A practical guide to meal planning for weight loss (or any other goal)
23 February 2017
Fairly frequently I see people in various places around the internet asking about how to get their diet in check. Most people understand that they need to be counting their calories and macros, but actually planning ahead and putting that into practice can be pretty overwhelming if all you have at your disposal is an app that, for the most part, only helps you retroactively log what you’ve eaten. And by not planning ahead you’re really setting yourself up for temptation and failure.
So how do you actually plan ahead? How can you build a meal plan that works for you, that doesn’t feel overwhelming, and that you can actually stick to? That’s what I’ll be addressing in this post. Also, a big part of what Strongr Fastr’s automatic meal planner does is handle all of this for you, so sign up for our beta if that interests you.
And, keep in mind everything below can pretty easily be adjusted for building muscle or body recomposition/toning. The calorie and protein requirements will just be different.
Anyway, let’s talk about what makes an effective meal plan. In order of importance:
- Appropriate amount of calories (duh)
- Easy (or at least not overly difficult) to stick to
- High enough protein intake
- Other macro and micronutrient considerations
This is all fairly obvious when you think through it. Any meal plan that has you eating too many (or too few) calories is inherently useless for any weight loss (or gain) goal. And any meal plan you can’t stick to is also going to be mostly useless. Not eating enough protein is less of a problem – your weight will still be moving in the right direction, but the composition of your losses (fat vs muscle) might not be ideal.
Number 4 is really where things get hairy, complex, and controversial – I’ve gotten into more than one flame war about “good” fats vs “bad” fats, the villainization of carbs, “superfoods”, etc. etc.. But number 4 also has the lowest payoff of “getting it right” (except insofar as it affects number 2, i.e. eating foods that are filling). So I’m not really going to touch on it too much today, except to say that you should not be deliberately avoiding any macronutrient (carbs or fat) and you should be eating a variety of foods including vegetables. Revolutionary, right?
So let’s get into the step by step process of how to build out a meal plan that meets these criteria.
Figure out your calorie and protein targets.
Calories: use a calorie calculator to estimate your maintenance intake. Then, for weight loss you can calculate a safe deficit as whatever results in losing 0.7% of bodyweight/week, which is:
daily_deficit = current_weight_in_lbs*0.007*3500/7
This would be about 500 calories/day for a 150 lb person and 1000 calorie for a 300 lb person.
Protein: if you’re losing weight, you should be shooting for about 1g per pound of bodyweight per day (unless you’re obese in which case this can quickly become a ridiculous amount of protein). Keep in mind this only applies to weight loss, and protein requirements are much lower if you’re maintaining or gaining.
Figure out which vices you really really can’t do without. Maybe it’s a few beers on the weekend or eating a bunch of greasy pizza on Friday nights. Whatever the case, it’s important to recognize that a little indulgence is key to a sustainable meal plan: most people will fail if they constantly feel deprived. As long as you’re hitting your calorie and protein targets and your vices aren’t taking up more than ~15%, maybe 20%, of your caloric intake you’re probably fine. So figure out which meals you want to eat off-plan, or how many calories you want to set aside as “cheat” calories and subtract those from your daily needs.
This step is also pretty subjective and something to experiment with. Some people are probably better off cutting out all temptation entirely. I’m not one of those but YMMV.
Once you’ve subtracted out any cheat calories, you can divide the remaining calories and protein between your daily meals as you see fit. I like to do 40% dinner, 40% lunch, and 20% breakfast with most of the protein handled at dinner and lunch, but this is totally up to you.
For each meal, go through and pick your foods/recipes:
- Start with a high protein main dish that mostly takes care of your protein target for the meal (it doesn’t have to be high protein if you’ve allocated most of your protein requirements to other meals). Typical choices might include some kind of chicken breast/thigh, some kind of fish (though fish can quickly get expensive), or eggs but you don’t have to be that rigid. Stews, casseroles, sandwiches, pastas with a meaty sauce can all be pretty high protein. That said, if you’re really on a tight budget you’re going to have to accept either (a) eating lots of chicken, eggs, and dairy products, (b) supplementing with whey, or (c) reducing your protein target, which is not ideal but also not the end of the world.
- Pick any side dishes still needed to hit your calorie target for the meal. Most of the protein requirement should be taken care of by the main dish, giving you a fair amount of flexibility here. This is your chance to throw in some greens and basic carbs. As far as greens go, I’m partial to frozen veggies you can steam in the microwave because they’re extremely easy. For carbs, things that require little/no prep or you can easily cook in big batches and eat as leftovers are great. Think rice, bread, pasta, potatoes, sweet potatoes, oatmeal, beans, etc. Also great about these types of dishes is you can pretty much arbitrarily scale them to meet your calorie target.
- If this is a breakfast/lunch/snack type meal, don’t be afraid to pick ‘sides’ that make sense, i.e. snacky stuff like granola bars, nuts, yogurt, string cheese, whatever. Convenience is important if it increases your likelihood of sticking to the diet.
Figure out how repetitive your plan is going to be. Generally speaking there’s a trade off between variety and simplicity. Obviously if you eat the same dinner all week, you could hypothetically cook in one big batch and not have to worry about cooking dinner again all week. This would also simplify your grocery shopping trips and mean you wouldn’t have to put energy into planning more than one dinner per week. But then you’re eating the same meal for 5-7 straight days, which can get pretty dull.
So it’s important to find a balance where you won’t dread eating the same meal again but you also won’t dread cooking and thinking about a new meal every night or two. What works best for me is a very repetitive breakfast and then a couple different lunches and dinners each week.
Once you’ve figured out how repetitive you want to be, you can scale your recipes accordingly and repeat the process until your week is all filled out. That basically covers it, so now I’m gonna throw out some example meal plans to give you guys an idea of what this might look like.
Example meal plans
Weight maintenance plan for sedentary 5’11” male w/ rekt knee <- my own recent meal prep
I can add some more examples if people are interested.