If you’re anything like me, the worst part about losing/gaining weight and getting fit and healthy is meal planning. It takes time and energy to look up recipes, plan meals and grocery lists, and prepare breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. There are websites galore that will do all or most of the work for you, but for a hefty cost. So, many of us are left to our own devices, and we all know how that usually turns out…But I’m here to show you how meal planning, while still requiring some time, can be simplified enough to fit into just about anyone’s busy life.
With these few simple steps, meal planning can easily slide into your regular routine. These are all things that I’ve started implementing into my own life, and I have found them incredibly helpful. Try all tips, or pick and choose what works best for you!
1. Choose a meal schedule
How many meals will you eat each day? At approximately what time will you eat, or how long will you go between each meal? How big or small will each meal be? Not all meals have to be the same size, and not all have to be totally planned ahead of time. I typically include 1-3 planned meals from a planning chart and at least one protein shake and/or “flex” meal per day (both are discussed more in sections 3 & 4).
Below are some examples for how you might schedule your meals. This list is definitely not exhaustive! What’s most important is to find what works for you, your body, and, importantly, your lifestyle because that is what will be sustainable. Your diet should be part of your lifestyle, not a short-term trend or fad.
- Meal 1 (7am): Coffee and a banana or slice of toast
- Meal 2 (11am): Large protein shake
- Meal 3 (post workout): Meal from planning chart
- Meal 4 (4 hours later): Meal from planning chart
- Meal 5 (2 hours later, or dessert): Flex meal
- Meal 1 (7am): Flex meal
- Meal 2 (11am-12pm): Meal from chart
- Meal 3 (post workout): Protein shake
- Meal 4 (4 hours later): Meal from chart
- Meal 5 (2 hours later, or dessert): Protein shake or flex meal
- Meal 1 (7am): Meal from chart
- Meal 2 (12pm): Flex meal
- Meal 3 (3pm): Protein shake
- Meal 4 (7pm): Meal from chart
- Meal 1 (7am): Meal from chart
- Meal 2 (12pm): Meal from chart
- Meal 3 (6pm): Flex meal
- Meal 1 (11am): Meal from chart
- Meal 2 (6pm): Flex meal
As you can see, there are tons of options for scheduling your meals. Whether you have 5-6 meals per day or just 1-2 is up to you. Both can be perfectly healthy options when done properly. Remember, the less meals you eat, the more calories each meal should have and vice versa. And, by the way, no, your metabolism will NOT slow down or get messed up if you skip breakfast. (Keep an eye out for a future post about why breakfast is not necessarily “the most important meal of the day”).
2. Calculate (or estimate) daily calorie need based on your individual goals
To estimate your daily calorie need, you’ll need to first determine your basal metabolic rate (or how many calories you would burn in a day just by doing nothing). You can do this using a calculator like the Katch-McArdle calculator found here. Then you’ll calculate your TDEE – total daily energy expenditure (i.e., how many calories you typically burn in a day, including those from physical activity. There are TDEE calculators online, but truthfully, most of them most likely overestimate your TDEE (which can obviously sabotage your diet, especially if you’re trying to lose weight). I recommend instead using one of the following ways to calculate TDEE.
First, you can multiply your basal metabolic rate by the following factors:
- 1.2, if you exercise 1-3 hours/week
- 1.35, if you exercise 4-6 hours/week
- 1.5, if you exercise more than 6 hours/week
Second, and perhaps even better, you can determine how many calories you actually burn from physical activity each day by using a fitness tracker that measures heart rate, like the Apple Watch. Then add that number to your basal metabolic rate to get your TDEE. Doing this allows you to not just get a more accurate TDEE, but also to manipulate your calorie intake to match your physical activity each day and to change your TDEE when your weight changes.
If you are trying to lose weight, multiply your TDEE by 0.2 or subtract 500 depending on how aggressive you want to be with your weight loss goal. Either way, I recommend consuming a minimum number of calories equal to your basal metabolic rate. This is the amount of calories you body needs just to function on a daily basis. Going below that can make you feel tired and irritated and is ultimately unsustainable.
If you are trying to gain muscle, you’ll need to add calories to your TDEE on weightlifting days. For women, adding 100-300 calories should be sufficient, but, of course, you should talk to a nutrition specialist before implementing this.
If you’re counting macros, you would need to calculate how many grams of protein, fat, and carbohydrate to consume each day as well.
Once you’ve calculated your TDEE and macros, if you’re counting macros, divide those calories between however many meals you’re going to eat each day. Remember, not every meal has to have the same amount calories.
3. Create a meal planning chart (or use this one!)
The third step (and the one you’ve probably been waiting for!) is to create a meal planning chart. On one side of the chart, list your favorite protein options along with appropriate portion size, calories, protein, fat, and carbs for each one. On the other side, list side options along with portion size, calories, protein, fat, and carbs. Adjust the portion sizes according to how many calories you plan to consume per meal and so that you can have two sides with each meal (for variety 🙂 ).
To use the chart, simply choose a protein and 1-2 sides, and voila you’re done! If you’re planning out your meals for the week, choose 2-3 different meals. This method requires virtually no time looking up recipes and provides an instant grocery list.
Below is an example meal planning chart. Feel free to use it for yourself, or create your own using your favorite foods. Remember to adjust the portion size to meet your needs. For example, I typically eat slight smaller protein portions than what’s listed below.
Just as reference, 1 pound = 16 ounces. So if you buy a 1 pound steak at the grocery store, you are buying 16 ounces. Depending on the type of steak, the entire thing may be anywhere from 600-1400 calories just for the meat! That doesn’t even include butter or sauce or anything else you eat with it.
4. Choose flex meals and staple groceries
I don’t know anyone who actually likes to eat the same thing every day, so your flex meals are your opportunity to bring in even more variety and to not have to eat a predetermined meal for every meal. At the same time, planning options for your flex meals keeps it simple, quick, and easy to prepare. I recommend choosing some of your favorite foods (keeping calorie count and portion size in mind) and always or at least often having ingredients for these foods on hand.
Options for my flex meals include things like avocado toast, cold cuts with high-quality cheese, ice cream (you read that right!), ultra-thin crust pizza, smoked salmon with cream cheese and whole grain crackers, chia seed pudding, fruit plate with dark chocolate, and protein or paleo pancakes.
5. Account for eating out
If you like to eat out, or you eat out on a regular basis, is crucial that you take this into account. I good rule of thumb for accounting for the additional calories is to, at a minimum, double the amount of calories a certain meal would have if you prepared it yourself. Restaurants and prepared foods (even at the grocery store) have tons of hidden carbs and hidden calories because they contain ingredients that we most likely would have foregone if we made the meal ourself (e.g., added sugar, extra oil, preservatives).
One way to account for eating out is to incorporate it into your meal plan. For example, if you go out to eat with your spouse or friends every Friday, expect to consume around 700-1000 calories for that meal and split your remaining calories among the day’s remaining meals. Another way to do this is to spread the reduction in calories of other meals across the entire week rather than just that one day.
Bear in mind that eating out is a huge results killer because you end up consuming way more calories that you think as well as a host of unhealthy ingredients that you wouldn’t otherwise eat. I try to limit my restaurant meals to about 2 per month or to less than 500 calories.
Your diet should be part of your lifestyle. It shouldn’t feel deprived, limiting, or burdensome. Like everything in life, maintaining a healthy diet does take work. But it doesn’t have to be grueling, and can even be fun and creative! Be firm with your diet, but don’t overdo it. If you want to get ice cream with your kids, get ice cream. Just make sure to account for it in your meal planning. If you mess up or go off track for a day, don’t beat yourself up or feel guilty. Just get back on track the next day.
If you have any meal planning tips that have worked for you, I’d love to hear them in the comments!!