Name your diet. I don’t care whether it’s Keto, South Beach, Atkins, Whole 30, or any other program. Unless you’re willing to follow the simple steps below, you will struggle to achieve success.
What do I mean? Well, it’s pretty simple. Three steps have to take place to have a healthy meal or snack during the day, not including eating out or purchasing a pre-made product like an Icon meal.
1 – You have to plan what you’re going to eat for the next week. For most people, one week at a time is enough.
2 – Your plan will drive your shopping list, and then you actually have to purchase the food. With grocery pick-up and delivery services in today’s world, this has never been easier.
3 – And finally, some combination of meal prepping and cooking will be required. A strategic meal prepping routine will generally make things easier once you get into your workweek, where time can be precious and life schedules crazy. Then it can be as simple as warming up one of your prepped meals, and you’re good to go. There are endless strategies that can be utilized. The bottom line is that you’re not starting each meal from scratch.
4 – Enjoy!
Now, these steps might seem totally obvious, and yet this is where I see people struggle the most. It doesn’t matter what nutrition plan you’re following; if you’re unwilling to do the last steps and become proficient at them, you will find consistently eating healthy challenging. A classic example is poor planning, which results in not purchasing enough food for the week. Then later in the week, when the healthy food runs out, many will take the path of least resistance and head for McDonald’s or whatever their quick fix preference may be.
Don’t believe me? The two biggest excuses I get from my clients are that they ran out of food or didn’t have time to cook. Running out of food should not happen if you carefully plan for the week ahead. And running out of time is a poor excuse. The truth is that they failed to prioritize the time for meal prep which streamlines the cooking process significantly. Seriously, if you have the time to run through a fast-food drive-through window on your way home, you have the time to warm up a prepped meal that should be waiting in your fridge.
For example, I cook all my lunch and dinner protein portions on the weekend, which saves me a ton of time during the workweek when the bullets are flying. Then day by day, I simply steam my veggies and starchy carbs by microwave. Then after warming a portion of protein, I have a hot, great-tasting meal.
The Continuum – Home Cooked Meals Versus Eating Out
Above, I mentioned not eating out or using pre-made meals. Eating out socially and professionally is a normal part of life, so please don’t think I’m suggesting that you never eat out. And pre-made meals can be an excellent source of clean nutrition whether you’re on the go or using them regularly as a part of your weekly game plan.
The Challenges with Eating Out That Can Be Problematic
1 – Quick and Easy: When you’re looking for something quick and easy, it generally means fast food. While you can make healthy choices, the unhealthy landmines you must dodge can often take you out in a fleeting moment of rationalization. For example, justifying ordering the French fries because it’s been a long and hard day at work.
2 – Peer Pressure: When you’re out with a group who’s not into eating healthy, you being the odd one out can be difficult. And unless your discipline is extraordinary, peer pressure can often cause you to rationalize choices you shouldn’t be making.
3 – Too Many Choices: Restaurants today like The Cheesecake Factory or its equally impressive sibling, Grand Lux, have menus like old-fashioned encyclopedias. And while you can successfully navigate the abundance of indulgent options to make healthy choices, your willpower had better be fully charged.
Unfortunately, many people stumble into these restaurants unprepared, lose their minds, and, as my Dad used to say, end up with eyes bigger than their stomachs and ultimately eat way too much. And you know, there’s nothing wrong with that occasionally; however, if you’re trying to make a significant change in your body composition and you’re hitting your favorite spot regularly, the odds are stacked against you.
My Client Gio
When I first shared the “plan, shop, meal prep/cook” concept above with my long-time client Gio, he replied, “Kelly, there’s no way I can rely solely on eating my own food from home.” Further, he said, “I have to take clients to lunch almost every day of the week as that’s the nature of my business.”
Now I never intended to make him feel like he had to eat only his own home-cooked meals, yet that’s how he took it. That was an ah-ha moment for me, and now I always share my little concept, carefully explaining that eating out and utilizing pre-made meals can undoubtedly be a part of anyone’s success plan. That’s also why I don’t do “cookie-cutter” programs. I always design my client’s nutrition plans around their individual needs, including their lifestyle.
That was a relief to Gio, who used to eat out practically every meal, and he was not always making healthy choices. Our custom plan is to cook his own breakfast, eat out for lunch most days of the week (making healthy choices), have his own shake in the afternoon, and hit about 50/50 on eating out or cooking at home for dinner. Gio’s plan is working because he believes in what he’s doing and because it’s a sound strategy where I hold him accountable weekly.
My Client Mark
Mark walked into our club in May of 2020. He said he was looking for a trainer who was knowledgeable about nutrition, and my boss pointed him to me. Mark, from day one, did zero cooking. He had a shake for breakfast, ate out for lunch, a shake post-workout in the afternoon, and ate out for dinner.
Since he was not ready to start cooking, I encouraged him that we would make the best of his eating out. I did give him guidance for portion control and tweaked his shakes to maximize his nutrition. When we started working together, Mark weighed about 208 lbs. His muscle mass and strength consistently increased throughout the summer while his body fat trended down. His body changed, and he definitely looked better, yet he still weighed a little over 200 lbs.
When September hit, he was emotionally ready to embrace the shift to start cooking at home. We didn’t go 100%. However, he made a strong move in that direction, cutting his restaurant meals dramatically. By the first of November, Mark was down to 192 lbs. which lined up perfectly with LifeTime’s Holiday 60 Day Challenge. I encouraged Mark to enter, and he did.
Two grueling months later, Mark finished the contest at 174 lbs. and placed in the top 20 finalists for the nation. I was thrilled for him, considering how far he had come, especially with the struggles he had endured in his personal life in the years before our meeting. He had gone through numerous trials that no one his age should ever have to endure. And yet, he survived and ultimately thrived to become the man he is today.
To me, both Gio and Mark are successful with their respective plans. For Gio’s current lifestyle and goals, his blended cooking approach at home and eating out is working well. He doesn’t have the same goals as Mark, who had to push the continuum much further towards relying on home-cooked meals to reach his goals. And now, he’s pushing the envelope even further as we prepare for him to enter his first physique competition in early 2022.
I share these stories to show what success looks like to two completely unrelated clients. And let me be clear, neither is following a plan superior to the other. Gio is a much better representation of the average fitness enthusiast, and he is making progress. Mark is pursuing a goal that few ever consider, and there will be a higher price for the leanness and overall condition that he seeks. The important thing is that each has a plan for achieving his goals, and both include the plan, shop, meal prep/cook concept that I’ve shared.
For Mark’s goals, eating out has become more of a luxury and a treat to reward himself for his hard work and discipline. For Gio, eating out is much more a part of his daily life, and it works. In either case, when they do eat out, they have a plan for portion control. Now please don’t get me wrong. I’m not a total control freak and allow all my clients to enjoy themselves when it comes to food. In fact, one of the first blogs I ever published is titled “You Don’t Have to Be Perfect.” Life is too short to live on grilled chicken, steamed broccoli, and dry baked potato. You can have your proverbial “cake” and eat it too.
Closing thoughts for my readers:
Last October of 2020, I wrapped up Precision Nutrition’s Level II Certification. It was a year-long course that completely changed how I approach nutrition coaching. It was towards the end of the program that I had the clarity of thoughts regarding the process I spelled out above, and I’ve shared it with countless people over the past few months.
My message always resonates, and they agree that eating good-tasting healthy meals is not a challenge. It’s doing the work to plan, shop, and prep/cook that produces the healthy meals where people struggle. If you had the good fortune of having a professional chef running around behind you every day providing gourmet-level healthy meals designed for your specific needs, achieving optimal health would be easier. Unfortunately, most do not have that luxury.
I teach my clients and encourage them to take things one step at a time. With few exceptions, any positive new behavior is going to yield results. So depending on where you fall on the continuum of eating out versus eating home-cooked meals, figure out what works best for you and then stick to your plan. And then, for the meals that you’re cooking at home, consider implementing what I’ve shared. It may be intimidating at first; however, it will get easier and easier with time. And I promise that the better you get at planning, shopping, and meal prepping, the easier your life will be to reach and maintain optimal health.
Best of luck in your journey.