Every Sunday night as I’m binging Instagram stories as if they were the newest episode of GOT, I can’t help but notice the perfectly curated, meal prep masterpieces that take over my feed. I used to be one of them.
Five years ago, I had just moved to NYC. I was teaching spin at a local gym, training for a half marathon, working at Integrative Nutrition, getting my health coach certificate, and spent a lot of time cooking and posting recipes on my then-blog. If you looked at my bookshelf or browsing history at that time, you would have found a lot of “healthy recipes” bookmarked.
One of my favorite Saturday morning activities was sitting on the couch with a cup of coffee earmarking my cookbooks and revisiting the blogs I’d bookmarked trying to decide what meals I would make for the week. I’d head up to Whole Foods at Columbus Circle with my reusable tote and list in hand to get all of the items on my list.
I had become a meal prep queen. Well, me and the rest of the internet.
There are a lot of benefits to meal prep:
- Saving money
- Less food waste
- Decreased temptation to order delivery
- Developing healthier habits
- Eating less packaged and processed foods
For me, not so much.
The benefits of meal prep are real, but for me, it created more rules and control around eating — something that is pervasive in diet culture today. I can’t really blame “meal-prep,” per se, as it’s an implication of culture and society’s depiction of what it means to be healthy.
I’m a big believer that creating space and room for spontaneity is where magic happens. This includes eating. Social media and diet culture create standards and expectations for what, how, and when we should be eating in order to be “healthy.” But what I’ve learned is that these arbitrary rules can actually create negative relationships with food and control. Only you can decide what, when, and how you eat.
Over the past few years, in an effort to decrease my anxiety, go with the flow, and have more self-compassion especially around my body image, I’ve made a conscious effort to relinquish control and be a rule-breaker.
I LOVE cooking and I LOVE food. I believe food is fuel and nourishment. If we put good things in we get good things out. However, eating and food should also come with freedom, enjoyment, and love — not restriction, deprivation, and worry.
Meal prep deprived me of the freedom, enjoyment, and love. Here’s why it didn’t work for me.
My brain overpowered my intuition
Our bodies are always speaking to us, and often we push those signals away because our brain is so powerful. I didn’t know how to tell my brain shut it and really listen to my body. Meal prep exacerbated this for me. My body would tell me that I needed cooked foods or maybe even a slice of pizza, but since I had meal-prepped, all I was left with was a raw kale salad. I’d eat it and feel unsatisfied and still hungry at the end of my meal. Being able to listen to what my body is telling me allows me to leave meals feeling more satisfied. Sometimes those meals are nutrient-dense and other times they’re not. This used to scare me — like if I ate the pizza I’d then crave pizza all the time, but that’s simply not the case. Our bodies want to be fed well. Just listen.
Created a negative relationship with food
I find that trying to control the what, when, and how I eat had a negative impact on my mental health. Since one of the major tenets of meal prep is health, when I meal prepped, I rarely made “indulgent” meals. This created too many “good” and “bad” labels of food. Food itself is not good or bad and we are not good or bad for eating this or that.
I spent way too much time thinking about food instead of other more important things
Between creating the list, shopping, and cooking, I was spending HOURS and HOURS thinking about food and my health. Even when I wasn’t doing an activity directly related to it, I’d be thinking of it. I’m a food LOVER, especially when enjoyed with other people, but there are so many other wonderful, beautiful things in life and people I want to focus my energy on. The funny thing is when you focus on these things, the actual food becomes so much less important.
Planning stressed me out
You should see the number of sticky notes sticking out of my cookbooks. I love following a good recipe, but I would drive myself crazy trying to decide what I wanted for the entire week. What if I didn’t feel like having salmon next Friday or raspberries for breakfast on Saturday? It took up so much bandwidth and decision-making power and I’d rather use my decision making capacity and energy elsewhere.
I felt less connected to my food
One of the things I love most about cooking is how connected I feel to my food. I love seeing all of the ingredients that go in, how it’s made, and how much love is put into it. It might seem corny, but cooking our food can help us go the extra mile when we’re trying to eat more mindfully and enjoyably. Even though I was cooking my own food for meal prep, it was really just a matter of reheating, sitting down, and eating quickly. This is great for when we’re short on time, but most nights I’d rather feel the heat from the stove, smell the spices, and physically sprinkle the salt.
I felt guilty going out to eat
Eating with friends is one of the greatest joys in life. When I do this, the food barely matters. It’s all about the conversation and energy of being together. When I was meal prepping, I would feel so guilty going out to eat when I had food ready in the fridge. Even though it would have been totally fine eating the planned meal the next day, my mind induced guilt. I missed out on a lot of friend time because of this.
All that said, I know I can’t leave my meals completely up to fate, but I’ve shifted my perspective around what “meal planning” means. It doesn’t have to be perfectly proportioned, well-rounded meals laid out in a symmetrical pattern with the perfect filter.
Here’s what I do instead:
- Cook once, eat twice (maybe even thrice!). When I make dinner, I’ll just make double of everything and throw it into some containers to eat whenever I feel like it.
- Make foods that can be mixed and matched. Think brown rice, beans, salmon, sweet potatoes.
- Keep staples on-hand at all times. My go-to’s are lots of greens, bars to keep in my desk, nuts, oatmeal, gluten-free bread, fruit, peanut butter, avocado, lentil pasta, pesto, sweet potatoes, grains, veggies, beans, and frozen veggie burgers.
- Make nutritious and simple meals that always take 30 minutes or less.
Beyond any kind of food planning though, the most important thing that I do now is let go.
It’s OK if I don’t want to eat breakfast until 11am or if I’m hungry at 6am.
It’s OK if I want pancakes for dinner, and it’s OK if I’d rather go out to lunch than have what I brought.
I’ll admit my control center always perks up a bit when I see the drool-worthy oatmeal bakes, overnight oats, egg cups, mason jar salads, and pre-sliced fruit, but I know that shifting my perspective has not only made me healthier mentally, but physically too. It’s so much more fulfilling not worrying about what’s on my actual plate but more concerned being connected with my plate of life.