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.