Meal prep 101 for busy people: Seven tips from a fitness model's kitchen

Updated: Aug 22, 2020

In my teens and early 20's, I had zero idea about nutrition. Honestly, my diet was pretty terrible.

Most of the time, lunch would be take away food on the run - questionably fresh sushi, a fruit smoothie, or a croissant from the bakery. I would snack on really any food available - usually biscuits, a chocolate bar or fruit. Breakfast was cereal. Dinner was probably the only meal of the day of any nutritional value as it usually contained some protein and vegetables.

I had energy crashes, sugar cravings, head aches, acne and food intolerances. I didn't realise it at the time, but I felt like crap. I didn't fuel my body and brain to perform at my best.

In the last five years, I have dramatically altered my diet. And I look and feel like a different person.

I have never been as busy as I am now, and I prepare almost every meal that I eat ahead of time. I don't miss meals, and I refuse to put crap food in my body just because I have a frantic week. I know what foods to eat to sustain my energy levels and boost my mental focus. I tend to function best on six meals a day, and I balance it easily with full time work, consistent training and a life.

Why do I need to cook my own meals? Can't I just watch what I eat, and order better foods?

Yes, you could try to do it this way. But you'd have to be pretty disciplined. And it would probably be more difficult.

The easiest way to keep your nutrition on point and fast-track your results is to prepare your own meals. Why? It's simple:

  • You have complete control over what you put in your mouth. You know each and every ingredient, and you set the portion size. This way, you can avoid hidden artificial flavours and additives commonly in pre-made food, and you are less likely to over-eat.

  • You become more aware of what you eat. This means that you are more likely to make better food choices on a sub-conscious level because you understand what to eat, why to eat it, how much to eat and when to eat different foods.

  • You can track and measure your food. Information is power. It puts you in the driver's seat of your body composition, and you will be able to make tailored adjustments to your diet later on to break plateaus and accelerate your progress.

But I - a) don't know how to, b) don't have time to, and c) don't like to cook!

Meal prep does not require any particular skill. It's a process. You can optimise your meal prep techniques to minimise your time in the kitchen. It definitely helps if you like to cook, but it's really beside the point. If you truly want to improve your health and fitness, then you will be willing to do what it takes to make changes.

Here's how I make it work.

1. Cook 70% of your meals in bulk and schedule it in

Sunday afternoon is usually my 'cook up a storm' day. I will choose 2 or 3 protein-based dishes that I want to make for the week ahead that keep in the fridge - eg, a slow cook beef dish, a chicken stir fry, or rissoles - and some vegetables. I use similar recipes that I like and I know will work. This bulk cook accounts for about 70% of the meals I eat in a week.

2. Cook 30% of your meals in real time

I cook about 30% of my meals when I am about to eat. I do this at breakfast and dinner. I like to make the time to cook first thing and last thing to help me wake up / wind down. To maximise variety, I choose foods for my first and last meals that are best served immediately - eg, a salad, or a seared steak or fried barramundi or salmon fillet. This also avoids 'meal prep monotony' - if all your meals come out of pre-packed containers, it can become tedious, fast. If you are bored with your meals, you are less likely to stick to your diet.

3. Choose a time when the kitchen is free

If you want to cook efficiently, you need space in the kitchen. Don't choose a time when your family, partner or house mates are all hungry and likely to be around to distract you. I usually take over my kitchen on a Sunday around 11.30 am / midday for no more than 2 hours.

4. Never do one thing at one time

Have multiple dishes on the go at once to optimise the time you spend in the kitchen. You will become better at this as you practice and start to feel comfortable with certain recipes. For example, I will always start a slow cook first, and then prepare my vegetables to roast in the oven or steam on the stove.

5. Incentivise your time in the kitchen

I usually listen to a podcast or music while I cook. Time is precious, so why not use your meal prep time to unwind while you prepare for your week ahead? This also helps to stop procrastination because you can allot your time in the kitchen based on the duration of a podcast episode or an album.

6. Mix and match for variety

The easiest way to create variety is with vegetables and fats. For example, you could steam broccoli, stir fry cabbage and make some cauliflower rice. This means that you have 3 different bases for your protein-based meals. You can also add healthy fats for flavour if needed (ie, a tsp of coconut butter, or pepitas, or a tbsp of olive oil). This way, you can still minimise the amount of times you need to cook, but you don't have to eat the same meal each day.

7. Pre-pack on a rolling basis

I prefer to pack my meals on a day by day basis, rather than pack all of my meals for the week on a Sunday. This way, I can decide on what I feel like for lunch, and I can easily make each meal a little different. I also like to do this because it makes your food less 'sterile'. I love food. I don't want to turn my kitchen into a production line. I'd rather make up my meals each day to connect with my food, rather than turn my fridge into a collection of identical Tupperware containers.

Take home message

These are the strategies that I follow to balance full-time work / study, training and nutrition, and a personal life efficiently and effectively. I apply the same techniques to my competition prep.

If you are new to meal prep, it will take some time to master. But once you create the habit, it will be easy to maintain, even in the hectic times.