Meal planning is a smart and efficient way to help runners enjoy home-cooked, nutritious meals. This guide exists to show that meal planning doesn't have to be a complicated or time consuming process. All you need to do is simply start with five basic elements to build out a nourishing & tasty menu.
What are the 5 basic elements?
1. Fiber-Rich Starches
Starches are rich in carbohydrates, which are the preferred source of fuel for the body & brain. The fiber they provide also keeps us satiated and promotes digestive and heart health. When it comes to creating nourishing meals, the best sources of fiber-rich starches for athletes are ones that come from whole, minimally processed foods such as oats, brown rice, quinoa, other whole grains. Whole grain products like pasta and bread are also great choices. Other sources of fiber-rich starches are starchy vegetables and legumes like potatoes, corn, and peas.
Proteins are the building blocks of the body, and they are found almost everywhere including our hair, skin, nails, muscles, and bones. They also make up enzymes that carry out work in our bodies, such as transporting oxygen or breaking down food. Proteins are especially important for athletes because they help repair tissues that have been broken down, including sore or injured muscles. The best sources of protein for athletes are lean meats, poultry, seafood, certain dairy products like yogurt and cottage cheese, as well as plant-based sources including lentils, beans, soy (tofu, tempeh, edamame), nuts, and seeds.
Fat is another nutrient that plays many important roles in the body. Along with being a compact source of energy, fat helps the body absorb vitamins and minerals, regulate temperature, produce hormones, and more. In order to promote heart health and reduce inflammation, runners should aim to include more plant-based sources of fat in their diet, such as olive oil, avocados, nuts, and seeds. Including sources rich in omega-3s, such as fatty fish like salmon and mackerel, walnuts, flax, chia, and hemp seeds, is also important for improved health and performance.
Fruits and vegetables not only provide beautiful colors to a meal, but also many important nutrients. Fruits and vegetables are excellent sources of many vitamins, minerals, protective antioxidants, fiber, and even hydrating fluids. Athlete’s should aim for 5-10 servings of fruits and vegetables a day, with at least half of those servings coming from vegetables.
A well balanced meal plan can meet nutrition needs, but lacks the satisfaction factor when missing flavor. This is where herbs and spices like cilantro, rosemary, and basil can help bring life to an athlete’s plate. Citrus and vinegars can add a fresh, acidic twist. Toppings, such as toasted coconut or pickled vegetables, add both taste and texture. Dressings, marinades, and sauces add creaminess and flavor. When meal planning, athletes should always consider what elements they can use to keep their dishes fun and interesting.
How to use the 5 basic elements
Strategy #1: Start with a recipe
This strategy works well for runners who already have a collection of favorite recipes or recipes they would like to try.
To get started, you'll need to determine if the recipe already includes the 5 basic elements. If not, determine what you need to add to make it more balanced.
Preparing a salad that doesn't have a fiber-rich starch? Add whole wheat crackers or cooked quinoa. Rice bowl lacking in protein? Add a scrambled egg or baked tofu. Tuna casserole night need some more color? Add a side salad or mix in a veggie like broccoli.
Strategy #2: Start with the elements
If a meal plan needs to come together quickly and without too much thought, you can easily start with the five basic elements to build out a menu. For example....
- Starch: whole wheat pasta
- Protein: ground turkey
- Fat: oil and vinegar dressing
- Color: salad with cucumber and carrots
- Flavor: pasta sauce
A specific ingredient can also be used as a starting point in the planning process.
For example,“My neighbor gave me some bell peppers from her garden.” A tasty way to use this ingredient? Answer: Fajitas
- Color: Bell peppers and onions
- Protein: Black beans or chicken
- Starch: Tortillas
- Fat: Avocado
- Flavor: Lime juice and cilantro
Note: Some ingredients can count for more than one element (ex: slivered almonds are a source of protein, fat, and flavor)
More Meal Examples:
- Avocado Toast - Whole Wheat Toast (Starch) + Eggs (Protein) + Avocado (Fat) + Arugula Color) + Chili Flakes (Flavor)
- PB & J Oatmeal - Oats (Starch) + Yogurt (Protein) + Peanut Butter (Fat) + Berries (Color) + Cinnamon (Flavor)
- Tropical Smoothie Bowl - Banana/Pineapple (Starch) + Vanilla Protein Powder (Protein) + Chia Seeds (Fat) + Spinach (Color) + Shredded Coconut (Flavor)
- Power Bowl - Quinoa (Starch) + Chickpeas (Protein) + Avocado (Fat) + Salad Greens/Raw Veggies (Color) + Fresh Herbs (Flavor)
- Snack Board - Whole Wheat Crackers (Starch) + Hard-Boiled Eggs (Protein) + Hummus (Fat) + Carrots/Celery (Color) + Dark Chocolate Square (Flavor)
- Stir Fry - Brown Rice (Starch) + Chicken (Protein) + Sesame Oil (Fat) + Broccoli (Color) + Soy Sauce (Flavor)
- Burrito Bowl - Brown Rice (Starch) + Black Beans (Protein) + Avocado (Fat) + Fajita Veggies (Color) + Salsa (Flavor)
Portion sizes depend on many different factors including age, size, activity level, and health status.
The plate below can be used as a starting point to help athletes build balanced meals. Portion sizes may increase or decrease depending on needs and preferences. For example, heavier training days may call for larger servings of carbohydrates, fat, and protein. This is important to keep in mind when planning and shopping for meals.
Use the following steps to help you stay organized while meal planning.
Step 1: Determine a realistic number of meals you are able to prepare during the week. If you are new to this practice, start with 1-2.
Step 2: Look over your schedule. Determine what days/times are most appropriate to grocery shop and prepare your meals (ex: Sunday)
- Suggestion #1: Grocery shop and prepare all/most of your meals on the same day.
- Suggestion #2: Grocery shop and prepare all/most of your meals on a different day.
- Suggestion #3: Grocery shop and prepare your meals throughout the week
Step 3: Determine which meals you will prepare and how many servings each will provide
Step 4: Create a grocery list & go shopping
Step 5: Prepare & enjoy your meals!
Following the pick five guide is a simple but effective way to build out thousands of delicious and balanced meal combinations that meet individual preferences and needs. Questions? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Here's to meal planning like a champ!