Meal planning serves a purpose but, argues dietitian and chef Charlotte Miller, a more balanced approach will serve you better in the long run.
For those of us with busy and active lifestyles, it can be a real challenge to keep the body sufficiently fuelled day after day. Between work, working out and the rest of life, we can end up eating on the run more than we would like to. Cue food preppers – those among us who set aside time every week to carefully plan and prep meals and snacks. For some food preppers, preparing a week of dinners for the freezer might be enough, while others may prepare all their meals and snacks for the week, carefully counting out their kilojoules and balancing their macros. But is this really the best way to eat well?
Meal prepping isn’t for everyone
You’ve probably heard or read that you increase your chances of eating junk if you are caught out without food and that meal prepping is absolutely key to good health. For some, perhaps, but not everyone wants to spend their Sunday afternoons chopping onions, weighing out chicken and adding just enough cheese to keep the food calculator happy. For a body-builder working toward competition or an elite athlete trying to make weight for sport, this approach can make sense – as it may for fitness professionals and others who have established a healthy relationship with food but work irregular hours. But for many, especially those clients that have only recently embarked upon their training with you, and with making changes to their overall lifestyle, food prepping can be a cause of stress. It also fails to equip them with the skills to eat on the run – something we must all do from time to time. More importantly, especially for those aforementioned clients looking to change their lifestyle behaviours, being entirely dependent on food prepping in order to eat well is not a good way to build a healthy, easy and comfortable relationship with food.
Food prepping means you are effectively deciding what you will eat well ahead of time. It doesn’t let you listen to your body’s needs or allow for changes of plans, and in some instances may lead to obsessive behaviours through calorie counting. If you plan to food prep indefinitely, with a focus on mixing up your ingredients and eating from the five food groups rather than on calorie counting, then it may work for you – but even the most hardcore food preppers would be pushed to admit they will do this forever. Life will get in the way eventually.
Finding balance in eating on the run
As I previously alluded, the disadvantage of eating on the run is that we can be forced into food choices we may not make under ‘normal’ circumstances. Finding balance in our choices is key to good physical, social and mental health. Food is fuel, but it is also so much more, and having a contingency plan that allows flexibility and choices is the place of balance.
The balance might be that you do an element of planning for your week, while also allowing some room for spontaneity. For example, your planning might include one big grocery shop or several smaller ones. Balanced with this, having long life ingredients on hand so you can throw together a dish quickly or having a place nearby where you know you can purchase a nutritious meal or snack when needed may be all you need to still eat well, save money and possibly even save time. Life, as John Lennon sang, is what happens when you‘re busy making other plans. A childcare crisis, traffic holdups, a last-minute dinner invite, unexpectedly working late – life throws us any number of curveballs: the ability to deal with them and navigate situations as they arise is truly the key to good health.
Here are my top tips for finding balance in eating on the run.
- Understand that you will get hungry and don’t allow yourself to skip meals. Skipping might work for an hour or two, but eventually you’ll need to find some food somewhere.
- Have a few go-to cafes, grocery shops or takeaway spots that are close to places you might get caught out, such as your regular club or training studio. Know what you can buy from them and stick to your plan when you need to.
- Have a few meals in your freezer that can be taken for lunch or heated quickly for dinner.
- When you do cook, make enough for a couple of nights, or one dinner and two lunches. Use them for home or for work.
- Keep some staples in the pantry and freezer. These can be anything you enjoy and find easy to include in a meal – soba noodles, pasta, rice, canned lentils, tinned tomatoes, herbs and spices, olive oil, chicken breast, tinned or frozen fish and frozen vegetables.
- Don’t leave the house without a bottle of water and at least a couple of snacks. Fruit, yoghurts, dips and veggies, nuts and seeds or muesli bars are all easy grab and go items that require no preparation. Keep them in the car or at your desk if that is easy for you. Buy them in bulk so you always have some available.
- Head to your local market and look around for ingredients that interest you. As well as inspiring you to get creative and discover flavours and ingredients you’ve not used before, this enables you to make food choices based on what you feel like eating.
Life is busy. Stay balanced, embrace flexibility and learn to eat well, whenever and wherever!
Charlotte Miller is a dietitian for the AFL and has been a private chef for 11 years. In 2016 she co-founded We Feed You, one of Australia’s fastest growing and most innovative ready-made meal businesses.