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I’m gonna be honest: I have a real love/hate relationship with meal planning, and from the conversations I’ve had with my clients, I think that’s a pretty common feeling. Because I’ve struggled with implementing my own meal plan, I made myself an easy-to-use template. It’s been extremely beneficial! Since it’s helped me so much, I want to share it with you along with some tips I’ve learned along the way.
Meal Plan vs Meal Prep
For the purposes of this post, a “meal plan” means planning out what you’re going to eat for the week. I’m not going to tackle meal prep in this post, or preparing your planned meals ahead of time. That’s a separate topic with its own issues and benefits. We’ll get to that later!
Meal Planning for “Diet AND Exercise”
Meal planning can be a key to the success of your fitness goals. Let’s be real, if your goals involve a change in your physique, such as fat loss, body recomposition (losing fat and gaining muscle at the same time), or hypertrophy (putting on muscle mass), diet AND exercise – not “diet OR exercise”- are critical components in reaching your goal. There’s a reason body builders have the reputation of being obsessed with food!
But what about those of us who don’t have physique-related goals? Even if you’re focused on performance, diet still plays a big part in your success. Eating too little or too much of the wrong types of things can be detrimental to the hard work you’re accomplishing in the gym.
I still remember one training session in particular where I had gut-wrenching hunger pains and the only thing on the menu was heavy deadlifts. I was hungry, and a little hangry (that’s hungry + angry). Thanks to poor planning, I ran out of time in the morning to make a decent breakfast. I didn’t have anything quick and easy on-hand, or so I thought… in hindsight, I could’ve easily grabbed a banana and a protein shake, or maybe a string cheese, but I was running late and didn’t have time to stand around and think of the possibilities.
To make a long story short, I was grumpy and I deadlifted hungry and I hated everything and I damn near ate the chalk block. Don’t suffer like I did, be prepared!
Taking the time to make a meal plan helps you stick to your goals because it makes doing the right thing easy. I want you think about any occasion where you’ve bombed out on your diet. When and why did it happen? Most people trash their diet when they’re 1) tired and/or 2) stressed out. You’re gonna have a MUCH easier time sticking to your diet if you make it easy to do so.
The Benefits of Meal Planning Go Way Beyond Fitness
- It limits waste by making sure that you either use or freeze your fresh food before it goes bad.
- It saves money! Alongside of the aforementioned lack of waste, it allows you to more effectively shop sales when you know approximately how/when I’m going to be using the stuff I buy. This can make sticking to your budget easier. Anyone who regularly buys their lunch when at work knows what a huge expense that can add up to be. You can make your lunch for pennies on the dollar compared to buying it somewhere!
- It frees up brain space. Have you ever heard of decision fatigue? I’m planning a blog post around it, but here’s the gist of it: we have finite ability to make decisions in our daily life. Having to make a bunch of little decisions (like what outfit to wear, what to eat for breakfast/lunch/dinner, etcetera) saps our ability to make larger, more-important decisions. Using a weekly meal plan lets you cluster your meal-related decisions and coast along the rest of the week. Save that precious energy for bigger things, like important financial decisions, or decisions at work.
Regardless of how closely or loosely you track and manage your nutritional intake, a simple meal plan can greatly benefit your life.
So let’s get to it, eh?
Weekly Meal Plan Template
Meal planning fits into one of my very favorite themes in life, one I see played out again and again: Simple But Not Easy.
I’ve put together a Weekly Meal Plan Template that you can download for free.
It looks like this:
There are two versions:
- A single pager for people who don’t need a lot of space to write stuff down (Download the PDF: Weekly Meal Plan – 1 Page)
- A two page version for people who need a little more space (Download the PDF: Weekly Meal Plan – 2 Page)
You may open this and think I’ve forgotten something, because it looks too simple. For better or worse, there really is no trick to meal planning successfully. Basically, you need to know:
- What food you have available (which shows you what food you need to buy), and
- When/how you’re going to use it.
It’s that simple [but not easy]!
How to Meal Plan
Here’s an example of a meal plan all filled out and ready to go for the week. Let’s use it to figure out how to do this process!
If you have diet goals, keep them at the forefront. Are you eating low carb? Counting calories? Paleo? A 90/10 scheme on any of the above? Whatever your diet plan/goal, write it at the top. In this example, carb cycling is the plan.
Fill in your typical meals. In our example, we have a pretty standard set of meals: breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. But everyone has their own preferred way to eat, from grazing on small meals all day to eating one or two very large meals. Whatever style works for you is great! Write it down.
Write down all the food you have or are going to have available for the week. For me, this usually involved standing in my kitchen and opening and closing the fridge a few hundred times.
To make the planning process easier, I like to note the number of servings I have. You can also put a special note by things you already have, and things you need to buy (or make).
Make special note of things that need to be eaten. Boxes of pasta in the cupboard can hang out there for months or even years, but that leftover burger you grilled this weekend needs to be attended to rather quickly. I like to put a star by it or highlight it.
Start filling in your daily meals. Personally, I like to fill in all my breakfasts for the week, then do all my lunches in a group, and then all my dinners. You may prefer to fill in all your meals for a certain day before moving on to the next, or perhaps you prefer another way to fill it out.
When it’s all done, post it somewhere where it’s easy to see. I put mine front and center on the fridge. Just in case my brain shuts off when I get hungry (it happens!), I can reference my meal plan and stay on track.
A Few Final Tips
Break this process into manageable chunks. We’re working with a weekly meal plan in this post, but if that seems like an insurmountable hurdle at first, break it down! Dip your toe into the meal planning waters by planning just your dinners, or maybe just your lunches for work.
Use your meal plan to assist your grocery shopping and cooking schedule. An example from my life: if I want to eat sandwiches for lunch on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, I need to make bread before then. However, my Tuesday night schedule is packed full, so I know I should make it Monday to save myself a headache.
Be realistic. Maybe you’d like to have a fresh, hearty breakfast every morning but you’re have trouble waking up in time and getting out of the house for work. Cooking up bacon, eggs, toast and fresh squeezed orange juice every morning probably isn’t realistic. Plan meals that fits your goals and your real life.
Go Forth and Meal Plan
I hope you found this post helpful! Like I said, I have a love/hate relationship with meal planning. I’ve loved everything about it except for sitting down and actually doing it. Since using this template, I have found it to be much less painful.