If you’ve made it your mission to reap the full benefits of those hours in the pain cave, dialling in your nutrition is the most effective way to go about it. But you know that already.
You’ve read Men’s Health before. That a breakfast of scrambled eggs will fuel your muscles better than a chocolate-filled croissant will come as no surprise. And when fat loss is your focus, it would probably help to swerve the biscuit tin every now and again. It’s hardly rocket science.
The problem is, knowing doesn’t always equate to ‘doing’. You snack when you’re not supposed to. You eat out because you don’t have time to cook a healthy meal. The good news is, you might not be entirely to blame – turns out, your empty stomach isn’t the only thing compelling you to grab a slice of pizza from the work canteen.
It’s a psychological phenomenon called ‘decision fatigue’. You make around 35,000 decisions every day on average – hit snooze or get up? Toast or porridge? White shirt or blue? – and the more you make, the more taxing each one becomes until eventually, your exhausted brain looks for shortcuts and it starts acting impulsively.
Willpower isn’t something you either have or you don’t – it’s a form of mental energy that gets depleted every time you make a decision, a series of experiments conducted by Florida State University found. And that’s not all.
Your brain is the most energy-demanding organ in your body, and it uses glucose as its primary fuel source. As your mental energy drains with each fleeting decision, your body looks for a quick way to replenish its dwindling stocks: sugar. Such is the fat-loss paradox. You need willpower to stop yourself from grazing – but in order to fuel willpower, you need to eat.
This is why meal prep is your greatest muscle-building, fat-torching ally. By pre-batching breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks ahead of time, you deal with a decision-making double-whammy: not just what to eat and when, but also how much.
“When our schedules are packed, meal times can go to the wayside,” says Kevin Curry, founder of food blog Fit Men Cook. “We eat mindlessly, paying little attention to the caloric and nutritional value of the food, and we skip meals, which leads to overeating at the next meal in order to satisfy our intense hunger.
“Having healthy meals and snacks ‘at arm’s length’ enables us to continue our hectic and busy lifestyles but with more nutritious food so we can accomplish our fitness and wellness goals at the same time.”
Here, you’ll find everything you need to meal prep like a pro, freeing up brain space for other, more pressing decisions: chest day or leg day?
The Pros and Cons of Meal Prep
Granted, it’s not all plain sailing. If you don’t like your lunch, you’re stuck with it for another day or two. You’re forced to dedicate a chunk of your Sunday afternoon to cooking. Your weekly shopping list requires meticulous planning, because one missed ingredient could throw off a week’s worth of meals. You have to carry containers everywhere. And if your plans change, the food goes to waste.
But as they say – if it was easy, everyone would do it. By giving an hour or two of your weekend to meal prep, you’ll free up your weekday evenings. The only thing you’ll have to wash up is the plastic containers. Not only will your scales be lighter without those high street sandwich lunches; your wallet will be thankful too. And if you’re the macro-counting kind and have a specific training goal in your sights, you can map out a week’s worth of meals down to the very last gram.
“Preparing our meals in advance gives us a better estimate of monthly food costs while reducing miscellaneous food purchases,” says Curry. “Knowing what you’re going to eat on a daily basis will make the difference in both your health and your wallet.” Plus, it gets results. “I don’t just preach the importance of meal prep,” he adds, “I practice it, because it enabled me to obtain the results that I so desperately wanted.” Sounds like all that chopping might be worth it.
Meal Prep Ideas
The first step is to map out recipes for the meals you’re prepping i.e. breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. In its most stripped-back form, the foundation of a muscle-building meal contains approximately “two handfuls of vegetables, one fist-size portion of carbs, and a palm-size portion of protein,” Jo Travers, registered dietitian and author of The Low Fad Diet.
Protein-wise, stick to lean options like chicken, fish, turkey, lean beef, eggs, tofu, and greek yoghurt. Keep carbs complex where possible, and don’t forget healthy fats – olive oil, avocado and nuts will keep you fuller for longer.
That said, man cannot get jacked on turkey, broccoli, and sweet potato alone. Well, he can, but his taste buds won’t thank him. Focus on cooking foods “that you love to eat and are easy to prepare,” suggests James Long, co-founder of health food blog When Harry Met Salad, particularly dishes you enjoy both hot and cold, in case you can’t access a microwave.
Batch cooking is the name of the game. To keep things interesting, try having a culinary theme for each week, Long suggests, such as ‘Mexican’ and ‘Indian’. Cooking and pre-portioning chilli or curry, for example, is far more practical than juggling multiple recipes. Once you have your meals mapped out, make a list of all the ingredients you need – along with quantities – and hit the shops.
Easy Hacks to Take the Hassle out of Meal Prep
To keep your meals as fresh as possible, let them cool down completely before you refrigerate them, says Long. You’ll avoid the condensation that makes food go soggy. That said, don’t leave your food at room temperature for more than two hours.
If you’ve seen the ‘ripe avocado’ memes, you know how temperamental veg can be. To reduce food waste, make frozen and tinned foods your best friend. “I’ve been buying way more frozen vegetables such as chopped peppers, onions, peas and sweetcorn because I was getting fed up of binning bags of spinach and other vegetables that kept going off,” says Long.
If frozen really isn’t an option, consider buying an ethylene-absorbing gadget for your fridge. They can really extend the shelf life of your veg, says Travers, particularly the crunchy kind such as bell peppers, carrots and celery. “A coleslaw mix – without the mayo dressing; add that at the last minute – will keep better than chopped tomatoes and cucumbers,” she says.
Think of meal prepping as a high-intensity gym workout, says Curry. “Keep going until the routine is finished – while your food is cooking, clean up the kitchen. When the food is nearly complete, prep your food containers and spread them out on the counter or table.”
You could even blast your favourite gym playlist while you’re cooking. “Not only does the music energise me, but also it’s also subtle reminder of why I’m doing this: to get lean and mean,” he adds.
Use Meal Prep to Pimp Your Protein
When you’re prepping meat or fish, don’t slice it until you’re ready to eat to prevent it from drying out. About 30g of protein per meal is ideal for fat loss – that’s roughly a palm-sized portion.
Season a 1in-thick steak with salt and pepper and grill on medium-high to your desired doneness – about three minutes per side for medium rare. Let it rest for five minutes, then transfer.
Heat some oil in an ovenproof pan on medium-high. Season and cook until brown, two to three minutes per side. Transfer to the oven and roast at 200°C; five minutes for medium rare.
Place some extra-firm tofu on a cutting board between paper towels. Top with a baking sheet and heavy cans to weigh it down. Let it sit for 15 minutes, then slice. Heat oil in a pan on medium-high. Fry until golden brown, two minutes per side. Transfer to a paper towel and season.
Break firm tofu into large pieces on a baking sheet. Toss with oil, season and roast at 200°C, flipping once. Cook until golden brown, about 25-30 minutes.
Rub with oil, then season and grill on medium-high, four to six minutes per side. Use a griddle pan to add some smoky char.
Heat some oil in an ovenproof pan on a medium heat. Season the chicken and cook until golden brown, about three minutes per side. Transfer to an oven and roast at 200°C until cooked through – about 10 minutes.
Heat some oil in a frying pan on medium-high. Season and cook the fish until it’s golden brown and opaque throughout – roughly five minutes per side.
Place the salmon on a baking sheet. Season and roast at 200°C until it’s opaque – this will take roughly 10-12 minutes.
Season the salmon to taste and grill it on a medium-high heat for around four minutes per side.
Use Meal Prep to Revamp Your Veg
This is where most meal prep falls short. Cucumber slices and carrot batons might make you feel virtuous, but an unsatisfying lunch will only set you up for mid-afternoon snacking. Many vegetables are made more nutritious by cooking – and doing
so will extend their shelf life, too.
Rapeseed, sesame and olive oils are all good options for sautéing, though extra-
virgin olive oil has a lower smoke point (save that for your dressings). Heat a large pan on medium-high. Add a dash of oil, then the veg, and season. Toss well and then cook until tender.
- Peppers: 6min
- Green beans: 5min
- Cherry tomatoes: 4min
- Mushrooms: 11min
Roast to Your Health
On a baking tray, toss your veg with oil and season with salt and pepper. Throw in a few garlic cloves, too. Roast at 200°C until golden brown. Applying heat to veg makes it easier for your body to absorb nutrients such as beta-carotene and certain minerals.
- Broccoli florets: 20min
- Asparagus: 15min
- Mushrooms: 25min
- Cauliflower: 20min
- Peppers: 15min
- Cherry tomatoes: 15min
Boiling vegetables causes nutrients to bleed into the water. Blanching preserves them – as well as keeping the veg crisp. Bring a pot of water to the boil with a pinch of salt. Throw your veg in and cook until just tender, then immediately transfer to ice water. Drain and pat dry.
- Broccoli florets: 4min
- Asparagus: 4min
- Cauliflower florets: 5min
- Green beans: 5min
Best Meal Prep Equipment
You don’t need a Michelin star-worthy kitchen to whip up a few meals ahead of time, but there are a few fundamental pieces of kit that will make the process a whole lot more efficient – particularly if your culinary skills currently amount to beans on toast (no judgements here).
- Measuring spoons
- Measuring jug
- Slotted turner
- Food scale
- Set of mixing bowls
- Baking dishes, or at the very least, a baking tray
- Non-stick frying pan
- Casserole dish
- Steaming basket
- Chopping board
- Kitchen knives
- Set of saucepans
Best Meal Prep Containers
A word on meal prep containers, because you’ve got to store and transport all those meals somehow. There are a few options available, from glass to multi-compartment plastic, with benefits and drawbacks to each style depending on what you’re making. Plastic containers are light and durable, while glass varieties are less likely to stain and keep food fresher for longer. Mason jars are ideal for keeping salads fresh, and Bento boxes make packing snacks and lunches super simple. Stainless steel containers look great, but they tend to be pricy and aren’t microwave-friendly.
How to Meal Prep on a Budget
Unless you’re serving up lobster thermidor every day, meal prep is going to save you money. However, there are easy ways to make your pounds stretch even further – they just require a little bit more thought.
Keep recipes simple with easy-to-source, affordable ingredients, Long suggests. Think: potatoes, rice, pasta, lean protein and vegetables. Where possible, buy in bulk, and stick to supermarket own brands for oats, nut milks, and so on.
Focus on frozen and tinned foods, and if you must buy fresh, “stick to vegetables and produce that is in season,” Long says. Oh, and buy foods you need to prep yourself, adds Travers. “You will pay a premium for ready chopped carrots, for example.”
3 Meal Prep Recipes
Now, finding the right recipe is easier said than done. You think you’ve hit the meal prep recipe jackpot, but six paragraphs later the author is still banging on about their most recent holiday. Forget self-indulgent multi-paragraph manifestos – these easy-to-follow recipes from Curry are waffle-free.
15-minute Shrimp Chipotle Bowl
You’ll get three meals from this recipe. You can substitute the shrimp for chicken, tofu, or beef, says Curry, and the brown rice for cauliflower rice.
560g raw jumbo shrimp, 1 1/2 tablespoons taco or fajita seasoning packet, 1 small white onion, chopped, 1 red bell pepper, chopped, 1 green bell pepper, chopped, juice from 1 lime, 3/4 cup frozen corn, thawed, 425g can black beans (no salt added), 225g instant brown rice, freshly mashed avocado, chopped cilantro, lime wedge
- Heat up brown rice in the microwave according to the package instructions. Empty black beans into a microwavable safe bowl and warm those too.
- Rub the shrimp with taco or fajita seasoning.
- Set a nonstick skillet on medium-high heat. Once hot, spray with olive oil. Toss in the bell peppers and onions and sear for 3 to 5 minutes. As it cooks, squeeze in fresh lime to help caramelise and soften the veggies. Once the onion is translucent and the edges are seared, remove from the skillet.
- Increase the heat of the skillet to high, then add the frozen corn. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, enough to thaw and sear the outside of the corn, then set aside.
- Reduce the heat of the skillet to medium, and if needed, spray with a little more olive oil, then toss in the shrimp. Cook for 3 to 5 minutes until the shrimp is white and plump with seared edges.
- Assemble the bowl by evenly dividing up the ingredients into your meal prep containers.
Sesame Tuna Steak Burger
This recipe will make at least two patties. Macros below represent patties without the burger.
Ingredients for the patties:
340g raw tuna steak, 40g chopped green onion, 1 tablespoon freshly chopped mint, 1 teaspoon sesame oil, 1 tablespoon low sodium soy sauce, 1 teaspoon cumin, 1.5 tablespoon roasted sesame seeds, 1/2 teaspoon lemon zest, pinches of sea salt and pepper
Ingredients for the burger:
1 sprouted wheat bun, tomato slices, avocado slices, red onion slices, 1 teaspoon safflower mayonnaise, 15g goats cheese
- Set a grill to 180 degrees celsius.
- Chop the tuna steak into cubes and place all the ingredients for the patties into a food processor. Pulse blend until there’s a consistent texture of ground tuna.
- Form patties of equal size, then place them in the refrigerator for at least 15 minutes so they can become more firm.
- Place the patties on the grill and cook them for about 6 to 8 minutes, flipping halfway through. Look for the pink areas of the tuna to turn white; however, provided the tuna is fresh and good quality, you can leave some parts of the tuna pink i.e. raw. You can also cook the patties in a non-stick skillet on medium high heat.
Ultimate Low-carb Deep-dish Lasagne
You’ll get nine hearty servings from this dish.
Ingredients for the sauce:
1/2 tablespoon olive oil, 1 tablespoon garlic, minced, 150g chopped onion, 900g lean beef, 1 1/2 tablespoon Italian seasoning, pinch of sea salt and pepper, 1 1/2 jars low-calorie marinara sauce
Ingredients for the layers:
550g part-skim ricotta cheese, 2 egg whites, 40g shredded parmesan (optional), 2 medium squash, 2 medium eggplants, 2 medium zucchini
Ingredients for the topping:
150g shredded mozzarella
- Set oven to 220 degrees celsius.
- Set a nonstick skillet on medium high heat, add olive oil, garlic and chopped onion. Sauté and brown the onions, being careful not to burn the garlic.
- Increase the heat of the skillet and add the ground beef. Chop up as it cooks with the onions. Sprinkle Italian seasoning, sea salt and pepper, and continue cooking until the meat is well chopped in the skillet (note: it’s ok if there are still pink pieces).
- Add the marinara and fold everything together. Reduce the heat to low, then simmer and cook for about 15 to 20 minutes to allow the flavours to meld.
- In a separate bowl, mix together the ricotta and egg whites. Set aside.
- Using a kitchen mandolin or a sharp knife, slice the veggies vertically into strips, around the thickness of a pound coin. Pat them dry on a paper towel and allow them to rest on the paper towels for about 20 minutes to reduce the amount of water in the lasagna.
- Build the lasagna – in a baking pan, add a layer of squash, followed by the meat sauce, then half of the ricotta mixture and a sprinkle of parmesan. Then, add a layer of eggplant, followed by meat sauce, the remainder of the ricotta mix, and a sprinkle of parmesan. Then, layer zucchini, top with the remaining meat sauce, and garnish with mozzarella.
- Cover with foil, and then bake for 35 to 40 minutes. For the last 5 minutes, remove the top foil and allow the top to brown.
All recipes courtesy of Fit Men Cook.