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.