It's tough to make meal-prepping a steady habit. It takes at least a couple hours to shop, plan, and prep, and who's got time for that, except on the weekends? Plus, who wants to spend their precious free time preparing the same meal over and over again? Even if you can commit to that, one busy weekend with no time to cook can send your entire meal-prep system off the rails. And what are you supposed to do during vacations and holidays?
If you're struggling to make the prep habit stick, take inspiration from athletes who chalk up their success, at least in part, to their meal-prepping ways. If all that stands between you and your goals are a couple hours of prepping, let their experience point the way ahead.
Autumn Calabrese is a Beachbody Super Trainer who credits her fitness success to strict adherence to her prep regimen.
"Being prepared isn't half the battle, it's the whole battle," Calabrese says. "Meal prepping keeps me on point with my nutrition so I can reach my goal to stay strong, lean, and healthy. For me, that requires eating every three hours. If I don't have food already prepped, it's easy to end up behind on my nutrition."
Just think about how many meals that means she has to have on hand! If Calabrese eats every three hours from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., she has to eat six meals a day, including several on the go. So we're talking about someone who can prep as many as 30 meals at a time. It sounds tough, but this Super Trainer swears it's not as bad as it seems.
"Your meal prep doesn't have to be extravagant," she says. "Keep it simple. You can roast three or four different veggies in one pan. Grill up chicken and fish at the same time. Mix and match from there."
Meal prepping isn't just for physique athletes and fitness trainers, it's for athletes of all kinds, including NFL running back Tim Hightower, who last played for the San Francisco 49ers. He follows a diet based on his blood type. This specialized eating plan recommends foods that decrease inflammation while naturally increasing hormone production. With such a precise diet, Hightower can't just swing through a fast-food joint every time his stomach growls.
"Meal prepping provides consistency and convenience for me," Hightower says. "Whether I need to eat after a workout, practice, or [football game] film study, I need to have the right food on hand. By being good about my meal prepping, I can avoid compromising or giving in to my cravings."
Just don't expect Hightower's Instagram feed to be full of identical chicken-broccoli-rice Tupperware shots. On the contrary, the meals he prepares border on gourmet.
"One of my favorite go-to meals is ground bison spaghetti with black bean noodles," he says. "I throw in spinach, kale, and onions on the side, and maybe sweet potato chips cooked in coconut oil and an avocado."
Hightower says he'll usually have a cup of tart cherry juice with it, for a complete meal that gives him plenty of fat, protein, and healthy carbs. That said, he's quick to point out that everyone's body is different, and that part of meal-prepping is planning meals that are appropriate for your tastes.
"Pay attention to what foods give you energy, make you bloated, and are harder to digest," he says. "The more you know your specific nutritional needs, the better you can efficiently create meals and snacks."
Becoming the 90-kilogram World's Strongest Man requires consistency, not only in the gym but, according to Terry Rady, in the kitchen, too.
"To compete at your highest level, you need to be as consistent as you can, especially with your nutrition," Rady says. "If you're missing meals because you have a demanding job, that's one thing. If you're missing them just because you didn't prep, you're not putting in the work."
Unlike Hightower, who makes sure his meals are as delicious as they are nutritious, Rady prefers efficiency above all else.
"Between my full-time job, training, clients, and school, my life is constant chaos," he says. "I have zero time for elaborate meal prep, so I eat for fuel, not taste—although a little hot sauce and peppers can make just about anything taste good."
Rady agrees that meal prep doesn't have to be difficult, especially with tools like slow cookers and rice cookers. All he has to do is schedule it so his food cooks overnight and can be easily divided into containers in the morning. For him, meals are mostly about chicken, broccoli, and rice. Specifically, he preps 5.5 ounces of chicken breast, 250-grams of brown rice, and a cup of raw broccoli with a little olive oil for most meals.
"It's easy to prepare, it tastes good and, more importantly, it fuels my workouts," he says.
Rady also suggests seeking out opportunities and solutions to make your meal-prepping easier.
"If you're able to, find a local meal-prep company. I like Herculean Meal Prep in Indianapolis. If you're an elite athlete, you might be able to find a meal-prep company to sponsor you."
Allison Warrell is a Nationally Qualified Women's Physique competitor who also happens to be a little person with Dwarfism. In fact, she's the shortest person to ever compete in NPC. As with Calabrese, Hightower, and Rady, her ability to consistently prep her meals is a cornerstone of her training.
"Meal prepping frees up my mental energy, especially when I'm going through contest prep for a bodybuilding show," Warrell says. "It helps that I've accumulated things that make prepping easier."
Her best advice is to invest a little bit in the right tools. "Buy a scale, find easy recipes, and get a bag, like a Six-Pack Fitness bag, you can carry all day long to keep your food cold and fresh."
Like Rady, Warrell's go-to meals mostly consist of chicken, rice, and veggies. She'll also throw in some high-protein snacks, like B-Up bars, for easy on-the-go snacks. But unlike some preppers, Warrell breaks up her cooking into a twice-weekly affair.
"I cook food on Sunday and Wednesday evenings," she says. "Doing it twice a week allows me to make adjustments to my diet depending on what's going on in my week."