for handling your post-workout hanger.)
As helpful as it is for you to meal prep for easier weeknights and foolproof lunches, it's even more important for Olympic athletes. Why? They're not just eating for health, but eating for performance. "They often need very particular amounts and types of foods, because at their level, every little effect on performance counts," says Israetel. "In the case of Olympic athletes, meal prepping allows them to hit the exact nutrition they need to give them the highest chances for a gold medal performance."
So if you're going to follow in the meal-prep footsteps of someone, why not make it someone whose gold medal depends on it? Here, Olympian-worthy meal-prepping tips straight from Israetel.
Keep it simple.
"Yes, you can make seven different kinds of meals for the week, but that's going to add a lot of stress." (And the whole point of meal prepping is to make life easier!) Not to mention, "stress is the sworn enemy of productive sport training," says Israetel.
As a general rule of thumb, stick to just two different food combos at first. (Start here for a guide on how to craft the perfect meal-prep recipe.) For example: Try a set of meals containing chicken, broccoli, and pasta, and a set containing turkey, rice, and spinach. Keep breakfast simple and prep separate jars of overnight protein oats so they're ready to eat first thing in the morning. Try a simple recipe with quick oats, protein powder, and an unsweetened nut milk (like Blue Diamond Almond Breeze Unsweetened Vanilla Almondmilk). Then, top with nuts, seeds, fruit, or whatever you have available. (Also try this Olympian-approved orange mango recovery smoothie for a healthy breakfast.)
This should be enough variation to actually enjoy the food, but not so much that it's a whole production to cook the meals in the first place, says Israetel. Once that becomes easy, spice it up with even more variety.
Yes, you really do need all that Tupperware.
Meal prepping lunches and dinners for the entire work week? You absolutely need 10 separate food containers. (Also keep these other meal-prep staples in your kitchen to make life easier.)
"To save time and hassle on the front end, many people just make several big containers of food for the week and create their meals on the fly,” says Israetel. While this method is definitely superior to cooking each meal on the spot, it requires some measuring each time, which can be a nuisance over the week, he says. You also run the risk of goofing up portion sizes, and shorting your last meal because you were generous with earlier scoops. “Better to measure beforehand, have perfectly prepped meals in the fridge, and when you need one, just grab and go,” says Israetel. (Be sure you're not making these other common meal-prepping mistakes.)
Bonus: When meals are individually packaged, you can freeze them for easy heating later. Freeze a big batch all together, and you'll need to hack off a serving-size chunk of frozen food to reheat when you're ready to eat. Not fun.
Spice it up.
Some people think meal-prep equals piles of flavorless meat, veggies, and grains—not true! If you were whipping up this meal in the moment, you wouldn't serve everything plain, right? "Don't eat super-bland foods because you feel like you're on a diet," says Israetel. "There's no reason for the self-punishment of bland foods."
The super-easy fix: Add spices. Try sprinkling some dried spices into your grains, marinating your meat, and grilling your veggies. "Make your food taste like food instead of medicine," says Israetel. (Try these different portable spices you can keep on hand to add oomph to any meal.)
"If you like the taste of your healthy food, you'll be less likely to eat junk food instead, and because you're enjoying your diet, you'll be more likely to sustain it for the long-term health and performance benefits it brings," he says. "Whether you're just trying to get a bit leaner and healthier or you're gunning for Olympic gold, consistency in the long term is what gets the job done."
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