Thursday, June 7, 2012

Quick & Easy Meal Planning & Prep for Athletes, Part 3

This post is part of an ongoing series of articles addressing meal planning, prep, and menu ideas for endurance athletes. To view the first and second articles in this series, please click here and here, respectively.

Today, I'll be concluding my list of food prep shortcuts and practical time-saving strategies to help athletes better plan and prepare their meals:

8. Think and plan for your long-term nutritional needs.
  • Take inventory of your pantry and keep a list of commonly used, healthy non-perishables. Stock up on nutritious dry goods (i.e., staples like legumes and whole grains, etc.).'
  • Make and freeze commonly used ingredients for future use. For example, if you are boiling a chicken, save the meat for other dishes (i.e., chicken tacos or tamales, etc.) and then freeze the stock. Then you can defrost the stock at a future date and use it to make quick, easy soups or add it to entrées for additional flavor. If you purée fresh pumpkin to use as an ingredient for pumpkin pie in the fall, then you can freeze the leftovers and use them in December to make pumpkin soup for the holidays. (Or, if you're like most people, you'll probably just use the canned stuff. I like to make it fresh and then freeze it at its optimal ripeness to maximize flavor and nutritional content.)  -->Tip: To prevent freezer burn, keep your freezer well-stocked, at a constant temperature, and fill your containers as full as possible before freezing the contents. If you are freezing items in double-layered plastic freezer bags to conserve space, be sure to remove as many air bubbles as possible before sealing.
  • Stock up on frozen fruit, and use it for smoothies; it'll also double as an ice cube replacement; however, unlike ice cubes, frozen fruit won't water down your smoothies. :) 

9. Do as much kitchen prep work in advance as possible, wisely utilizing free time on nights and weekends. This makes the process of preparing meals go immeasurably faster. This way, when it's time to cook and serve dinner for the family, you'll be able to relax a bit more and spend more time with your family, as a good deal of the prep work has already been done.
  • Depending upon how long something keeps, you can either prepare a particular component of a meal (i.e., a simple salad dressing, easy homemade tomato sauce, etc.) or the entire meal itself (i.e., soup, etc.) a day or two in advance and, then based upon what it is, either refrigerate it or freeze it for future use. For example, make the peanut sauce for the chicken satay a day or two in advance and then refrigerate it. Or, marinate the fish the night before, dumping all of the ingredients into a resealable plastic bag and then tossing them into the refrigerator. Then, all you have to do is take it out of the fridge the next day and cook. :) Or, an even more efficient technique is to marinate two different main courses in the same prep session, placing them into the fridge in separate resealable plastic bags. That way, you've just prepped for two consecutive nights of meals and are way ahead of the game.
  • Cook a single, large meal on a weekend and then refrigerate any leftovers, which can then be served as different meals to be eaten over the first few days of the upcoming week. Or, prepare several meals at once (for more variety) and freeze them for future use. If you'll be using the former strategy, just be sure to pick dishes that won't spoil after a day or two. (For example, cooked meats, tomato sauces, soups, and some homemade condiments will keep longer than cooked rice or refrigerated, raw marinated meats.) For those refrigerated dinners with a shorter shelf-life, it's probably best not to make as much and just eat the leftovers for the next day's lunch. If you'll be using the latter strategy (i.e., freezing leftovers), just be sure to pick dishes that are known to freeze well.
  • Make more than you need and freeze the leftovers. This is a slight variation on the above suggestion, except that one large meal is made with the express intention of freezing the remainder, versus eating it over the next several days. Eating leftovers saves both time and money, and freezing them means you won't waste food and also won't have to eat them the next day if you don't feel like it. :)
  • Another strategy is to also pick entrée recipes that share many common ingredients and prepare them in advance. For example, chop up the garlic, shallots, and other common ingredients, divide up the portion sizes for each recipe, and put each one in a covered container or resealable plastic bags. Use them for lunch and then dinner, or for two nights of dinner in a row. This will save you a lot of time especially when the week starts to get really busy. This is a great technique to use when you don't have enough time to prepare entire meals in advance but would like to get a jump on the food prep nonetheless.
  • You can also save yourself time and money by premixing non-refrigerated items like your own healthy snack mixes or DIY dried spice mixes, etc., which take virtually no time at all. See my recipe site (i.e., Cooking with Corey) for some corresponding examples. (Click on the "snacks" and "spice mixes" tags to view some of these recipe ideas.

10. Cut down on kitchen prep work by using healthy, pre-prepared ingredients with zero or minimal processing. Here are some practical examples:
  • If you're short on time, go to the fresh produce and/or "organic/health food" aisles and select the healthiest choices. It's actually rather easy to toss together a simple, produce-centric meal with little to no effort. (In some cases, you might not even have to turn on the burner or your stove or fire up your grill.) Add a simple healthy protein source et le voilà, you have a quick and easy meal. -->Tip: Avoid pre-washed bags of salad as they often contain substandard lettuce that is often soaked or rinsed in chlorine bleach. (The same goes for many other types of bagged produce as well.) Not only does this process strip the salad of its nutrients by denaturing (i.e., destroying) molecules containing valuable phytonutrients, but the cumulative effect of repeatedly ingesting these denatured molecules has a rather deleterious effect upon cell composition (and hence tissues) in the human body.
  •  Don't forget to check out your supermarket deli or salad bar for healthy selections. Depending upon where you go or what stores are available to you, you might be pleasantly surprised by some of the amazing selections you can find if you just know where to look. I've often found healthy food selections even in some of the most generic of supermarkets. For example, our Safeway has several fresh and healthy gourmet selections that can either be used as components for a meal or the meal itself. Look for items like precooked organic, free range chickens or turkeys (i.e., roasters), Mediterranean selections like tabouleh and hummus, or pre-prepared ingredients like fresh roasted red peppers, etc. It's a lot less expensive than a restaurant and also means you'll be spending far less time in the kitchen.
  • Don't forget to ask the butcher or the fishmonger to pre-prepare (i.e., pre-cut, fillet, and/or debone, etc.) selections for you. They can expertly prepare food for you in no time at all, which can save you a whole lot of time in the kitchen. You can also ask them to cut pieces into individual portion sizes of your choosing. Remember that 3-4 oz. of meat/fish counts as one serving. (A serving of bone-in selections is going to be a little bit heavier, and varies according to the particular cut you choose.)
  • Certain kinds of canned or frozen produce will also work in a pinch. The key to keeping it healthy in this particular instance is to think "no or low" when it comes to processing, sodium, and preservatives. For example, you could use no-sugar, low-sodium tomato sauce from a can to make eggplant tomato marinara. When available, I tend to pick frozen over canned. This is because certain types of frozen produce can sometimes contain more nutrients than some of the "fresh" selections in the produce aisle as frozen foods are typically picked fresh and frozen at the peak of their freshness. Other pre-packaged alternatives include some of the non-refrigerated cartons found in the organic/health food aisles. For example, low sodium organic soups can make decent substitutions when you don't have time to cook from scratch.
  • Use precooked selections that you've either bought or pre-prepared yourself. Use shelled, precooked shrimp that's already been deveined. Use last night's chicken you made for soup meat, sandwiches, or chicken enchiladas.
  • Choose foods that cook quickly or can be served raw. For example, buy no-bake lasagna noodles or choose mussels, which cook in 5 minutes flat. And then there are California sushi rolls, which can be bought fresh at the supermarket and require no cooking at all.
  • If you're in a rush, use dried spices instead of fresh to save time. That way, there's no chopping involved. :)
  • And last but not least, remember that "pre-prepared" doesn't always have to mean that it's made by someone else. :) Seize the moment (when you can carve out the time) and pre-prepare nutritious, easy-to-make meals and/or meal components yourself. That way, you'll keep things fresh, simple, efficient, and healthy.

And that's a wrap. :) Next up in the “Quick & Easy Mealing Planning & Prep” series is part 4, in which I'll be providing quick and easy meal ideas and recipes that can be used during race training season.

-Corey (a.k.a. "Cyberpenguin.")

For more tips on healthy eating, sports nutrition, and wellness, feel free to follow my public Facebook feed, recipe/nutrition blog, Cooking with Corey, and/or running blog, See Corey Run. My recipes and sports nutrition insights will also be featured in an upcoming series of nutritional lifestyle books for athletes. For more information, please visit The Athlete's Cookbook Facebook page.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Quick & Easy Meal Planning & Prep for Athletes, Part 2

This post is part of an ongoing series of articles addressing meal planning, prep, and menu ideas for endurance athletes. To view the previous article in this series, please click here.

Today, I'll be offering a list of food prep shortcuts and practical strategies that athletes can use to save time and better plan their meals.

1. Multi-task in the kitchen. Chop the vegetables while you're waiting for the water (for the soup or pasta, etc.) to come to a rolling boil. Soak the lentils overnight for the next night's dinner while you're unwinding in the evening after dinner. If you happen to come home for lunch, set out the kitchen tools and non-perishable ingredients and you plan to use for that night's dinner and place them on the kitchen countertop before you leave to go back to work. You get the idea. Try to multitask in the kitchen as much as possible to expedite meal prep as much as possible.

2. Delegate small, easily manageable, age- and skill-level appropriate (!) food prep tasks to your children or other family members. This time-saving strategy is also a great way to involve your entire family in a fun group activity. Not only is it great for family bonding and bringing everyone closer together, but it's also an opportunity to get them excited about food and cooking, and to educate them about food preparation and healthy food/lifestyle choices.

3. Use thinly sliced cuts or tenderized meat whenever possible, since these preparations will take less time to cook. When made in a grill pan, thinly sliced or tenderized boneless chicken breasts only take about 4-5 minutes per side. Not only does food cook faster, but a grill pan will also drain any excess fats/oils away from the meat. Toss together a salad and some fruit for dessert, and you're all set for dinner. :)

4. Use your outdoor grill. Grilling can be a lot healthier than letting ingredients soak in oil or their own fats. If you've got a good attitude and a hearty constitution, you can actually grill outside all year round. My own family has been known to grill in the dead of winter. Yes, even when it snows. We just put on our parkas, hats, and gloves and go outside and grill. :) A word of caution when grilling in outerwear: Please leave the scarves inside of the house, unless you want to catch on fire. ;) Of course, make sure your grill has a hood before you attempt grilling in adverse challenging weather conditions. Lol.

5. Fill your hydration system bottles in advance and store them on a refrigerator door shelf.
That way, you'll have them ready at a moment's notice. This is especially handy for those times when you might be half-asleep (and thus, a little bit forgetful) as you head out the door for your early morning workout. ;) If you're like me, you've got a lot of available fridge door shelf space, because that's where all of the refrigerated, processed/pickled/preserved food in many households would typically go. ;) After all, there's no need to store something that doesn't exist in one's house. :)

6. Find quality kitchen gadgets that cut your prep time in half. They don't have to be expensive, just well-made and functional. Start out by equipping your kitchen with the most basic and practical of time-saving devices -- i.e., tools like a chef's knife, lemon reamer (and/or citrus juicer -- the glass jars fitted with a citrus juicer attachment are particularly practical), vegetable peeler, jar opener, tongs, cooking and baking spatulas, cutting board, strainer, colander, funnel, soup ladle, basting brush, whisk, salad spinner, blender, food processor, etc.-- and then, if you have the means and the kitchen space, expand and supplement from there (i.e., microplane zester, oil diffuser, meat mallet/tenderizer, mandoline and slash-resistant safety gloves, immersion hand blender, electric stand mixer, etc.). However, only buy what you know you'll truly use and have enough room to store. This way, it'll be easier to keep your kitchen clean and orderly, versus letting it slowly slide into a cluttered, organizational nightmare. ;) Nothing wastes more time and energy than the frustrating (and sometimes fruitless!) task of searching for buried kitchenware and then, once found, having to gingerly untangle/extract them from the other surrounding kitchen implements lest it cause a major cacophonous disturbance. Simply put, one's kitchen prep should not resemble a game of Jenga. ;)

7. Make sure you're using the correct, as well as the best, tools and the techniques for the job. Kitchen prep goes a lot faster when you know which tools to use and how to use them. :) Here are some quick tips to help you in that regard:
  • Use a chef's knife to chop vegetables and sharpen it when necessary. While a paring knife or a steak knife might still be able to do the job, a sharpened chef's knife will allow you to chop a great deal faster. :) If you don't have much previous experience or skill in this area, watch YouTube videos to improve your knife skills and then practice these techniques the next time you're preparing food in the kitchen. 
  • Use the edge of a spoon to peel fresh ginger instead of a vegetable peeler. Not only will you preserve more of the ginger this way, but the peeling will actually go much faster. This is because you can get a better and much closer grip with a spoon, plus there are no blades to worry about. Also, due to fresh ginger root's rough and knobby surface, a spoon does a better job of peeling around the bumps and hard to reach spots. A lot of the time, a peeler just won't cut it, quite literally. :)
  • Learn the quickest way to peel garlic. Most intermediate-level amateur chefs already know the traditionally recommended method, i.e., whacking a garlic clove with the side of a chef's knife. However, did you know that there's a much better and faster way that to peel garlic doesn't even require a knife? And the best part? It won't leave your hands smelling like garlic. :)

And thus ends part 2. There are more quick and easy food prep shortcuts and strategies yet to come. (Part 3 will, of course, continue where part 2 left off....)

-Corey (a.k.a. "Cyberpenguin.")

For more tips on healthy eating, sports nutrition, and wellness, feel free to follow my public Facebook feed, recipe/nutrition blog, Cooking with Corey, and/or running blog, See Corey Run. My recipes and sports nutrition insights will also be featured in an upcoming series of nutritional lifestyle books for athletes. For more information, please visit The Athlete's Cookbook Facebook page.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Quick & Easy Meal Planning & Prep for Athletes, Part 1

There's no doubt about it: we endurance athletes are busy people. Over the years, we’ve become adept at juggling our many activities, events, and responsibilities, honing our carefully timed schedules like a well-oiled machine. Our training snaps into place like it’s the central interlocking piece of a 5000-piece jigsaw puzzle. :)

When we’re in training mode, particularly for long distance events, time is at a premium. Even for the seasoned athletes among us, the planning and execution phases of our training still takes time. Of course, this is because we’re constantly in search of new strategies to improve our performance and are continually learning from our mistakes. We keep up with the latest information and incorporate it into the process, refining it and making corresponding adjustments and course corrections where necessary. Training is a continual growth process, and its planning and execution phases require a great deal of time and energy. It preoccupy our thoughts and permeates our being. It’s one of the hallmarks of being an endurance athlete, because that’s just how we’re built.

As part of this process, good general and sports nutrition is an obvious must for any athlete. So, we must allocate time for the planning of this very important cornerstone of our training as well. However, once we’ve gotten some initial strategies in place to manage this aspect, we can minimize and reallocate the time spent on this activity, and then pretty much cruise on auto-pilot. And, like our training regimen, menu planning and cooking are most successful when they're accomplished with forethought and a plan. :) To help you out in this regard, I will be providing some quick time-saving tips for both meal planning and cooking, which will be serialized into a sequence of separate posts. And so, without further ado, below is my first recommendation and topic of discussion in this series:

Use technology to help you master your meal planning, grocery shopping, and cooking. I know I’ve stated this in a previous post, but it’s such a crucial part of the equation that it bears repeating all the same. :) There are so many useful online resources, mobile apps, desktop/online widgets, and computer software products to help you organize and manage these activities. I personally prefer using online platforms and smartphone apps, as the former offers the advantage of centralized databases that can be accessed from virtually anywhere while the later is mobile and any stored data can be synchronized to the cloud or one’s computer or mobile devices for backup purposes. So of course, these are the types of tools I’ll be specifically addressing below. This list is by no means meant to be an all-inclusive but rather a brief review of useful resources that have, at one point or another, come across my radar:

iPhone/iPad/iTouch Apps:
1. MealBoard: It's inexpensive -- i.e., only $2 (!), but you get a lot for those $2. I love it because it ensures that I stay organized and on track with my cooking, eating, and grocery shopping, which in turn, is also excellent for overall time-management. The app is feature-rich and allows for a high-degree of customization: it allows you to link to recipes from the web or add your own. You can then populate your grocery shopping list based on your meal plan. You can also make meal plan templates from existing meal plans you'd previously created so that you don't have to manually type everything out each week. Any time you can automate and organize tasks, that'll free up more time for training and other life activities.
2. Groceries: Here’s another inexpensive app ($1.99) that I absolutely love. Simple and elegantly designed, this app is truly a time-saver. I use it instead of MealBoard’s built-in grocery shopping list because it's got a lot more features for this specific functionality and frankly, is far better designed for the task. You can create multiple customizable lists, add new items, and favorite items you most commonly purchase. You can also find existing items and quickly add new ones right from the search bar. Also, when grocery items are added to lists, they are organized by aisles, which also really saves a lot of time when you’re walking through the supermarket. And, if your grocery store is organized a little bit differently than the typical generic grocery store, you can even add or rename aisle categories or delete the ones you don’t ever use. And last but certainly not least, grocery lists can be sent to any number of recipients and then easily imported into the Groceries app on their mobile devices. This feature is particularly useful for those "honey do" lists, especially for those after-work or weekend shopping trips when one's mate might be in a different location. :)

Android Apps:
Since I’ve never owned a Droid smartphone, I can’t offer my own personal opinions on these apps, go into any great detail, or compare them to similar iPhone apps, except to say that below is a list of some highly rated equivalents. :)
1. Mighty Grocery Shopping List ($3.99).
2. Grocery Gadget (cost varies by platform). Also available for the iPhone and various other mobile platforms.)
3. Food Planner (free).

Online Tools:
Please note that I haven’t personally used these, since I use smartphone apps instead. However, these are the ones that, upon brief inspection, look like they are the most promising (and highly rated) of the bunch.
1. Meals Matter (free).
2. How Does She Do It (free). It’s also available as an app for both iPhone and Droid, neither of which I’ve tried.
3. Food on the Table (free). There are also Droid and iPhone apps, but again, I haven't tried either.
4. eMeals (paid service).
5. cozi (free).
6. GroceryiQ (free): This site gives you two options: You can create online grocery lists or use their online grocery shopping list app for both iPhone and Android. However, since the iPhone app got very mixed reviews, this is why I’ve listed it under the “online tools” category instead. :) Who knows, maybe the Droid version is better. However, it does have a barcode scanner feature, integrated online coupons, and the ability to store coupons directly to your savings card, among other features, all of which seem like they’d be highly useful.
6. Online supermarket-specific shopping lists: Several supermarkets now allow you to create (free) online shopping lists directly from their websites as well.

No smartphone or just don’t feel like typing your lists into a mobile device or a computer? No worries, you can still stay organized. :) The solution is simple: Get a binder and fill it with weekly (or monthly) meal planning calendar pages, using an online template. (If you only need to plan weekly dinners, this template will probably suit you best.)

And that concludes the first post in the "Quick & Easy Meal Planning & Prep for Athletes" series. Feel free to comment below if you’ve had experience with any of these tools. We'd love to hear your feedback about your experiences, as it would very likely benefit other readers of this blog as well. Thank you!

Wishing you health, happiness, and a successful training season,


For more tips on healthy eating, sports nutrition, and wellness, feel free to follow my public Facebook feed, recipe/nutrition blog, Cooking with Corey, and/or running blog, See Corey Run. My recipes and sports nutrition insights will also be featured in an upcoming series of nutritional lifestyle books for athletes. For more information, please visit The Athlete's Cookbook Facebook page.

Friday, June 1, 2012

About To Get Back On The Horse That Threw Me

On my last post I went into detail how my day transpired at the Ironman 70.3 Florida two weeks ago.  I have studied the reasons for my struggles that day in detail and I hope that a few answers I may have come up, thanks to input received from many friends, can help me achieve race success once more.

Upon further investigation, and just to add insult to injury, I found out, by analyzing my Garmin data, that my actual swim "moving time" was just over 32 minutes, well under my expected goal of 45 minutes in the swim.  But as posted earlier, my actual swim time was 1:10 and change.  This simply means that I spent almost 40 minutes nursing muscle cramps.  Oh... what could have been!

But, I'm not one to sit back and cry over spilled milk.  It happened.  Period.  Now it's up to me to pick up the pieces and move on.  And so I have done.

I returned to the water, albeit a pool, two days after the race and to open water ten days later.  Both instances went without a hitch.  It is my hope to carry that on to tomorrow's Mach Tenn Triathlon (sprint distance) in Tullahoma, TN.  It has a 1100 yd swim.  Plenty of time to test my work.

One of the obvious elements I've been working on is on ensuring I have plenty of minerals in my system.  Specifically, potassium. I will ensure to eat a banana about one hour before "go time".  Also, I bought a minerals supplement at my local vitamin store that I will take with my water before the race.

Someone pointed out to me that I need to make sure not to over do it due to the fact that the body may start retaining liquids.  If this happens, it could lead to plenty of discomfort as well.   Oh my, the balancing act!

I also need to make sure that I do plenty of stretching and a good warm up before the race.  Did not take the time to do either in Florida.  And we all know that no matter how slow we want to start the swim, adrenaline kicks in.  This could have also been another factor with the cramping issue.

As for the rest of the race?  Gotta have Faith.  Have to stay Focused. And must Finish with a smile on my face.  That's the plan, the only plan I take with me on each and every race I participate.  This one will not be any different.