The Rule of 4s for Healthy and Efficient Weekday Meals
I lost 30 pounds a few years ago after a lifelong struggle with weight, body image, and hunger anxiety by following the same routine every Sunday.
I don’t subscribe to any dietary labels such as “keto,” gluten-free, vegan, etc. I am a hedonist and rebel at heart, and as soon as you tell me that I cannot have something, I want it that much more.
So I plan, prep, and follow my gut (pun intended) during weekly trips to the local grocery store.
Some people go to church on Sundays, and others watch football. My Sunday ritual is meal prep. It is my Zen time, during which I purge my fridge of any expired items, cleanse the clear shelves and then lovingly restock with fresh and (mostly) healthy food for the week ahead.
After years of research and hundreds of dollars spent on commercial diets, I consider myself proficient (if not quite expert) in the art of planning and preparing a week’s worth of healthy meals.
My version is flexible, intuitive, and based on the principle of 4s. Most of us will not consistently eat food that we don’t enjoy, regardless of weight loss or health goals. The rule of 4’s allows leeway and room for creative flair in designing your personal meal plan. If you are cooking for two, simply double the 4s to 8s, and you are good to go.
The Zen of Meal Prep:
4 Servings of Protein
An easy rule of thumb is that your protein should fit roughly in the palm of your hand. My ideal serving is 4 ounces, so if I buy a pound of chicken, turkey, etc. this breaks down neatly into 4 servings (see a pattern here?)
4 Servings of Vegetables
Overachievers can feel free to add more. It’s tough to overindulge on veggies, and worst case, you might find yourself with rotting produce. If this happens, solemnly swear to eat all of your vegetables the following week, or just stick to 4 servings.
4 Servings of Starch/Grains
Carbs have become a dirty word in the “diet” industry. I think they are delightful and also get very cranky without them. The kicker here is that a serving of carbs is typically 1/2 cup. If you have ever eaten a bowl of pasta, quinoa, rice, etc., you may have unintentionally consumed 2–6+ servings. Portion control is critical with starches/grains (carbs!), so grab your measuring cup the first few weeks until your eye adjusts to what an actual serving size looks like on the plate.
4 Healthy Breakfasts
In the summer, I like a cold breakfast of hard-boiled eggs, Greek yogurt, and fruit. I buy the eggs pre-boiled and peeled. There are great organic ones available at most grocery stores. I look for high protein and low sugar content on the yogurt. During colder months, I buy a vegetable quiche and then eat it in servings with most of the crust cut off. Avocado toast is another easy, healthy work week option. My favorite recipe is as follows:
- 1 Slice of Ezekial sesame wheat bread
- 1/4 Avocado (mash onto toasted bread)
- 2 Eggs (scrambled or fried)
- Trader Joes’ Everything but the Bagel Seasoning
Snacks are everything. I have heard people say, “I haven’t had time to eat all day,” and this is a foreign concept to me. Going more than a few hours without eating leads to anxiety, audible stomach gurgling, and generally unpleasant behavior. As such, I always have snacks on hand. Turkey jerky, string cheese, almonds, carrot sticks, and apples are great choices. The protein, fat, and fiber will satiate your appetite until the next meal without causing a spike in blood sugar. You can also try rice cakes with a spoonful of almond or peanut butter, although the styrofoam-like consistency is not for everyone.
4 Servings of Lettuce
Local, organic lettuce tastes pretty darn good. Find a kind you like, and buy enough to make four salads each week. You can add leftovers from your previously prep meals, and auxiliary items from the fridge (nuts, olives, veggies, etc.). Dress with olive oil and vinegar for a light and easy meal. If you want to get fancy with the dressing, you whip up this recipe I learned from my French Host Mother during a semester abroad:
- 1 part olive oil
- 1 part balsamic vinegar
- 1 tsp sugar
- 1 tsp dijon mustard
- 1 tsp finely chopped red onion
- Salt and pepper to taste
Life is short, and chocolate is delicious. I keep a bar of dark chocolate with almonds, cherries, or sea salt/caramel in the freezer for post-dinner sugar cravings. Pick a treat that you like, and if you feel tempted to eat the whole thing in one night, remind yourself that you have three more nights to enjoy this lovely dessert! It will still be there in the morning, ready and waiting for you.
4 “Fun” Beverages
Alcohol is typically not approved on meal prep programs; however, enjoying a beer or glass of wine will not completely derail your efforts. Keyword being “a,” as opposed to several. If you prefer to teetotal during the week, there are lots of other fun and healthy options to make you feel alive on a Tuesday night. I love Kombucha, particularly any ginger flavors and fruity, calorie-free seltzer water.
Fresh lemon, lime, herbs, spices, dijon mustard, and a favorite hot sauce are key to keeping things exciting. You can also throw in a bit of chopped bacon to liven up your brussel sprouts, or as a salad topping.
You may have asked yourself, why are there only 4 of each item? Aren’t there five days in the week? Excellent question, and the answer is that the quantity of your meal prep comes down to personal preference and lifestyle.
More often than not, prepping in 4’s works out nicely with minimal wasted food at the end of the week. Maybe you have a mid-week date night, or a work event where you cannot eat your prepped meal for that day.
You can free flow on Saturdays, eating as you please within reason, before beginning anew each Sunday.
If this sounds like a lot of work, think about the time you spend feeling hungry, low energy, and stressed during the week. Then, consider how could you would feel knowing that you have a fridge full of healthy food, waiting patiently for your consumption.
Tupperware or glass meal storage is vital, so invest in (you guessed it!) sets of 4 in various sizes for your meals and snacks.
You are now ready to practice the Zen of Meal Prep. Take a deep breath, purify the fridge, and hit the grocery store.