There’s going to come a time when you’ll have to plan out your meals if you want to succeed at your fitness goals. Except for the rare person who can just wing it on a day to day or meal to meal basis, most of us need more structure and planning for long-term success.
Below you will find a framework for creating your own meal plan. It takes into account 3 core elements of a perfect meal plan – satisfaction, sustainability, and simplicity. If you follow these guidelines you will end up with a perfect eating plan tailored to your specific needs.
Allow Enough Energy to Fuel Your Activity
Calories are there to help you, not hurt you. Calories are energy. They are your friend and should not be feared. So don’t start off planning a 1200 calorie meal plan thinking it’s going to strip the pounds off your body in no time. It’s not going to happen, as it won’t be sustainable.
Go to this calorie calculator and find out how many calories you need to be eating to fuel your activity levels. This is a starting place. Plan out a good 2 weeks of meals at this calorie intake and monitor your weight. If you’re losing a pound a week then keep it at that level. If you’re falling short, cut 100 calories and repeat the process until you are hitting that minimum target weight loss pace.
Pick the Right Meal Frequency
There’s no set-in-stone effective meal frequency. The most important question to ask yourself is “is this meal frequency sustainable?” I’ve worked with some very busy people who are always on the move, and expecting them to stop and eat a meal 3-4 times during their work day is unreasonable and unsustainable.
You need to look closely at your daily schedule and find opportune times to eat. Most of us can eat breakfast and dinner at home, and most of us get a break for lunch too. That’s 3 meals right there. Depending on how the rest of your schedule is laid out you might want or need 1-2 snacks during the day. And if you tend to get hungry at night, you might want a snack then too.
Fill those hunger gaps with food. Don’t let yourself get so hungry that you overeat at your next meal. I personally eat 5 times/day – breakfast, lunch, afternoon “meal”, dinner, and a nighttime snack. Most of my clients also get a morning snack. That’s what’s sustainable for us – find what works best for you.
Keep Variety at the Minimum Effective Dose
When I first starting planning my own meals 15 years ago I thought variety was great – until I actually tried to follow the meal plan. I’d have a different breakfast, lunch, and dinner nearly everyday. It sounded very appetizing and looked good on paper, but following something like that without your own personal chef is close to impossible.
Sustainability, satisfaction, and simplicity all come in to play here. You need enough variety that your taste buds will be satisfied, not so much variety that you can’t sustain all the time and effort that will go into making those meals, and you need to keep variety minimal enough that you’ll be able to prep and cook your meals in bulk.
Sounds difficult but it’s not. I talked more about this in The Top 5 Habits of My Most Successful Weight Loss Clients. The most successful people tend to eat 1-2 different breakfasts, 1-2 different lunches, and 2-5 different dinners each week. And they would only change those meals once they got tired of them.
So if they ate 2 breakfasts, 2 lunches, and 3 dinners this week. Next week they might have those same 2 breakfasts, same 2 lunches, but change out 1-2 of the dinners to add in some variety. Keep your variety as low as possible while still satisfying the 3 core elements of a perfect meal plan – sustainability, satisfaction, and simplicity.
Allow Yourself Some Free Calories
There’s nothing worse than a meal plan that has zero fun foods. Despite what you might have heard, food is not just meant to be fuel for the body. It is also there for satisfaction. So failing to plan in some fun foods kills your satisfaction, which leads to sustainability issues.
A diet that is 80/20 (whole foods/fun foods) and sustainable is better than a 100% whole foods diet that’s not. Adherence over the long term is key to your success and you need to be allowing yourself opportunities to satisfy your psychological needs.
Every one of my clients gets between 200-300 free calories each day to eat whatever they want without negative consequences to their weight loss. And I guarantee you that eating the other 80-90 percent of your calories from whole foods is going to satisfy every nutrient requirement you have.
Plan some free calories into your meal plan every single day. Fit it into your overall calorie budget you determined in step 1. Doing so improves your adherence and reduces your likelihood of creating the spring-loaded binge effect where you deny yourself these foods so much that you eventually engorge yourself over an entire day or weekend.
Factor In Some Flexibility
Even the best looking meal plan that follows all the above guidelines will fail if you don’t plan for some flexibility. A rigid, all-or-nothing eating style is doomed to fail. Life has too many uncertainties, holidays, and one-off events to be able to follow your meal plan to the letter for eternity. You need flexibility.
Have a plan for when you’re living within your natural day-to-day habits. And then have a plan for when your daily routine isn’t so routine.
When something unexpected comes up and you can’t eat your scheduled meal, do your best to match the calories of that meal. If your planned lunch salad was 500 calories but you have a business lunch meeting at a steak house, try to eat a 500 calorie meal. Don’t worry about the fat, carb, or protein content of the meal. Just do your best to hit your target calories at the end of the day.
If you need to use some of your free calories to make that happen – do it. If you need to skim some calories from future meals and snacks – go for it. All will be OK so long as you don’t make a habit of it. Remember, it’s what you do day in and day out that matters – your habits. Those one-off events don’t run your life – your habits do.