Stupid Things Young Guys (and Some Older Guys) Do in the Kitchen
by Nate Green
Young guys like us are wired to do stupid things, as I noted in the first part of this series, "Stupid Things Young Guys Do in the Gym."
The mistakes we make in the kitchen aren't exactly the same as the ones we make in the weight room, but they're all part of the same pattern of screwing up and screwing around. Some of us have more of our shit together than others, but we could all use some help.
That's why I contacted three veteran coaches — Chris Mohr, Mike Roussell, and Justin Harris — and asked them to identify and correct the 10 most common mistakes they see young guys make in the kitchen.
Ignoring their advice? Well, as I said in the other article, that would just be stupid.
1. You kick ass in the gym... and then suck ass the other 23 hours of the day.
Maybe it has something to do with our need for instant gratification. It's easy in the gym: Do curls. Feel pump. Tell self you're accomplishing something.
There's no equivalent to the pump when you do the nutritionally correct thing and fill yourself up with chicken, brown rice, and broccoli. You don't even get a pat on the head for being a good boy. Other than you, who gives a shit if you eat right?
So it's no surprise that few of us take our nutrition as seriously as our workouts. We choose "train harder" over "eat better," convincing ourselves that more exercise is what we need to get the body we want.
But is it really?
Go to any serious gym and look around. You'll see skinny guys, fat guys, and T-Nation guys... all of whom are doing the exact same exercises. They're squatting, pressing, curling, and pulling, and a lot of them look like they're putting some effort into it. So what gives?
"The difference is the big and ripped guys are the ones who're getting it done in the kitchen," says Harris. "You can't create muscle out of thin air. If you don't supply the nutrients, forget to eat, or don't follow the plan consistently, you're not going to be accomplishing shit."
You can't create muscle by wishing for it.
And according to Mohr, exercise, by itself, just plain sucks for physique enhancement. "You've got to stop rationalizing that because you've hit the weights hard you've earned the right to eat and drink whatever you want whenever you want," he says.
The bottom line: Training takes a huge commitment — probably somewhere between four and seven hours a week. But you must understand that weight training only creates the stimulus for growth; you won't get anywhere if your nutrition sucks. So grab your fork, and get to work.
2. You don't know how to cook.
We're not talking about going to culinary school or starring in your own show on the Food Network. (Although that would be pretty cool.) If you want to eat well, save a ton of money by not going out, and maybe even impress the desk blonde at your local gym, you've got to learn how to cook a few basic meals. (By the way, she knows what "watch a movie at my place" means, so you might as well feed her for giving you a chance.)
But before you can cook, you've got to have the essential tools. Here's Roussell's all-star lineup:
George Foreman grill, or a reasonable imitation, as long as it's easy to use, easy to clean, easy to store, and has a non-stick cooking surface. Use it for quick meals like burgers and chicken.
Refrigerator, full-size or mini, to keep your stuff cold. Duh.
French chef's knife. Don't worry about getting a full set. All you need is one of these bad boys.
Two cutting boards. Why two? Sometimes you'll need to cut raw meat on one, and raw veggies on the other. You won't impress your date if you make her a salad laced with salmonella.
Tupperware, for storing food and carrying it between classes or work. Forget all the jokes you grew up hearing about Tupperware parties; these days you can buy plastic containers in stores.
Non-stick skillet, for making eggs, sautéing vegetables, or beating your roommate over the head when he won't stop snoring.
Magic Bullet blender, for mixing protein shakes and other healthy concoctions. A regular blender is just clutter you don't need. The Magic Bullet is small, quick, and made so the mixing cup doubles as a drinking cup, giving you one less thing to wash.
So what the hell should you cook? The easiest things to make without screwing up royally are burgers, chicken, and eggs.
Burgers are easy: Get ground beef labeled "90 percent lean" (sometimes called "ground sirloin"), make it into patties about three-quarters of an inch thick, and grill.
Eggs are even easier. Whether you choose whole eggs, egg whites, or some combination, you can scramble them up and cook them in a nonstick pan for breakfast as a post-workout meal. Have them with whole-grain toast or instant rice to add some carbs.
And if you managed to lure a date over to your place for dinner, here's an easy chicken dinner to cook, courtesy of Roussell. It creates the illusion you know your way around the kitchen without requiring any real effort.
Rosemary Balsamic Chicken
3 boneless skinless chicken breasts
1 tablespoon rosemary (fresh preferred)
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
Go to the store and buy the chicken breasts as described. You can find fresh rosemary with other fresh herbs in the produce section. Or you can buy dried rosemary in the spice section (see point #3 below). While you're there, pick up some salt and pepper, if you don't have any at home. You should be able to get a bottle of balsamic vinegar in that same aisle. (If it's not, you can find it with the salad dressings.)
If you don't have a zip-lock bag big enough to hold all this, buy some while you're there.
When you get home, rinse off the chicken breasts, then throw them in the bag with everything else. Mix it up a little, and let it sit in the fridge for at least two hours to marinate.
To cook, preheat your over to 400 degrees, throw the chicken and stuff into a baking dish, cover it, and let it cook in the oven for 25 minutes, or until the meat reaches 165 degrees.
That's it — now you've got a main dish that's totally date-worthy. Add a salad and a bottle of decent white wine (go to the chardonnay section and find something made in California that's on sale for less than $10 and has a funny name and a cool-looking label), and the sex takes care of itself.
When you're cooking for yourself, Harris suggests an even easier plan:
"Get a huge pot, fill it with a big box of Minute Rice, and start cooking [following the directions on the label, of course]. Next, grab a large pan and load it up with chicken breasts. Finally, get another pan and put some broccoli in boiling water. Cook it all separately, then add it all together. It's basic and boring but you can pump out 20 meals in an hour of prep time. You're pretty much set for the week after that."
The bottom line: When done right, cooking won't take nearly as much time as you think it will. "Besides," Mohr adds, "you can't just press the power button on your blender forever."
3. You don't spice up your food.
Want a sure-fire way to leave a bad taste in your mouth, literally and figuratively?
Throw a piece of chicken in a pan, cook it until it's mummified, then sit down to eat it. Or, I should say, sit down and try to eat it. You'll give up halfway through, and you'll be lucky if you can get your dog to finish it off.
What's the point of cooking your own food if you have to force yourself to choke it down?
"There's absolutely no reason to eat bland food," Roussell says. "At the very least you can get a lot of mileage out of just salt and pepper."
You can do even better by heading to the grocery store and navigating your way to the aisle where they sell herbs, spices, and seasonings. (Ask for help if you need it; most of us couldn't find the baking section with a GPS.)
There you'll find an assortment of pre-mixed seasonings with appropriately descriptive names. Want to add some flavor to the chicken you're about to cook? It's as easy as grabbing a bottle of seasoning with the word "chicken" on the label. It might say something more specific, like "mesquite chicken," but that's even better. Ready to grill a steak? Grab the one that says "Montreal Steak" or plain old "steak seasoning."
The bottom line: An assortment of pre-made seasonings can make any guy a decent cook. Grab a new one whenever you're in the store and happen to think of it, and pretty soon you'll have a nice selection to choose from.
4. You don't have what you need, and you don't use what you have.
But what if you're hungry and you don't have time to cook? Chances are, you have more choices than you think. And if you don't, you should consider this section a shopping list — courtesy of Chris Mohr — for your next trip to the store.
These items should be in your cabinets 365 days a year:
Raw nuts. They're cheap, healthy, and portable. They also pack some healthy fats and a little protein — the type of calories that aren't likely to end up on your waistline.
Canned tuna and salmon. Great sources of protein that are also convenient and portable.
Fruits and veggies. You can't eat enough of these. The ones in the store are fine, but the ones you pick up at the local farmer's market are even better (and probably organic as well).
Rolled oats. Nothing fancy, but a great source of fiber and slow-digesting carbs. Avoid the instant packets. Buy the store brand if you need to save some money. Look for just one ingredient on the label: whole rolled oats.
The bottom line: Keeping your cave stocked with just a few all-purpose essentials helps you avoid binging on Spam, Ramen noodles, or the chocolate-chip cookies your mommy sent for your birthday.
5. You don't utilize the cafeteria.
If you're in college and need someone to cook your meals, the cafeteria is your ticket to easy livin'. You just need to know what to look for.
First, stay away from all the shit everyone else is eating: pizza, hamburgers, cold cuts, pasta, Jell-O. Next, scope out the good stations, the ones where they offer meat, veggies, fruits, and, if you're lucky, whole-wheat pastas and breads.
Better yet, head to the salad bar and load up on hard-boiled eggs, tuna, greens and veggies. "You've got all your protein requirements, plus some great nutrients from the greens," Roussell says.
The cafeteria is also the place to be right after a hard training session; your body needs protein and carbs after a workout, which helps jump-start protein synthesis and speeds up the recovery process. Plus, it's a good excuse to eat some of those fast-burning carbs — like regular pasta and white potatoes — that you might ordinarily avoid.
Special bonus tip: It never hurts to make nice with the lunch ladies.
"There used to be a woman at my school who'd make me an omelet that was half egg whites and half whole eggs," Roussell remembers. "I know nobody else was getting that! If you get in good with the lunch ladies, you can get a lot more food that's better quality."
She may not be your type, but she can make a mean egg-white omelet.
The bottom line: For breakfast, lunch, dinner, or a post-workout recovery meal, the school cafeteria allows you to eat well and eat right.
6. You eat way too much.
Guys love excess. That's why we listen to George Carlin, watch The Dark Knight four times in four days, and chase after girls who look like they devote more time to their nails than we spend in the gym.
So if the experts tell us we have to eat big to get big, some of us are going to take that to mean we need to eat really big. Like, Yellowstone big.
"I've heard of guys who want to gain weight and start eating two peanut butter sandwiches, or an entire pizza, before bed every night," Harris says. The idea is that if lots of calories are good, shitloads of calories are better. Why shoot for a pound of muscle a week if more food might give you faster results?
Bad idea, Harris says. "You're not going to add 60 pounds of muscle in six weeks."
Unless you're Michael Phelps, who had to eat 10,000 calories a day in Beijing just to avoid wasting away, you need to cap your calorie intake at a reasonable number that corresponds to your goals. (To get an accurate measurement of how many calories you need, check out John Berardi's Massive Eating calculator here.)
The key is to eat slightly over your caloric needs each day while training hard. For an athlete with a Formula 1 metabolism, that might mean as much as 8,000 calories a day. For a desk jockey who hits the gym three times a week, it might be as little as 2,500.
The bottom line: Don't rationalize eating three microwave burritos because you're "bulking." The inches you add to your stomach will negate the millimeters you add to your arms.
7. You eat way too little.
Before you start feeling smug about being a guy who's never spent a day of his life in a caloric surplus, and would rather give up your left nut than risk losing a third of your six-pack, we've got a little tough love for you as well.
"Look, I didn't mind getting laid in college either, so I understand the need to be lean and look good," Harris says. "But you're not going to stay at six percent body fat while trying to gain a lot of muscle. You can't eat like a bodybuilder on a pre-contest diet."
If you're the guy who tells friends he's a "hardgainer" who can't put on muscle no matter how hard he trains, but at the same time harbors a secret fear of getting "too big," Harris is talking to you. "People lose their head thinking they're going to turn into Ronnie Coleman or Jay Cutler by the end of the month," he says.
Take our word for it: Unless you're "too big" now, chances are about zero that you'll be too big next year.
The first step for skinny guys is to stop undereating. Although this contradicts point #6, it's not always a bad idea to tell Mr. Lean Genes to eat like a wild man every now and then.
"I remember getting four Coney dogs from Coney Island after a workout," Harris confesses. "It was obviously not optimal, but there's a difference between 'optimal' and 'pointless.' If I would've had a chicken breast and a bowl of oatmeal after every workout, I would never have added any muscle."
Just understand that this is a time-limited strategy, and only works if you know when to stop.
"I'm sure I added more fat than I needed, but I was also eating more calories than I burned," Harris adds. "And a lot of guys just aren't doing that."
The bottom line: Eat as clean as possible, but if you're underweight, don't deny your body the calories it needs to grow, even if that means some pizza or hot dogs from time to time. You won't become clinically obese unless the occasional pizza and hot dogs become a daily indulgence.
As mentioned in point #5, it's best to get those unclean calories right after a hard workout.
8. You obsess over every little detail.
Some guys make everything difficult. They obsess over calories, macronutrient ratios, and meal timing. Talking to guys like this, you get the impression they'd take an hour to cook Minute Rice. The result? They get paralyzed by their analysis, don't make any progress, and stay home on Saturday nights updating their nutritional requirements on a bar graph.
"I'm not sure chicks love guys who carry food scales, shave their legs, wax their eyebrows, and spend more time in front of the mirror than them," Mohr says.
"You just don't need to figure out every single one of the details," Roussell adds.
Instead of focusing on macronutrients and counting calories, he suggests making food-based choices instead. And all three of our veteran coaches recommend keeping these basics in mind:
1. Eat five to seven meals per day
2. Eat protein at every meal
3. Get most of your carbs in the morning
4. Eat a healthy amount of good fats
5. Have a lot of protein and carbs after a training session
6. Don't stress out
The bottom line: Stick to the basics and stop overcomplicating the issue. "Focus on simple adjustments that can be made without doing a 100 percent overhaul of your life and secluding yourself," Mohr advises.
9. You buy shitty weight gainers from chain stores.
Looking for an easy way to get some quick protein? Then a high-quality protein shake may be your best bet.
However, not all protein powders are created equal.
"Most weight gainers are crap," Roussell says. "They're filled with sub-par protein, soy, a ton of sugar, and extra stuff you just don't need. Plus they charge upwards of 70 bucks for a tub, which is a complete rip-off."
So how do you know what kind of protein is best? The easiest way is to look at the label and scan the first few ingredients. If you see "whey isolate" or "micellar casein," both of which are exotic, high-quality proteins, you're good to go. If you see that maltodextrose or soy protein isolate are the first ingredients, steer clear. Always remember that nutrition labels list items in order of volume, so whatever comes first is what the product has more of than anything else. If it's a sugar like maltodextrose, that's a big red flag.
But don't think that supplements are anything magical. Their purpose is to supplement healthy eating from whole foods, not replace them entirely.
"Good protein powder just makes things easier," Harris says. "When you get rushed for time or you don't feel like cooking, they're a perfect fit."
The bottom line: Make sure you're getting most of your calories from whole foods. But if you're in a hurry or just need some high-quality nutrients, a good protein powder is the way to go.
10. You blow it all on Friday and Saturday night.
You've been rocking the gym all week, getting all of your healthy meals in, and you're feeling like a freakin' champ. Now it's the weekend and you're faced with an interesting dilemma: eat chicken wings and drink beer at Hooters, or try to talk your friends into doing something else. What's your call?
"It really depends on your performance that week leading up to Friday night," says Roussell.
Let's say you eat six meals a day, seven days a week, which equals 42 total meals. If you were following Berardi's 90 percent rule (eating well 90 percent of the time), you'd have four or five "free" meals where you could drink some beer and have some nachos without feeling guilty.
But if your nutrition was less than great that week, you'd be better off skipping the bad stuff, and ogling the Hooters wait staff while eating a clean meal and nursing a single beer.
No one wants to live a life free from beer, chicken wings, and general weekend debauchery, so the trick is to stick to the plan when you can, indulge on your own terms, and know when you need to get tough with yourself and get back on track.
The bottom line: When faced with an indulge-or-not-indulge choice on a weekend, let your adherence to your program and goals in the previous week be the deciding factor. If you've eaten clean and aced your workouts, you've earned the right to loosen up a bit. (Not that you have to use the privilege; I'm just saying it's there if you want it.)
And if you haven't earned it? You know, there are worse things than not eating crap food and getting sloppy drunk on a Friday night. You can be the designated driver for your friends, earning you some karma points. You can also be the one guy in your group who doesn't look like a drunken jackass when you flirt with the waitress, earning you something else entirely.
You really think she's interested in a chicken-wing-eating drunk?
Not all 10 points will apply to any single T-Nation reader, but if you can apply most of these tips most of the time, you'll be way ahead of your generational peers.
Now it's your turn to offer your own tips. The discussion thread is open, and operators are standing by.
About the Contributors:
Christopher R. Mohr, PhD, RD, is the owner of Mohr Results. He's the sports nutritionist for the Under Armour Performance Training Council, a consultant with the University of Louisville Athletics, and media spokesperson for a variety of companies and corporations.
Mike Roussell is a nutritionist and doctoral candidate in nutritional sciences at Pennsylvania State University. For more information about Mike, visit the Naked Nutrition Network, or pick up a copy of the new Warp Speed Fat Loss - Rapid Weight Loss System (co-authored with Alwyn Cosgrove).
Justin Harris, owner of Troponin Nutrition, is a former Division II All-American football player at Alma College, where he earned his degree in exercise science. He's worked with hundreds of bodybuilders and athletes as a training and nutrition consultant.
About the Author:
Nate Green is the author of Built for Show: Four Body Changing Workout Programs to Lose Fat, Build Muscle, and Look Good Enough to Hook Up, which will be released by Avery Publishing November 20th. He regularly updates his blog.
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