I’ve worked with a lot of people over the years. It’s crazy to think that I’ve got nearly 15 years “in the game.” Having had the great privilege of walking this journey with so many fine people… I’ve picked up on some common themes that tend to be present in the vast majority of success stories. One of those themes is meal planning. In some form of fashion, flexible meal planning seems to be critical for most peoples’ success in this fitness thing. I know that it is for me.
One of these awesome people – Kara, a former client – recently dropped some gold right in my lap. I’m quick to say… my clients are far more expert than me at applying fitness to their lives. I’m just their ally… helping them figure out how to keep doing it. I’ve known Kara a long time from the ‘net. She’s always a wealth of information – quick to help people on the various message boards. She recently posted this on the BI Chance Community. Kara being Kara, she quickly agreed to let me share her advice about meal planning here on the main site.
I’m a meal planner. I love to plan meals and part of that is that I love to cook. And as messed up and crazy as I can get about other things, meal planning and missing a meal or having to change things up is one thing that I don’t freak out about. I don’t know why – I don’t know if it’s related to the way I plan or if it’s something inherent in me. But I’ll explain my process and see if it helps you any or makes anything click.
First of all, I almost always eat the same thing for breakfast. I have either yogurt & frozen blueberries OR a smoothie made of yogurt, blueberries, spinach OR scrambled eggs on toast (or in a tortilla if I have tortillas handy) with onions and spinach. The first two are fast and easy meals for when I have to leave home in the mornings. The scrambled eggs is something I make when it’s too cold to face yogurt or when I have extra time in the mornings. I eat that 6 mornings out of 7. The 7th morning, I generally sleep in and then go get brunch with my boyfriend or housemate. I don’t worry about the brunch meal and I have whatever I want and don’t freak out about it. It’s a “freebie”.
During the week lunch is always leftovers from the night before/earlier in the week OR a lean turkey sandwich/wrap OR a tuna salad sandwich – usually I have veggie soup with the sandwiches. I often make a big batch of veggie soup on Sunday and keep it in the fridge and I keep backup cans of low-sodium veggie soup that I can heat in the microwave in my desk. And I usually have either a sliced apple or some grapes or whatever fruit is in season with that.
Dinner is where I go crazy. I start off planning 5 meals – allowing for one “I don’t know what the hell I want” or “let’s just go out” night and one Sunday evening where I know we’re going to snack, probably grill something, or maybe order pizza. Again, I don’t freak out about the unplanned snack meal. I just make sure that I have things like a variety of veggies and fruits and pop some popcorn so that I don’t over eat on junky stuff.
For the planned meals, I start with a protein and a veggie (the men in my life are meat eaters, so unless it’s just me for dinner, every dinner will contain an animal protein of some kind). I start with the protein – fish, chicken, pork, beef – and then pick veggies to go with. About 3 out of 5 meals I’ll plan a starchy side – either rice or potatoes or something like that. Every meal includes a green salad of some kind – either a spinach salad, or a mixed green salad, or cabbage slaw. Even if the salad is a handful of greens out of a bag, I still include a salad.
Now here’s the trick. I don’t assign my 5 meals to a day. I just have a list that I’ve shopped for. So if I have a particularly tough day at work on Monday and I decide that I don’t feel like making stuffed pork loin, I look at the planned list and pick the baked salmon that I can just shove in the oven for 20 mins instead. And if I don’t make all 5 of my dinners, then I just roll whatever doesn’t get made over to the next week. Sometimes that happens. Sometimes stress gets the better of me and I stand in front of the fridge and mindlessly eat cheese and crackers, or I’m exhausted and I have a drink and go to bed without dinner (that’s happened a lot recently), or … I dunno. Whatever.
But the whole thing about the plan – as it’s written above – is that it’s a GUIDELINE. It’s not written in stone. If Zach says on Tuesday “I don’t want a turkey sandwich, I’m craving Thai food” then we go get Thai food. Or if I have to go into the office and don’t have time to make my tuna salad then I swing by Wendy’s and get a chicken salad to go. (and sometimes, yes, I do get fries with that).
I’ve never seen a meal plan as something that I had to adhere to or be a miserable failure (I reserve that for other issues in my life wink emoticon ). If you miss a planned meal, you miss a planned meal. Eh. So what. Move on and eat the next one. And if you eat a little more because you’re hungry, that’s fine too. Then the next morning just go right back to it.
***Here’s a screenshot of the simple spreadsheet Kara uses for her meal planning. You might have to click on it a few times until it’s enlarged.***
One last word of caution. Kara touched on it a couple of times and it bears repeating. Meal plans are not meant to be rigid rules. They’re guidelines to help you plan ahead, prepare in advance, streamline your shopping, and make the quality choices easier to make. As with everything else, the art of meal planning is a process of experimentation in order to figure out how it best fits into your life.
I have clients who literally plan every single day for the next day. I have other clients who ride out the same meal plan for months on end. And obviously everything in between. There’s no right or wrong to it… it’s what meets you where you are and the only way to figure that out, again, is through experimentation.
Don’t make this about passing of failing. It’s about trying and learning. Neglecting this skill is literally what stands between some people making progress and remaining stagnant. Of course it’s not a panacea… if you don’t struggle with fat loss or nutrition and you don’t meal plan… all the more power to you! But if you aren’t getting the results you’ve been seeking… this is definitely one of those skills you want to practice.
If you have any further tips or tools, please comment below. By sharing what works for you, you’ll be giving options and tools to people who might otherwise struggle indefinitely.