20 Meal Planning Pointers
Aiming for Weight Loss? Be strategic with these tips.
If you’re trying to shave off pounds, then pre-set programs with ready made meals and products might really tempt you. People DO lose weight on such plans, but for most, that’s the easy part. It’s keeping weight OFF after “completing a program” that proves to be the real challenge. So, mastering real-life, ongoing meal planning might just be the ticket to loss AND lasting results.
Below you’ll find 20 suggestions for making meal planning more clearcut and more effective. You’ll see they don’t really address calorie tracking per se. There are a few different ways to approach weight loss. Most people do record calories (or “points”), working within a daily budget estimated to trigger weekly weight loss. Some try on particular clothing, say every two weeks or monthly, or use a tape measure to track their size. Athletes may assess bodyfat. Others take a much more fluid, intuitive approach (in which case, it’s a great idea to collaborate with a dietitian who specializes in intuitive eating). However you go at it, I hope these tips provide a jumping off point.
Cover the macros.
At the most essential level, we eat to nourish and fuel the body. If you tend to gravitate toward fads that avoid entire food groups, reconsider! Meals should always contain some protein, fat, & carbohydrates. General guidelines (published jointly by the USDA and HHS) recommend them in roughly the following percentages of calories daily: 10-35% from protein; 45-65% from carbohydrates; and 20-35% from fat.
Make a big list of foods in categories.
Take a sheet of paper and create columns for macros—protein, fat, & carbs. What foods do you like and eat regularly in each category? Which columns are looking pretty sparse? Brainstorm as many foods as you possibly can and use this list as a database for choosing recipes & planning meals.
Troubleshoot what trips you up food-wise.
Whether or not you produce the master list mentioned above, know which foods tend to derail you when it comes to weight loss. Chips and soda make obvious choices, but so can two avocados a day. Including these items only sparingly, buying them in single serving portions, or eating them only when you dine out are potential strategies.
Be honest about medical issues.
Have you been told (or even suspect) that for medical reasons you need to really pull back on eating sugar, sodium, or saturated fat? (And if you suspect so, please talk with your doctor.) Build this factor into your plan—something that benefits just about everyone, by the way.
Cull your recipe collection.
Anyone else have a big decades-old binder with recipes clipped from magazines? (You remember, those thin, glossy book like things?) Or lots of recipe books from years gone by? Haul them out, sit by the fire & a mindless movie, and start culling. Finding healthy favorites from years ago may just inspire you this week.
Survey friends about faves.
One of my best friends happens to be a dietitian, and I love asking what she’s eating these days. First of all, she can make a can of beans sound phenomenal. But mainly, I always come away with great ideas. Friends don’t have to be in the food field to share amazing recipes. Ask around.
Peruse social media.
Pinterest and Facebook. Need we say more? Just about every recipe you’d ever want to make is out there, probably even that entire cookbook collection mentioned above! Plug in a couple of ingredients plus the word “healthy” and start perusing.
Try something outside your comfort zone.
Social media opens a door to SO many options that it could tempt you to try something new—maybe food from another culture or a veggie you thought you didn’t like, but wow, it sure looks good on screen! Meal variety makes takes some of the doldrums out of the weight loss process.
But also rely on the old reliable picks.
Most people who lose weight and keep it off tend to eat very predictably. Check out the NWCR for a really fascinating inside peek into the habits of folks who’ve sustained weight loss. When you make a plan, know what foods & meals usually help you stay on track and stick with them. My own breakfast & lunch stay roughly the same most days of the week with dinners adding variety.
Leave room for flexibility.
If you don’t build some flex into your plan, two things can happen. One, when you veer away from it, you might believe you failed & drop the plan altogether. Two, you may feel so locked into an inflexible plan that feelings of deprivation seep in & the plan becomes unsustainable. Some people include a weekly “free” meal or a “free” afternoon/evening when they can just back away and forget about meal plans. Others may opt for a small treat once or twice a week to be enjoyed at their whim.
“Shop” your pantry & freezer first.
Clutter breeds confusion when it comes to meal planning. If your pantry & freezer are so packed with random items, organize first. Then decide which items will fit nicely into the week’s plan before shopping and stacking more food atop old.
Plan the big meals weekly.
If planning overwhelms you, just start with the most complex meals of the week, dinners for most people. This works especially well if, as mentioned above, you already tend to eat pretty consistent breakfasts & lunches.
And simultaneously craft the grocery list.
Make your shopping list while planning meals and you’ll save yourself from “reinventing the wheel” later. If you’re like me, you NEVER try to shop by memory, LOL! (In fact, most of the time, my list stays on the kitchen island when I leave for the store, and then I pray someone’s home to text me a photo of it!)
Also consult with the fam as you plan.
Making meals every night that everyone in the household enjoys presents a pretty impossible challenge. But surveying the gang and incorporating some favorites serves a couple of purposes. Because eating is an ancient, communal act, that sense of togetherness can be strangely broken down when one member constantly eats differently than the rest of the clan. Making something you all share also makes it clear that yours is a lifestyle rather than a temporary diet, which can increase family buy-in. Also, creating “healthier” versions of favorite meals is very doable —just be sure the revamped ones retain most of the tastiness.
Shop when the store is quiet.
You’ll dread grocery shopping less when you don’t have to dodge crowds (especially now during covid precautions), when you can really focus, and when you can make it snappy & get back to other things. Early morning, mid-afternoon (when babies are napping, kids are in school, and the after-work influx hasn’t begun), and just prior to closing time are good bets.
Don’t shop when you’re tired or stressed.
You’ve probably heard it said you should HALT any meaningful activity, including grocery shopping, if you’re HUNGRY, ANGRY, LONELY, or TIRED. Most people will start tossing comfort foods into the cart under these conditions. And obviously once those items make it home, they’re way more impossible to resist.
Post meal plans in sight.
Years ago, one client of mine told me he never recorded his food on an app or paper, but he did religiously write down meals & snacks on a wipe-off board on his kitchen counter, clearing it every night & beginning again first thing the next day. I’ve never forgotten this because its simplicity worked beautifully for him. We don’t need to get too fancy. Sometimes just seeing the plan holds you to it.
Don’t ignore beverages.
Remember that drinks, even nutritious ones like juices, can contain a slew of calories. Even small calorie bumps can add up. Recently, a friend who’d begun recording calories realized her coffee creamer consistently sent her “over budget.” She didn’t stop using it; she simply paid attention to portions and also subbed unsweetened tea for some of the day’s joe.
Hold onto plans so you can repeat them.
One big vote for tracking meals & keeping records is this: When a week works particularly well for you, you can easily recreate it. If you find you really enjoyed the menu, didn’t feel deprived, and potentially experienced a little weight loss, that plan’s a keeper.
Keep things super simple til you’re in a good groove.
I believe the biggest reason people fail to meal plan comes from the fact that it overwhelms them. Change is tricky. If you feel like you have to keep too many balls in the air, you might quit juggling and go back to what you usually do—even if that means perpetually winging it day by day or meal by meal. Instead, pick one step that seems doable. Maybe for the first month, you only plan out suppers. Or maybe you start by spending two weeks simply creating a recipe collection that excites you. You don’t have to do ALL of the tips above at one time. Keep things simple til you get into a groove.
Weight loss should NOT be an unbearably uncomfortable, dry, unappealing process. With a bit of planning, we can make it a lot more rewarding. Eat healthy. Feel good. Lose gradually. And as always, be well.