What the Toughest Race Taught Me About Meal Planning

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

I’ve tried and failed at meal planning more times than I can remember — not for a lack of understanding its benefits, or for making the effort, or wanting to succeed. When it comes down to it, I never had a plan that was right or sustainable for me and my family.

After signing up for an Ironman, I knew that this had to change immediately. Between work, life, and training, I knew if my husband and I wanted to avoid hangry meltdowns and nonstop takeout, meal planning had to happen. Here’s how I finally made it work, and stuck with it.

(Image credit: Kelli Foster)

Failure Bred Success

When my now-husband, Lucien, and I registered for Ironman Mt. Tremblant two summers ago, we were training for a couple Half Ironman races and preparing for our wedding. To say it was a busy time is an understatement. I wrote off meal planning as just one more thing to do, and told myself I didn’t have time for it.

Huge mistake. In short, dinnertime was a constant disaster and rarely satisfying. Most nights it was a last-minute rush to throw something together. Other nights felt like total defeat as we resorted to pizza or Chipotle. As we headed into Ironman training this year, we both knew it was time to make meal planning a priority — for the sake of our hungry stomachs and our marriage.

(Image credit: Gina Eykemans)

The Plan That Worked for Us

What do we need meal planning to help us accomplish? Answering that question was our first order of business. As it turns out, it was the easiest to tackle. For starters, we wanted to avoid a repeat of last summer.

Outside of work, nearly all of our energy was getting dumped into training. I remember the first time I heard that it wasn’t uncommon for Michael Phelps to eat upwards to 10,000 calories a day; I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. One Ironman later and I totally get it! We certainly weren’t eating that much, but our caloric needs were much higher than normal. Food was our fuel, so the core of our plan had to be about functional cooking and eating. We needed an arsenal of healthy and satisfying meals and snacks to carry us through the whole day — from breakfast to bedtime.

Since everything else in life was happening on a schedule, I felt like it was also the most logical way to approach meal planning. From there, a three-pronged approach to meal planning was put in place. Our goal was to make it sustainable and to ensure it worked for us.

Our 3-Prong Plan

  • Customize a plan for success: Creating a bank of recipes is key.
  • Shop on Saturdays: Or, accept what works for you.
  • Sunday prep: The no-fail approach to a successful week of meals.

Step 1: Plan (and Then Test, Adjust, and Plan Again)

I happily took the reigns on this step — and my husband was just as happy to let them go.

For starters, I created a bank of recipes we could draw on each week. It was a roster of dinners we’d cooked enough times that we didn’t need to look at a recipe to make them happen. These meals were anything but sexy or adventurous. Full of lots of chicken, sweet potatoes, and all the green vegetables, they were purely functional.

But there was already a flaw in the plan: I thought only about dinner. It took a couple weeks of grazing throughout the morning because breakfast wasn’t quite filling enough and an equally sorry state of affairs after trying to wing lunch that we had to expand the plan.

Seeing how easily daytime meals fell apart when there wasn’t a plan in place was a wake-up call for how important thorough planning would be if we were to stay on track. Each week I chose the dinner recipes for the week ahead and made a list of the items we’d need for breakfasts, lunches, and snacks.

The big takeaway here was the expansion of meal planning to all the meals of the day. It took some failure to realize we needed to tackle more than dinner, but we got there. From there we established a bank of recipes to draw upon for dinner and a pantry of ingredients to help us make smart breakfasts and lunches.

(Image credit: Cambria Bold)

Step 2: Saturday Night at the Grocery Store

Otherwise known as the married triathletes’ date night. Kidding! Well, just sort of. Since most of the day was spent on two wheels (followed by a run), Saturday night became more about going to bed early than going out — but not before a trip to the grocery store.

This came at Lucien’s suggestion and, to be honest, I wasn’t into it at first. Grocery shopping wasn’t quite at the top of my list for Saturday night activities — until I saw that the store was a ghost town. Then I was sold. By this point in the week I had little patience for navigating a crowded grocery store, so I was thrilled to avoid it.

As a joint effort, we made one big shop a week, armed with a list of all the foods and ingredients we’d need to get us through until the following Saturday.

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

Step 3: Sunday Afternoon Prep

We learned the hard way that planning and shopping are only effective when step three is employed. While there was some leeway for making breakfasts and lunches on the spot, evenings left very little time, if any, for meal prep. When dinner wasn’t ready to go, Seamless and Chipotle immediately felt like the path of least resistance.

I saw flashes of the disaster that was last summer’s failed attempt at meal planning, and it lit a fire under me to get it right this time around.

This meant stepping up my meal prep: I made hard-boiled eggs, overnight oats, and fresh-cut fruit for breakfast. Grains, shredded chicken, and cut veggies were prepped for lunchtime salads, and I cooked two to three nights’ worth of dinner on Sunday.

Sunday food prep started out as a solo affair, and even though it was a lot of work I didn’t mind taking it on. It made me feel good to be taking care of my family, to keep us going on our Ironman journey. Lucien eventually got in on the meal prep action with me. It was great to have a partner in the kitchen, although even better was the quality time we got together as we worked towards our shared goal.

After a few months, I actually forgot about our meal plan. No, we didn’t fall off track. It eventually became such natural part of our routine, and I was living it without actively thinking about it. Like they say, do something long enough and it becomes habit — even shopping for groceries on a Saturday night.

The Ironman Kitchen

I started training for my first Ironman in January 2016 and quickly learned that, in addition to all the swimming, biking, and running, nutrition and diet would be just as important to make it across the finish line. This series details the kitchen lessons that fueled my journey. It turns out a 140.6-mile race is one of the best ways to perfect meal planning, figure out what kitchen tools are essential, and decide how to stock a pantry for success.