Meal planning is awesome because it takes most of the thinking out of fat loss. You invest an hour or two once per week and all of your meals are sorted. You don’t have to go through life constantly resisting temptations, because you have fewer dietary decisions to make each week.
In this post I’m going to give you a step by step blueprint for how to meal plan and put fat loss on autopilot — to see better fat loss and save tons of time and energy.
Meal planning is a fairly complicated skill that takes a good amount of practice so be patient with yourself and just because you didn’t realize you didn’t have enough cumin, or when you got home from grocery shopping you saw the onions were moldy, doesn’t mean you should ditch the strategy, just sigh, shrug, and say, "OK, now I know for next time".
Step 1: Commit to a habit
Making meal planning work for you means making it a habit.
This is a complex habit so you want to get real specific about when you’re going to meal plan. Otherwise you won’t get around to meal planning and you just read this article for nothing.
To start building any new habit, pick a behavior that will move you towards your goal and are absolutely sure you can do. In this case, it’s something that will contribute to a meal planning habit.
Then, with that in mind, fill in the blank:
I am 90-100% sure that I will (new habit) when I (trigger) for the next 7 days.
The trigger is something to remind you to practice the habit. This means your trigger is an action you already do often and automatically. The trigger ought to be something that is already a habit. This guarantees enough opportunities to practice your new habit.
I am 90-100% sure that I will plan my dinners for Monday-Friday and go shopping (new habit) on Sundays after I drink my second cup of coffee (trigger).
Write this down on a piece of paper, crumble it up and put it in your pocket.
Pick a trigger that makes things easier for you. For example, if going to the grocery on a Saturday means the grocery store is busy, hectic, and stressful, pick a different day to go when the shop is less daunting.
If you were too excited about meal planning and find your new habit is a little too advanced for you right now e.g., you bought groceries but didn’t cook them, it’s OK.
You can make it easier by doing what’s called “scaling”. All this means is you take the same habit and make it easier. For example, with the meal planning habit above, if I end up planning 3 dinners that week (which is still awesome because I wasn’t planning meals AT ALL before) I can scale it by changing it to:
I am 90-100% sure that I will plan out 3 dinners and go shopping (new habit) on Sundays after I drink my second cup of coffee (trigger).
Then I work on that habit for a week. If I’m feeling good about this, I can bump it up to 4 dinners a week. And then the next week I can bump it up to 5 times a week, and so on and so forth.
Break it up into as many steps as you need to keep moving forward, to keep building momentum no matter how shitty life gets.
You don’t need to plan all of your meals right from the beginning. A better place to start would probably be planning 1 or 2 meals a week, then the next week planning 3 meals, etc.
For the rest of this post, I’ll be talking about getting all of your meals planned, but the principles are the same regardless of how many meals you plan per week, you just swap out the numbers.
Step 2: Make a list of your favorite healthy meals, healthy snacks, and indulgent foods.
If you’re eating something, it should be from this list. Because why wouldn’t you only eat foods that tasted good? Health and taste aren’t mutually exclusive.
There’s no need to make food unenjoyable just so you can shed some body fat.
Keep a running list of your favorite foods. I’d recommend dividing this list into categories such as carbs, fats, proteins. If you have no idea what that means click here. You could just as easily group them into meat, plants, grains, starch, dairy etc. Whatever makes sense to you.
Now, you have your list of favorite foods, you just have to decide what you want to eat this week. If you already have a few go to recipes, just use those. If not, now is when you peruse the internet looking for some healthy and simple recipes.
Pick a food from your list and search for “simple healthy (food of choice) recipe” and see what comes up. If the internet’s idea of “simple” is different than yours, try searching for “5 ingredient (food of choice) healthy recipe”, or however many ingredients you feel like cooking with. This should narrow things down a bit.
I’d say try and find at least 5 recipes for now. Make sure you save your recipes somehow, either by printing them out and keeping them in a binder, bookmarking them, or giving them their own Pinterest board, like I’ve done here.
Math time! How many meals in a week?
3 meals and 1 snack a day is a really good target to aim for. So take that and multiply it by 7.
7x3=21 so you have 21 meals and 7 snacks to plan. We’ll come back to this in a second.
Step 3: Decide how many different meals you need. Are you OK with eating the same things all the time?
If you don’t get bored easily, or are at least ok with boredom, your life/fat loss will be way easier because meal planning will be more simple. Because your grocery list will be shorter, and there will be less pots and pans to clean up.
Prioritising variety, novelty, and entertainment means meal planning will take significantly more work to implement. Who has time for that?!
Besides, you already probably eat the same things most of the time. You probably eat the exact same thing for breakfast every single day of your life, save when you go out to brunch. Even if you eat different things for lunch and dinner, I’m going to wager you have 3 or 4 meals you eat 80 percent of the time even when you go out to eat.
How often to do you change up what you order at your favorite taqueria? If you’re like me, literally never.
Literally, the only worthwhile reason to change up your meals is if eating the same thing for dinner everyday makes you hate life.
It’s a trade off between convenience/simplicity and entertainment/novelty. So it’s up to you to decide how easy you want to make this. Personally though, I recommend changing the meals as infrequently as possible.
I’m a fan of simplicity. Simple workouts, simple nutrition, simple fat loss. I'd rather just eat the same things all the time if it saves time and energy, and get my indulgence fix from occasional restaurant meals. However, you may not share this sentiment, which is fine. There are lots of areas in between every meal the same and every meal being completely different.
Here are a few different ways to do this from most simple to least simple:
- Same exact thing for every meal every day: Pretty self explanatory. If you get bored and can’t deal, find another recipe to eat every day. As much as I love simplicity even I can’t do this one. Although it’s definitely not unheard of.
- Same thing every day, different meals: Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are different meals, but every day’s meal plan looks the same. If you get bored, find 3 new recipes to eat every day.
- Alternating weeks: You eat meal 1 for a week for dinner. You eat meal 2 the next week. The week after that you go back to meal. This is my favorite balance as you switch it up every week, get familiar with your recipes so grocery shopping and cooking becomes automatic. but you change it up enough to not get sick of those meals. And if you do, you just find a different meal to swap it out with.
- New meal every week: Week 1 you eat meal 1. Week 2 you plan a different meal. So each week you pick a new recipe, which you’ll eat everyday at a given meal.
- Alternating days: Monday you have meal 1 for dinner, Tuesday is meal 2, Wednesday is meal 1 etc.
- A completely different meal for every day of the week: This means you’d need to have 7 dinner recipes planned, which just sounds like a pain in the ass. And as I said earlier, I doubt you have that much variety in your diet now, so there isn’t much reason to include this much variety just because you’re meal planning.
And of course, all of the areas in between. Start with whichever format makes the most sense to you, see how it goes, then adjust.
Consistency is king, so I would only change it up as much as you need to stay engaged.
In a large way, making peace with boredom and putting the effort in regardless of how motivated you feel is the key to success.
Step 4: Decide what do you want to eat for breakfast? Lunch? Dinner?
Once you decide what format you’re going to use it’s time to decide what you’re actually going to eat. Pick your recipes from the list you made earlier.
Write down all of the ingredients for every recipe you need then math it up to know how much you need of each ingredient from the store.
So if you’re going to have 1 rosemary chicken breast and 1 fistful of broccoli every night for dinner, that means your shopping list should say:
7 chicken breasts and 7 fistfuls of broccoli, in addition to whatever else you need to buy.
Finish your shopping list with the exact quantity you need to buy of everything. Your first shop will probably be more expensive than subsequent shops as you’ll need to buy spices and such which you won’t need to refill too often.
Once you’ve completed your shopping list...
Step 5: Go to the store and buy everything
Simply buy everything you have on your list. If they don’t have something you need, ask yourself what could be a good substitute. For example, say all the broccoli looks kinda sad and like it’s about to go bad in like 5 minutes, look at your list of favorite veggies and swap it out for something else, keeping the portions more or less the same.
For things like spices, you can often just leave them out of the recipe, it probably won’t taste as good but it's not like it’s going to ruin your salmon if you can’t put thyme on it. Don’t worry Gordon Ramsey isn’t going to bust down the door if your meals don’t turn out perfect.
Step 6: Finally, cook stuff.
Now just make everything following the recipes you have and portion it up into tupperware. You now have all of your meals for the week. Boom!
Repeat the process next week. Keep practicing. It will get easier and easier each week. And the better you get at this process, the more body fat you’ll lose.
Foreseeing obstacles and creating backup plans
If possible, it’s better to solve problems before they happen. If you can anticipate what things could potentially go wrong, you can prepare for them in advance.
While it’s impossible to guess EVERYTHING that might happen, you can progress more quickly by assuming things will go wrong, and anticipating difficulties ahead of time.
From my own and my clients’ experience learning to meal prep, here are some potential problems. Some of these you’ll recognise from earlier in the post but it’s worth repeating.
- Problem: Not having enough ingredients
Solution: Add a portion or 2 more than you think you need onto your list
- Problem: Forgetting to buy a key ingredient
Solution: Live and die by your grocery list. Take a picture of your grocery list with your phone in case you forget your physical list.
- Problem: Running out of prepared food before the end of the week.
Solution: This one’s tricky as a big part of meal planning is figuring out how much you actually eat throughout the week. Because when you first start meal planning you’re really just making a guess. When you’re not meal planning you don’t pay nearly as much attention to portion sizes and fullness. A main reason meal planning is so helpful is because of this fact, that you become more aware of your portion sizes and hunger cues. Other than just taking note of this and buying more food next time, always keep some convenient non-perishable backup meals on hand like lentils, tuna, and frozen veggies. Know what your fall-back meals are -- the meals you can easily make no matter what happens. This way if you undershop, you don’t have to resort to Grubhub.
- Problem: Food going bad.
Solution: Don’t shop at Trader Joe’s. Only half kidding. Jokes aside, it’s going to happen. A lot. Same solution as the previous problem. Have a well stocked freezer full of veggies, and a pantry full of dry goods. You can also set a reminder in your phone or recruit a friend to build a meal planning habit with you so you can help keep each other accountable. Keeping a food journal will also help you remember you have some healthy meals ready to go and that if you don’t eat them it will be a waste of time and money.
- Problem: Grocery store out of something on your list
- Solution: Swap it out for something similar, or if it’s not essential just leave it. My online client Chris came up with the brilliant idea of taking pictures of the produce and spice sections of the corner market by his house. That market is obviously pretty convenient so if he can shop there he will. The problem was that, because it’s not a huge supermarket, they don’t always have everything. Simply knowing what he can get close by and what he can’t makes having all the necessary ingredients that much more convenient.
This list of potential problems is by no means exhaustive. Take a few minutes to ask yourself what you foresee being difficult and come up with a plan B and C. As my online client Chris has shown, looking for innovative ways to solve problems and adapt is what’s going to make meal planning a game changer for your fat loss.
Tools of convenience
Convenience is king. Most people eat the way they do because it’s convenient. So if you can find some little ways to make meal prep more convenient the scale will reward you. This is essentially what meal planning is all about, making health and fat loss more convenient than behaviours that cause weight gain.
3 tools to make meal planning that much easier.
You just throw your ingredients in and leave it. It’s awesome. You don’t have to worry about the house burning down or anything. My Mom used a crockpot quite a bit growing up so she could take care of 4 kids, work two side jobs, and still have healthy meals ready for her whiny child(ren) who wanted ice cream instead. Point is, no matter how busy and overworked you are, you have time for the crockpot.
Obviously you need a microwave to heat up your prepared meals. Another great use of the microwave is to steam veggies. It takes about 5 minutes depending on the type of vegetable and your microwave. This is really useful for times when you get home late and just want something quick and healthy.
Say you don’t want steamed veggies though, you want to stir-fried broccoli or potato and eggs. A quick steam in the microwave before throwing them in your frying pan means they’ll be ready much sooner.
Simply put your veggies and a bit of water in a microwave safe bowl, cover it with a plate or something, and microwave them until they’re soft.
It’s a little extra cash of course, but it’s worth it especially if the thought of cooking seems daunting. Buying pre chopped veggies just removes one more barrier to cooking. Less work, and again, less clean up.
Now you have everything you need to meal plan like a boss right out of the gate.
- Commit to a specific meal prep habit.
- Create a list of your favorite foods.
- Decide how many different recipes you need.
- Calculate your ingredients and make a grocery list.
- Buy everything on your list.
- Follow your recipes and portion out your meals into tupperware.
- Eat said food.
- Make note of mistakes and come up with a short term and a long term solutions.
And again, be patient. Mistakes will happen and that’s OK. Just move on and do better next time.
Below I’ve included some other relevant posts to help you dominate meal planning and conquer your fat loss goals. Enjoy!
- All You Need to Know about Proteins, Carbs, and Fats in 699 Words
- Simplify Lifelong Leanness with this Hack for Reading Nutrition Labels
- Fat Loss Tips You Can Use to Eat Healthy at Work
- Getting Fit on a Budget: 5 Affordable and Accessible Fat Loss Strategies