In the fitness world, there is a common understanding that working out is the easy part; the diet is what is hard. Meal prep is a major source of frustration for many people on their journey to becoming healthier and it makes sense, no matter what your culture is, food is a centerpiece of your life.
I am writing this from America and I can tell you that our classic staples make it immensely difficult to stay fit. All over the world, humans love to eat their staple foods and drink their staple drinks. Think about how huge beer is in Germany or wine in Italy. Think about how difficult it would be to keep yourself in shape if the cultural norm was to have beer or wine at lunch like they do every day.
As a personal trainer, I am acutely aware that if I am training someone, I am not only going up against their motivation to workout, I am also going up against their livelihood with food, and that is the harder endeavor.
Why Is meal prep So Hard?
Meal prep is so difficult because it is not necessarily something done privately. Chances are for most people food is usually a social event. Your family gathered around the table, your friends went out to the bar, and your significant other wanted to go out on a date. You are constantly bombarded with social pressure to eat a certain way, and those ways may not always align with your goals to be fit.
On top of all of that, we are fighting human nature. If you manage to get yourself alone to have dinner, your next battle will be forcing yourself to take the time to cook something good. I have this discussion with my friends frequently: cooking does not have to be fancy or difficult to be healthy. All too often though, people see something that could be a simple meal, like a chicken breast, assume that’s going to take them hours, and then opt for a frozen pizza… something that would roughly take the same amount of time. The second problem can be summed up like this: if you can get away from the social pressures, you then have to know how to cook.
If you have conquered cooking and you feel like you have your food dialed in, you then have to look at what you drink. Two things really stand out in America as major contributors to obesity: sugary drinks and beer. Sugary drinks like pop or kool-aid contribute not only to weight gain but also diabetes which is running rampant through our country. Beer is so well-known for weight gain that we have a term for it: beer gut. Guys, what you drink is really important and people don’t realize how detrimental it can be to your health. Not be able to see what is inside your beverage combined with how easy it is to drink it, makes it incredibly hard to regulate. A single can of Coke has 140 calories and not one of those calories is good for you. On average, a single 12 oz. bottle of beer has 150 calories and most of that is carbs from the grain. If you drink multiple of these a day, you could easily surpass 1,000 calories of junk just from drinking! If you guys want an alcoholic beverage, shoot for liquor (preferably clear liquor like tequila or vodka) or wine. If you guys really want a sugary drink, try something like a Gatorade or Pedialyte so you are at least getting electrolytes.
Tools That Make Your Life Easy And Healthy
Let’s be frank, a lot of you probably have a lot to learn about cooking. Many people know to throw that chicken on the grill, heat it up, and at some obscure time in the future, take it off and hope you do not get salmonella. I want to make things easier for you while making your food taste better so that you are more compelled to eat healthy food.
I had the pleasure of being a cook at a very nice restaurant for some years. Food has always been very important to me. I was very fortunate to grow up in a house that had two parents who enjoyed cooking and so we were never short of good food. Being a cook though teaches you a lot about good cooking and shows you how a lot of home cooking misses the mark in some serious ways.
Buy A Probe Thermometer!
The first problem with home cooking that people run into is what temperature their food should be cooked to. The internal temperature of your food is the deciding factor of that steak having the consistency of a rubber shoe or the juicy tenderness of a top steak house. It matters so much.
Many recipe websites will tell you something like that “over medium heat, cook your chicken breast for five minutes per side,” or “bake breast for 20 minutes at 425.” There are many things wrong with these statements. First, “over medium heat” is subjective and different burner types make medium heat far from standard measurement. If you’re going the oven route, the difference between your apartment’s shitty oven and this blogger’s $7,000 convection oven is worlds apart. Second, the length of time that each side of a chicken breast needs to cook is dependent on how big the chicken breast is. If the food-blog was cooking with an 8-ounce breast and you have a hormone-loaded one-pound behemoth, five minutes just won’t do it. It won’t even be close to done.
If you are someone without prior kitchen experience, here is the best tip I can give you: BUY A DIGITAL PROBE THERMOMETER! If you read this post and this is the only thing you do, your cooking and your desire to make healthier choices will increase tenfold. A probe thermometer is a wonderful little tool (I will link some at the bottom) that pierces the meat and tells you the internal temperature; the best of which can be left in the meat while it is cooking. For these thermometers, all you have to do is put it in the meat, put the meat on, or in whatever you are using to cook and the thermometer will alert you when the meat has reached the temperature you choose. Guys, this is such an easy and inexpensive thing you can do to make cooking effortless and perfect every time, I beg you to make the small investment.
My favorite way to use my thermometer is to get the meat I’m cooking with, set the oven to 425, cook the meat for 3-4 minutes per side on a hot pan, take it off, put the thermometer in and throw it in the oven to finish cooking to the temperature I want it at. The first part is subjective, cooking on the stove like that is just for me to sear the meat and add a little texture, you could easily skip that part, set your oven, and throw the meat in with the thermometer.
A quick note on meat temperature: chicken must be at least 165 F (73 C), beef will be medium-rare at 135 F (57 C) and you should move up in increments of 10 degrees for the less-rare steak to a max of 155 F (68 F), Pork should be 145 F (62 C), and Turkey 165 F (73 C).
Spices, Spices, Spices
The next thing that will make a difference in your cooking is spices. Spices are probably the easiest thing for most people to do because they know what flavors they like and generally know what tastes good with what.
I will keep this brief: do not be afraid of salt and pepper. You need salt to live, guys. Adding some salt for a little bit of flavor will not kill you and if adding some salt to your food will help keep you away from that frozen pizza, that’s a step in the right direction; you can work on portioning salt later.
What To Cook With?
By this I mean the mode you use to bring your food up to proper temperature. This will be the choice that will save you the most struggle and time. If you are like my girlfriend, anything beyond a couple of button pushes is far too much and extremely undesirable. Here’s the thing, you can still make healthy meals without using a stove or grill!
If you do not really care about the nitty-gritty of cooking and just want good food that won’t kill you or taste horrible, the method by which you cook doesn’t really matter. If you are a lazy cook, you can still be healthy! It’s actually very, very easy. Let’s break things down by the drive you have to cook:
The lazy cook:
I get it! Prepping a whole meal does take a long time, I do it frequently. But, if you do not like to go through that long process, rest assured that I have some solutions for you.
- Crock-Pot: In the price range of $30-100, you can purchase this little device called a crock-pot. It is essentially a little oven that uses electricity to slowly bake your food. Want dinner done when you get home from work? Throw some meat and vegetables in the crock-pot, dash some oil and spices in there, set it for however long your workday is, and voila! Your food is cooking while you are at work and all you did was push buttons. Literally, zero prep is involved. My girlfriend uses this to prep sweet potatoes for her workday lunch. She puts the potatoes in and lets them cook overnight. When she wakes up, she has sweet potatoes ready to go for a healthy lunch.
- The Oven: This requires a little more attention as you do not want to burn your house down, it is not automatic, and you need to preheat it. Essentially though, if you’re roasting vegetables, you want the oven around the mid-300’s, if you’re baking meat, the mid-400’s. If you have a probe thermometer, time does not matter because your thermometer will tell you when the meat is done!
- Rice Cooker: Rice is a good staple to have for every meal, especially brown rice. However, cooking rice in a pot is very tricky, and buying a microwavable bag of rice is actually really expensive and usually full of unnecessary junk. A rice cooker is just as cheap as a crock-pot and only requires a couple of buttons to be pushed. I strongly recommend buying whole bags of uncooked rice to use in your rice cooker.
- Blender: I use a blender literally every day. A good quality blender acts as two things: 1. something to make smoothies with and 2. a food processor. Guys, smoothies are SO good for you. Just add water, fruit, and a leafy vegetable if you choose and you have a NUTRITION BOMB. Healthy smoothie recipes are everywhere and require no effort. Just put the stuff in and blend until smooth. As a food processor, you can put whole vegetables in them and process them until they are completely chopped up. No need for a knife at all. With this method, you can make homemade salsa, guacamole, or hummus!
The non-lazy cooks:
For those of you like me who do not mind spending an hour or so attentively cooking, your options are limitless. Also, if you already know that you like to cook, chances are that you are already aware of how to cook with different tools but I might as well list the two main options anyways:
- The skillet: This is going to require attention and heat management as cooking with oil can cause potential fire and if oil gets too hot, it will spit all over the place. You will also need to attend to what is on the skillet so that one side does not cook more than the other. Done well, the skillet can give you a wonderful oil-seared flavor combined with spices that will impress anyone.
- The Grill: By far the most expensive way to cook as you need some kind of fuel source and an actual grill. In America, Grilling is by far and away one of the most beloved methods of cooking. You will need to attend to it as open flames cannot be left alone, the food will need to be flipped, and vegetables will cook quickly if that is what you are doing. The grill will give you a nice smoky flavor combined with a crunchy char on the outside.
Anyone that knows me knows that I am passionate about food and the food you eat. My general advice is this: if it did not come from the ground or an animal, you should probably stay away from it. That is not to say you cannot indulge from time to time, I know I do! Just be mindful of what you put into your body as what you put in becomes what you put out. Put in junk, expect to have junk output.
If you are a lazy cook, that is okay! Cooking is time-consuming and hard, I do not blame for a second. However, you can still cook healthy meals while doing nothing at all.
Buy. A. Thermometer. Guys, please. This is will change your cooking forever. Whether or not you are a trained cook really does not matter, if you have a thermometer that constantly reads the temperature of your food, you will never have to worry about over-cooking or under-cooking meat again. It will always be perfect. Combine that with some basic spice use and you guys will have amazing home-cooked, healthy meals every day that will impress anyone.
As I said before, when it comes to getting fit, exercising is easy, regulating what you eat and drink is hard. Find a few good meals that are easy for you to make, are healthy, and taste great is your best option. Get really good at cooking 4-5 easy healthy meals and you will not be short of dinner ideas. Remember: What you put into your body is what you will get out of it. If your input is junk, your output will be junk.
Jordan Tank, Personal Trainer, Columbus, Ohio
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