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GARY — Shannon "Chef Shay" Smith has dropped eight dress sizes, she says, by planning ahead.

And you can do it too, she says. All it takes is a little preparation.

She told this message to about 20 attendees at the Eat Yourself Fit: Meal Prep like a Boss class last month at Arthouse: A Social Kitchen, an incubator for culinary entrepreneurs. Smith, of Merrillville, runs her own meal prep service, NJOY Eats & Prep.

"When we don't know what we're going to eat, we tend to make poor choices," she said. "Even if you were to go to Sharks or Subway, you don't have to eat a whole 12-inch sandwich or five piece with fries."

Every weekend, Smith prepares the following five weekdays worth of breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. It takes her about two hours and costs $60 to $80.

"When it comes to meal prep and planning, it's all about making a list," she said. "Avoid the snack aisle as much as possible — it's not worth it."

At the class last month, Smith, an athletic woman with braided hair and a black Arthouse apron over a turquoise shirt that matched her shoes, stood in the middle of a sweat-inducing commercial kitchen, behind a metal countertop covered with cookware and produce. She made meal prep look easy.

She started off by blending kale-and-banana smoothies (ingredients: ice cubes, coconut almond milk, pineapples, mixed greens, bananas, avocado). She saves the smoothies in mason jars. They last about five days in the refrigerator, she said.

"Eat a variety and have a lot of vibrant colors on your plate," she said, holding up different-colored bell peppers. "Food should look good as well as taste good. The more your food has color in it, the better is it for you."

She noted that importance of eating a balanced diet. If your body doesn't get the nutrients it needs, you'll get irritable and be more likely to grab for a candy bar.

Next, as she made egg frittatas — egg whites, mushrooms, onions, turkey bacon, greens and cheese, mixed together and baked in a muffin tray — she noted that you can freeze spoilable food you're not going to eat right away. You can always defrost and reheat it later on.

"A half-hour (of baking) later, breakfast for the week is good, so you don't have to go to Dunkin' Donuts or Starbucks or McDonald's," she said.

She said you can make things easier on yourself by buying things like precooked rotisserie chickens, packages of pre-washed mixed greens and plastic, microwavable and dishwasher-safe portioned meal containers.

"The biggest portion should be your ..." she said, holding up a container, waiting for the audience to answer, "vegetables." She packaged lunch for the week: 4 ounces of roasted chicken, garlic almond string beans and three sweet potato discs.

"Vegetables have a lot of fiber. They keep you satiated," she said. "So when your co-worker has that chocolate cake, you can say, 'I'm good, I'm full.'"

Holding up a sweet potato, she said: "Don't be scared of carbs. Make your carbs work for you." After all, people derive energy from carbs — good carbs, that is.

"You have people who know how to cook, but they don't know how to cook right and they end up with diseases that could be prevented," she said. "Food should be your medicine."

She said healthy recipes are readily available nowadays, on social media outlets like Instagram and Pinterest. It's just a matter of putting in the work.

At the class, dinners for the week were — she always has two options, for the sake of variety — two turkey meatballs with roasted veggies and a Mexican chicken protein bowl with salsa and avocado slices. Snacks choices were baby carrots with almond butter, skim milk mozzarella string cheese, and blueberries and grapefruit slices.

She said preparing meals can be fun, as long as you're in the right headspace.

"Keep your kitchen stress-free. If someone is in there annoying you, tell them to go mow the lawn or go look for a white grapefruit. If you're cooking and sad, your food will taste bad," she said. "I usually meal prep with music and a candle. I'm always dancing. ... Usually for me, it's me and Erykah Badu."

Smith named her business NJOY Eats & Prep because having gone from a size 12 to a size 4, she feels happy again.

"I lost my joy when I was in college — that's when I gained my weight," said Smith, who was grieving over the death of a loved one at the time. "When you lose your joy, something about life just changes." 

Now she's got it back. And she's trying to bring it to others.

"You won't lose weight tomorrow," she said. "But you can plan to."


Health Reporter

Giles is the health reporter for The Times, covering the business of health care as well as consumer and public health. He previously wrote about health for the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World. He is a graduate of Northern Illinois University.