How to Meal Plan Without Losing Your Mind
Meal planning – some people swear by it, some people hate it but it’s hard to debate the fact that being prepared is better than not being prepared. One of the biggest issues people have with meal planning (myself included) is that it can feeling overwhelming and confusing. There are lots of questions and concerns that arise: What if you don’t want to eat what you made because you can’t stand the thought of eating chicken one more time? If you’re tracking your macros, how do you make sure that you’re hitting all of your numbers? And most of all – how do you do all of this while maintaining your sanity?
[so much tupperware]
A little background before I talk about a few of my favorite tips to help you meal plan without losing your mind. I primarily follow a macro counting approach to my food when it comes to how I determine the quantity of food that I eat. When it comes to food quality, I follow a paleo-ish approach. I don’t do any sort of formal “cheat/indulgence day” but instead have 2 or so meals a week that I don’t track and that are whatever I want (the whole “day” format doesn’t work for me so I just divide it up basically). With that in mind, I’ve discussed approaches that work for people who do track (like myself) and people who don’t. (P.S. If you have issues with food, calorie counting, tracking, etc. where those numbers can cause anxiety or bring up negative feelings, I’d encourage you to talk to someone and avoid anything that brings up those negative feelings, including tracking. )
I’m not an expert or nutritionist or dietician or anything like that, but these are few of the tips that I’ve found to be very helpful when trying to plan meals.
[okay this is an actual a picture of study materials for my CSCS and a killer salad, but you get the idea]
Actually PLAN ahead: Before you plan your meals for the week, a few decisions have to be made:
- How often do you want to eat?
- How much do you want to eat?
- What do you want to eat?
I've covered allll of those things before, so I’ll direct you to this meal planning crash course.
EXECUTE the plan: It’s one thing to say you’re going to plan ahead and it’s another thing to actually execute the plan. Putting a plan into action does not have to be some horrible battle of willpower or involve a super restrictive style of eating. Instead, you can use meal templates to help you construct and idea of what you’re going to be eating for the next day or week. I’ve talked about meal templates a few times but basically, meal templates operate like a modular system that you allows you plan out how much food to buy and allows you to swap in foods based on “categories”. You can build different templates based on your differing needs throughout the week – maybe you have a “workout day” and “rest day” template, or if you carb cycle, you can have a template for your low, medium, and high carb days. Your template could look something like this:
Breakfast: protein source + fat + veggies
Snack: protein source + fat + veggies
Lunch: protein source + fat + veggies
Snack: protein source + fruit
Dinner: protein source + fat + carbs + veggies
Based on your typical serving size, you can guesstimate how much food you will need for this day. Let’s say I eat 4-6 ounces of protein as a “serving” – well on this day, I would need to have 20-30 ounces of protein or 5 servings. I can prep 5 servings of protein and set them aside for this day and add my fat source, fruit, and veggies and voila, all of my meals for the day are done. You can get as specific or as vague as you want with this, depending on your style of eating.
If you are someone who tracks their macros or calories, the planning process can be accomplished pretty easily – simply use whatever program or app you prefer to input a day’s worth of meals ahead of time. You can do this for several days or different food combinations to get an idea of where your numbers are at each day. So now my template for the same day make look like this:
Breakfast: 3 eggs + tablespoon butter + spinach & peppers
Snack: 1 can tuna + ½ avocado + broccoli Lunch: 6 ounces chicken breast + olive oil + spinach, peppers, mushrooms
Snack: protein shake + apple
Dinner: 4 ounces ground beef + tablespoon coconut oil + 1 cup roasted sweet potato + green beans
Moral of the story is - if I make a few templates according to my nutrition needs throughout the week, I’ll have an idea (either very specifically or vaguely) about what I need to make on my prep day so that no food is wasted and I’m not spending a fortune on food I don’t need! Over time, this becomes easier – you will have a better idea of how much food you need, what you need to make, and how your eating habits change during the week. Basically, it will be a whole lot less thinking about food.
Now, the example meal template above is pretty specific. I’ve basically spelled out exactly what I plan to eat on this day. Which brings me to my next tip….
[On Saturdays, we drink coffee, bench, and eat cookies (gluten-free ones for me!) ]
Be FLEXIBLE: One of the nice things about taking a more “modular” approach to meal planning by using meal templates is that I can swap out different “categories” when I feel like it. Let’s say I’ve planned out my day using the example above and when lunch rolls around, I really don’t want chicken. No problem – maybe I’ll swap in a boneless pork chop instead.
One way to turn this concept into something concrete is to prep your meals in the same modular way that you create your meal templates. Instead of making a chicken salad, maybe separate the ingredients out into a container with chicken and a container with your salad ingredients. Now, you can just simply grab the salad container and a container with another protein source (like our pork chop example) and be good to go. It seems like a simple thing, and it IS a simple thing, but I’ve found that this “modular” method of meal construction is super helpful and feels a whole lot less restricting than being bound to eating whatever you have already made in your fridge or being left having to think about how to combine something into a meal several times a day.
If I’m someone who tracks my macros, I can just make the swap in whatever tracking program I use, and adjust throughout the day accordingly. If I switch out my chicken for a pork chop - maybe that means I’ll just have a little less fat with dinner or something. Also, laying out your day ahead of time allows for more flexibility. Want to go out to lunch? Go ahead! You can always adjust later in the day if needed. Taking a more modular approach allows you to think in categories rather than being tied to ONE specific meal or combination.
I personally like to track all of the next day’s planned eats in an app and then adjust as I actually move throughout my day. That way, I know where I am throughout the day. This takes away a lot of the stress and anxiety of trying to find foods to “fit” whatever you need - if I want a mid-bench press set cookie, I’ll eat the cookie and adjust accordingly. No stress, no guilt, and I don’t have to spend time thinking about how I’m going to “fit” that cookie into my day. My day is already laid out for me and I can see, with relative ease, how I need to adjust my day.
Putting it into practice: So here is how I actually execute meal planning and prep in two hours - from chopping to cleaning the kitchen - on a Sunday, using these tips:
- Make my meal template (I’ve already done this so this saves me a lot of time)
- Get ready – grab my cutting board, knife, things I’m going to prep, preheat the oven, etc. I always preheat my oven to something like 375F so I can throw in several different items and can cook them all at once.
- Prep proteins: I trim whatever piece of meat is going into the slow cooker and season things like chicken thighs, pork chops, etc. that are going in the oven. I will start cooking things like ground beef on the stovetop.
- Prep veggies and carb-dense veggies: I dice potatoes, slice peppers, get sweet potatoes ready for roasting, slice up onions, etc.
- Make my oven multitask : I will put veggies, protein sources, and potatoes in the oven. I set a timer for 15 minutes or so to check the items and take them out when they are finished. When one tray goes out, another goes in to start cooking.
- Carb sources: I will boil water for rice pasta and put rice in the rice cooker.
- Making meal components: I fill a few Tupperware containers with salad ingredients, fill two containers with potatoes & hard boiled eggs (my work breakfast), fill other containers with some of the cooked veggies. I portion out proteins (chicken, pork when it’s finished) and carb sources (rice, pasta) into separate containers. I make any “meals” I will know I will eat (like the same breakfast I take to work every week) and leave the rest.
- Clean the kitchen.
And that’s it! Once you have a routine in place, this process becomes so very easy. Now, it’s just something that I know I do on Sundays and it saves me so much time and energy during week.
So tell me: do you meal plan/prep?