Meal Plan Strategy: Building a Plan That Works for You
There are countless places online to find meal plans or meal planning advice. But what I've noticed is that most of these articles simply give you a bunch of recipes to crank out and expect you to do your best Martha Stewart impression. Instead of doing that, I'd like to talk about how to make those great recipes you've been stashing in your bookmarks and copying from your grandma work in the context of a healthy meal plan.
My nutritional philosophy breaks down to a few simple rules: Fresh, whole foods are best, Try to Limit the "Bad" Stuff', and Timing is Important. I base my meals around the traditional Breakfast/Lunch/Dinner format and throw a couple of planned snacks in between to keep me feeling full throughout the day. I mostly cook dinner (for two) every night and try to make breakfast and lunch ahead of time for workdays.
The three main courses are filling, but not so much so as to feel that food fatigue (aka the "Itis") afterward. The snacks help bridge the gap between meals and keep those hunger pangs at bay. Throw in a couple of protein shakes and it makes for good balance of energy and nutrition each day. A typical day of meals for me would look something like this:
- Meal #1 (6:30am): Big Smoothie (1 cup Mixed Frozen Fruit, 1/4 cup Almond Milk, 2/3 cup Spinach, 1 scoop protein powder)
- Snack #1 (9:00am): 1 cup Plain Yogurt (w/ Fresh Fruit added)
- Meal #2 - (11:00am): Grilled Veggie Taco Bowl
- Pre/Post Workout Meal (1:30pm): Protein Shake
- Snack: #2 - (4:00pm): 1 Cup Almonds
- Meal #3 - (7:00pm): Salmon + Roasted Sweet Potatoes
Portion control is important, so spreading out the daily dose of calories allows me to stave off the cravings for those overstuffed plates that leave you with a food hangover.
While I do have a sizeable sweet tooth, I try to avoid sugar as much as possible and limit servings of simple carbs to early in the day before I workout.
As far as beverages, I pretty much only drink water with every meal. That may be boring for some, but I find the easiest way to avoid adding on the extra calories and sugar each day. I'll add in some green tea or a cup of black coffee when I need a caffeine boost, but mostly I stick with H20.
I've seen a lot of people advise you to pre-cook your lunches (and maybe even dinners) ahead of time on Sunday. I've used this strategy before, but I find that spending my entire Sunday slaving away in the kitchen gets exhausting after a while.
In order to keep my sanity, I'll mix it up by making a an extra serving or two for dinner on certain nights to bring with me to work the next day. This is not revolutionary idea by any means, but it works really well if you cook dinner every night anyway. Whichever strategy you choose, it's important to remember that healthy meal planning needs to be good for your mind and body.
I like to make my grocery store runs on Fridays. I'll make a big run on a bi-weekly basis, grabbing produce, packaged items, and frozen foods. I'll run back the weeks in between to keep fresh produce in stock. I'll spend a few minutes in the morning (gathering recipes along the way) planning out what I'll cook or the next couple of weeks and make the trek right after work. In order to save on grocery costs I try to select recipes that make for leftovers and versatile ingredients that can go into multiple dishes.
I find that the scheduling your meals is the most important factor in staying on track with any meal plan. When you have a schedule to stick to, it makes it easier to plan what you are going to eat. I happen to start work very early, (6:30am) so cooking a full breakfast is not really an option unless I wanna wake up at the crack of dawn.
My solution is to prepack my blender with smoothie fixins and store it in the fridge to blend in the morning. I typically consume it before I leave home or on my commute. I pack a good amount of stuff in my smoothie, so it keeps me full until snack time at about 9:00am. For those that have a more little time, it may be better to make a healthy breakfast sandwich before you hit the road.
I am fortunate to have a gym in the building where I work, so three days a week, I use my lunch break for a quick workout. On those days, I'll take a short break to eat a packed lunch around 11:00, then take a full lunch break later to workout. In order to stay fueled for workouts I'll down a 1 scoop of protein shake + water before and 2 scoops with water after.
I realize not everyone can or will work out mid-day, so for those of you who workout after regular work hours (or in the morning), this 1 scoop/2 scoops protein boost is the terrific way to ward off hunger and keep from feeling bloated before a training session. In addition to being the perfect post-workout supplement, you'll feel full enough to survive until the next meal. On off days, pre-made protein shakes or chocolate milk make for a great additional snack.
People often say to me that an eating style so regimented must get "boring". I can see how it would look that way from the outside, but I tend to feel that the opposite is true. Because my meals are scheduled, I don't have the stress of trying to decide what to eat on a daily basis. Plus, I it's so much more satisfying to deviate and eat out for lunch or have an out-of-plan snack.
My rules for cheating: I'll eat a "cheat meal" 2-3 times per week, but never more than once in a single day.
Having the schedule locked in keeps me from making dieting missteps and holds me accountable. Furthermore, since much of the food is prepped ahead of time and I bring it with me to work, the possibility of wasting food helps me avoid the dreaded vending machine indulgences.
Hopefully these techniques and tips can provide a little guidance to those in need of help with creating a meal plan of their own. Not everyone has the same daily schedule mentioned here, but the key is that you have to make your plan work for you.
It will take some time refine your plan, but if you keep at it, something that can seem daunting at first will soon become second nature. Meal planning is definitely a great way to help you maintain balance on your journey to health and wellness. Whatever your style, remember to keep it fresh and have fun. Happy planning!