- Terri K. Lankford, LPC, NCC, LCAS
Top 5 Reasons to Meal Prep For Mental Health
Often times when I start digging into my client’s lives I ask them about their daily habits, routines, or rituals. Anything can be included in this - from what order they do things from the moment they hit snooze on their alarm, to what their workday REALLY looks like, if they listen to the news or music on their way home from work in the car, all the way to how they spend their evenings.
When we’re discussing what triggers anxiety, depression, and so forth its important to learn about daily stressors, this includes even things that we think are not very important like; What’s on your to-do list?
I can tell you one thing on EVERYONE'S to do list and that’s TO EAT. When we get into decision making/problem solving there are whole videos and funny memes pointed right at the question that we ask ourselves and each other several times per day, “What do you want to eat?” Its been known to start arguments and potentially end relationships over this battle… er, I mean.. this simple, harmless question that I wouldn't know anything about. (Ha!)
When it comes to reducing something we spend so much time on and often stress so much about why wouldn’t we make a habit out of something that can not only reduce your stress, but save you time and money throughout your week AND encourage leveling up your eating game which contributes to your overall health and mental wellness??
That’s right people, I’m talking about Meal Prep (and the meal planning that goes along with this)!
Some of you have heard about it. You see the fancy instagram photos. Maybe you follow someone who shows you what they make weekly on snapchat. But you think to yourself, how am I supposed to do ALL of that? Its simple really but we like to overcomplicate things. I will say as a seasoned Meal Prepper, as with anything, with practice comes the ease that you can obtain and even meal planning and prepping can become your habit.
I get asked how to meal plan/meal prep all of the time: What are your food or meal ideas? What order do you do things so it doesn’t take so long? Do you freeze or refrigerate your meals? How much food do you prepare? Do you eat the same thing every day? How do you not get bored?
But before I get to all of that - how do I expect you to buy into starting this as a part of your routine without giving you my Top Reasons for WHY to Meal Prep and how this actually relates to your mental health…
#1 ) Meal Prep Saves You Time & Improves Time Management
The #1 reason people give me for not being able to do (fill in the blank) is… Being “too busy”. The one thing everyone has in common is the amount of hours available to them in one day. We frequently complain that we don’t have enough time. Time to exercise. Time to get everything done on your to do list. Time for Self care. Not enough time to eat healthy. We’ve all be there… trying to check those boxes of √ Done until we’re irritable, tired, and hangry AF. We go to the easiest, quickest options that often ends up being high calorie, low quality snack or fast food … and why? because we don’t have time. Better management of your meals will allow you to better manage time throughout your day.
By prepping your meals for the week ahead of time you have quality, healthy food options ready when you are. Meal prepping comes down to this: spend a few hours prepping food one day, and you save tons of time and agony during the week when you are most stressed. You may argue that it doesn’t take long to hit the Wendy’s drive thru But I’d disagree and argue that with proper planning, it takes me anywhere from 2-4 hours (or less depending on my menu) to prep 15 meals for the week (breakfast, lunch, and dinner). This works out to be only 8-16 minutes per meal. It actually takes more time to stare into the refrigerator and then decide to order out – either for pickup or delivery AND you don’t have to argue about what the hell to eat for dinner :)
I’m all for saving time - its something you cannot buy.
2) Meal Prep Saves You Money
Finances. Money. Mullah. Dough. Call it what you wanna call it but Money is one of the top three stressors that plague the majority of us. And the friction this causes in our lives and our relationships is one more reason to work to manage it more efficiently and overall reduce the amount of stress and anxiety the lack thereof can bring into our day to day lives.
Ok, let’s get something straight. Eating out every day adds up big time! Depending on where you live, breakfast costs between $4-$7, lunch is $9-$14, and dinners are $15+. That adds up to $7,000-$12,000 per year. Have you ever calculated just how much you spend on food every single month? I did and it shocked the shit out of me.
On the high end, you might be paying the equivalent of an average mortgage in the US ($950/mo). If you manage to put away $10,000 into your retirement fund, it grows to $163,114 in 40 years at an average long-term market return (7%/yr). Now there’s some food for thought.
When you meal prep, you meal plan. Once you know what meals you will be eating for the week, grocery shopping will feel like a breeze! Let wandering aimlessly around the aisles be a thing of the past. Show up prepared with a list and divide it into categories such as fruits, vegetables, protein, frozen food, dairy, grains, and fats. It will reduce the impulse buys that add up to be $$$ as well. It will also help you avoid the aisles you don’t need to be in, such as the candy aisle!
With meal prepping, I calculate that the average cost of 3 meals in a day comes to about $4-$7, equal to buying one (cheap) breakfast meal outside. Eating healthy doesn’t have to be expensive if you plan in advance! Buy things in bulk, and don’t forget to take advantage of your freezer. By planning your meals in advance, you will know exactly what you need to buy, instead of going to the store a few times each week to pick up last minute ingredients. You will also be freed from buying pricey meals at lunchtime.
That’s money in the bank for a rainy day!
3) Meal Planning Is an Investment In your Health - forcing you to eat healthier.
You know that uneasy feeling you get after you bite into that juicy, delicious double-stack burger at the new fancy burger joint? Or the fried chicken sandwich you’re stuffing your face with while you’re driving… That thought of “Oh I really shouldn’t have this, but… it tastes soooo good!" You know how this ends. Love handles and high blood pressure and a trip to the bathroom, my friend!
The best part about meal prep is that you get to choose ahead of time what you will be eating! Meal prepping forces you to pick and choose your ingredients. You are in control of the entire process and know exactly what you’re putting in your body. There’s no guesswork involved – you will know your exact intake every day. You want to lose weight? Control your diet by planning ahead, so you don’t give in to temptation at your weakest moment (deciding what to eat last minute when you’re hungry). People who do this are able to eat cleaner than those who don’t, with ease! You won’t be scrambling to find something to eat, and risk being exposed to unhealthy options, because your meal is already prepared, and it’s healthy! The benefits of eating a whole foods diet are endless. Good nutrition won’t contribute to just better fitting jeans, but it will also contribute to heart health, gut health, and mental health as well as many other factors!
4) Meal Prepping Frees Up Mental Energy
How many times a week do you stress over what to eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner? Wait until the last minute and make bad decisions on what to eat? Peering over at what your co-worker is having and think, gee that looks delicious. You’re not alone!
Remember how I was talking about decision making/problem solving earlier? Depending on your job - how many decisions do you have to make every day? Now add that onto potential indecisiveness + everything else your brain is focused on during the day and LAWDY we put in a lot of effort deciding things. What if you could reduce that by at least 3-5 decisions per day?
I used to go through this agonizing mental process EVERY. SINGLE. MEAL. Because I love food, a good portion of my brain was devoted to planning my next meal. Meal prepping takes away all of that. It makes me feel good knowing that all of that is already covered. All I have to do is go pull something out of the fridge or my lunch bag. I always have a delicious, nutritious, meal waiting for me.
Freeing up Mental Energy REDUCES Stress and improves overall anxiety.
Stress can affect your immune system, cause digestive issues, and disrupt your sleeping patterns. Coming home from work and trying to come up with a plan for dinner can be stressful. Not with meal prep! You can say goodbye to the “what’s for dinner” stress and relax knowing that your meal just needs to be heated up!
5) Meal Prepping Ups your Mental Game #WillPower
If you want to be the best in anything you do, in life, in health, in mental wellness, you need to focus on winning the mental game.
If you’re not mentally prepared to take on the week and all it throws at you, you’ve already lost the battle with yourself. By preparing your nutrition for the entire week through a couple hours of meal prepping you are mentally preparing yourself for the week.
As you get into the swing of consistently eating healthy, you will gradually stop craving sugar and other fattening foods. Keeping a routine in place is key to healthy eating, and you will find it becomes easier to turn down the foods you know aren't going to make you feel and think at your best!
An added benefit is the beauty of meal prep is that it teaches you balance. Packing your meals in containers refrains you from being able to reach for more (HELLO Portion Control). You have control of putting the foods into your body that are going to FUEL you to have more energy AND think more clearly. You can still treat yourself from time to time, but monitoring how much and what you eat is an important factor.
Examples of how planning your meals affects your mental health :
You can NOT consume High-fat dairy, and fried, refined and sugary foods, which have little nutritional value and which research shows that a diet that consists primarily of these kinds of foods significantly increases risk of depression. (1) You can LIMIT sugary drinks and excessive amounts of caffeine. Sugary drinks have empty calories and damage tooth enamel. Caffeine should also be avoided in excess, as it can trigger panic attacks in people who have anxiety disorders. (2)
(1) Nardi AE, Valenca AM, Nascimento I, Freire RC, Veras AB, de-Melo-Neto VL, et al. A caffeine challenge test in panic disorder patients, their healthy first-degree relatives, and healthy controls. Depress Anxiety. 2008;25(10):847-53
(2) Akbaraly TN, Brunner EJ, Ferrie JE, Marmot MG, Kivimaki M, Singh-Manoux A. Dietary pattern and depressive symptoms in middle age. Br J Psychiatry. 2009;195:408-413.
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