You ever wonder why dieting is so difficult, and so many people don’t make it stick?
The answer is simpler than you think: we’re not spending enough time and effort on understanding and changing your behaviour.
In this article, we’re going to focus on one key behaviour you can address: planning and preparing your food ahead of time. This will deal with how different types of scheduling/cooking can improve your behaviours, save time/money, and improve your health.
You’ll learn how to hack the dieting process and give yourself the best chance. Whether you’re cooking for yourself, the family, or feeding a large group, it’s a great skill to master.
60-70% of diets fail within the first 3 months. Those that get past this point are likely to be successful, however. This points to one fact: consistency is key.
While it’s easy to discuss willpower and be hard on yourself when you stumble, this doesn’t make anything better. Changing behaviour is a complicated process but one of the best ways to achieve consistency and change your behaviours is to set realistic goals and make it easy for yourself.
Be realistic: every change of habit is a negotiation with yourself.
The reality is that you cheat on your diet in times of weakness or difficulty: it’s easy to make it stick when you’ve got delicious, healthy food waiting for you. When you’re short on time, or you’re not interested in anything in your fridge, it’s a totally different situation – getting junk food is the easiest choice.
Preparing to Win
The easiest way to deal with these situations of difficulty is to avoid them in the first place. You can improve your dieting effectiveness by simply having more healthy options and being prepared ahead of time. Having more options and providing the path of most resistance to bad choices is how you insulate yourself against temptation.
So how do you do it?
Batch-Cooking: Thinking Ahead
You want to save the time, effort, and temptation of cooking when you’re hungry. Batch-cooking gives you a chance to cook a lot of food once and be sure that you’re going to have choices in those moments where ordering food or buying a pizza might be more appealing.
One of the best ways to go about this process is to dedicate 1-2 nights a week to mass-preparing food. You can do this by simply cooking too much for family meals and stashing the leftovers in storage tubs, or deliberately use this time to cook out the right meals for the week.
The logistical benefits of this are obvious: you spend a fw hours cooking but you can save money, time, and eat better.
This one is probably obvious. Cooking a healthy meal from scratch can take a while – especially if you’re going to make it tasty enough to keep coming back time and time again. It needs to be good to beat the tempting junk foods we all fall for.
Batch-cooking once a week condenses all of this time down so that you can get it all done at once. 1-2 hours one night a week can save you huge amounts of time – especially since a normal meal can take 30-60 minutes to prep and cook. It only takes 1-2 meals to make back that time – especially since you were already going to have to cook anyway!
We could all do with a little more money lying around.
Whatever you’d spend it on, cooking ahead of time is an easy way to make your money go further. Whether you’re struggling to make ends meet or trying to save up for something special, there are clear benefits.
To start with, you’re not going to be buying food on-the-go or delivery. This is going to mean saving $$ every week – and $$$ every month. This is a big deal. A Tupperware of ready-cooked, healthy food that you enjoy is an easy way to drop the expenses.
You can also get great deals and make cheaper swaps when you’re dealing with a batch-cooked meal. This might be as easy as buying a bigger bag of chicken and saving on a per-meal basis or getting a great deal on a kilo of rice, rather than a microwaveable pack. There are dozens of ways of dealing with these swaps and it’s all about how inventive you can get!
Meal Prep: Health Fad or Health-Fab?
So, how does this keep you healthier?
The first effect is that you’re not going to make bad choices as often. This forward-planning builds consistency and makes healthy eating easier. You get to plan what your body needs, make sure you’re fuelling it, and make sure you have the right amount of everything. This is a luxury you might not have if you’re in a rush or you’re missing ingredients for meals.
Secondly, it’s an easy way to control your intake. For example, if you’re not prepared and you end up eating out and you’ll struggle to track or understand what’s in these meals. Fast food and “healthy options” are notoriously difficult to measure, and are often far less healthy than they’re presented as. Having control over your food has been shown to improve dieting success.
Finally, you can make easy health swaps when batch-cooking. Something as simple as swapping pork out for lean beef, or refined grains out for high-fiber wholegrains are both easy changes you can implement if you have the time and chance to plan. These are great for heart health and provide a spectrum of key nutrients.
Practical tips for Maximum Meal Prepping
This is the bit where we make meal prep easy and fun. Nobody wants to eat the same meal 10 times in a row.
Start with a plan
Planning is an essential aspect of cooking ahead of time. You’re going to have the luxury of planning ahead, so you need to make sure you’re getting the basics right: a good shopping list, a meal plan for the week, and an understanding of what goes where.
This planning is how you make the most of the process. This only takes 10-15 minutes and it can make huge differences to the whole process.
This one is simple. Don’t make plain chicken and broccoli if you’re going to hate it after a few days. The point is that its appealing and healthy. If you hate it, you won’t stick with it.
Find foods that meet these criteria. Alternatively, find healthier versions of your fav unhealthy foods, or tastier versions of healthy foods you like!
Start with what you like
You need to build up a few simple foods that you are always happy to eat. Having staple meals is a great way to make sure you’re going to stick with it. My personal favourite was always chilli chicken – easy, dependable, and comfortable enough to eat whenever.
You need to find your own foods that fill this niche: they’re ones you can fall back on in a pinch. They’re especially rewarding when you choose them over a typically unhealthy treat/emergency.
Rotate the veg and sauces
This is an easy logistical tip: you can make an easy food prep that never gets boring if you use a few lean protein sauces and a few different sauces.
For example, if you’re using diced chicken breast (a lean choice), you can keep it interesting by using 2-3 different sauces for 2 meals each. If you use more than one protein source, you can use this same principle and suddenly you have 3-6 different meals without the extra effort of starting from scratch.
You can (and should) use the same principles for your veg. A wider variety is great for your health, but the important part is that it provides a nice change to a meal without much effort. Swap carrots out for a mixture of bell peppers, for example.
You’re going to snack: accept it
In keeping with the theme of being realistic, it’s important to prepare your snacks and small meals ahead of time. These are often overlooked if you’re trying to convince yourself that you aren’t going to snack at all, ever.
Accepting that you might is the first step to damage-controlling your snacking habits. Having a selection of fruits and other healthier snacks available means that, if/when you do need a snack, you aren’t relying on the local store or your secret-stash of junk foods.
Plant foods make it easy
Speaking of plant foods, these are going to be your best friend. Prepping fresh, delicious veg isn’t just going to improve your health but many don’t require cooking at all.
Some root veg and leaves don’t require cooking, are great for your health and really fill out a meal without the difficulties associated with other types of food.
The health and efficiency benefits of this process also extend to veg and its role in snacks and breakfasts. You can make a quick and easy addition to your diet with high-fiber, high-nutrient fruit. Blueberries and other foods are great for health and easily fill out a meal, reducing cravings and snacking.
Invest in your Staples
The foods that make up the largest part of your diet are where you can make the most positive change. For most Americans, this is as simple as a better choice of carbs.
Stockpile chickpeas, kidney beans, black beans, quinoa, rolled oats, couscous and other brown carbs. These are great swaps for foods that are easy to over-eat like pasta, bread and other calorie-dense foods.
They also store easily in tins, cans, and dry-store. You can buy these in bulk and they’ll stay good for a few uses, if you store them properly – another way to save time and money.
Where’s it Going?
When you’re planning, try and separate out your fridge and freezer meals. You want to make sure that you’re putting the right foods in the right places, and giving yourself the freedom to work with whatever meals you want.
When you start, try and get 2-3 days of meals for the fridge and stash the rest in the freezer. Just remember that some foods freeze better than others – plan accordingly unless you fancy soggy veg!
Hit your weak spots
Be realistic about how you eat now. The fastest way to make positive change to your diet is to fix the worst bits.
If you’re prone to snacking at night then make sure you’re prepping a filling, satisfying dinner. If you snack between breakfast and lunch, put some effort into a filling, fibre-packed overnight oat recipe.
Putting focus on these meals makes the most difference with the least effort.
Keep at it!
This is probably the most important part: you’re going to need to adapt.
You’re probably going to struggle a bit to start with – it’s a skill by itself. You’ll get better at cooking in volume, rotating, and saving both time and money as you get more practice.
Sticking with this type of process isn’t easy to start with but as you become more efficient and skilled, you’ll see a huge pay-off in your time and health, as well as your bank account!
It’s always good to talk to people who are more experienced and can provide tips, so keep your eyes out for meal prep social media groups, hashtags, or pinterest boards!
Batch cooking is a versatile and underrated way of achieving a whole bunch of great results with a minimum of effort:
- Improving your health/taking control of your body
- Cutting food costs
- Saving you time, effort and uncertainty
Stick with these tips, and you’ll see the pay-off almost immediately!