Meal planning and preparation might be the thing that separates those who succeed in their fitness pursuits from those who fail. Whether your goal is weight or fat loss, muscle gain or just better performance, learning this skill and sticking with it might be your not-so-secret weapon!
For over two decades, I have been coaching my clients to plan and prepare their meals on a regular basis. Those who have had the most success are those who have taken this practice to heart and made it part of their life.
For myself, I have struggled with weight loss and management my entire adult life. During those times that I have been successful in keeping my weight where I want it, meal planning and preparation has been a huge factor in that success.
During the COVID-19 lockdowns and all that accompanied this massive public policy failure (don’t get me started,) I admit that my meal planning and preparation disciplines have crashed pretty hard. That, however, has been corrected and now the ship of my health and fitness is getting back on course to somewhere fitter and healthier.
Since I know I’m not the only person struggling with these issues, I decided to share what I consider the five key elements of meal planning and preparation. Each is a general idea, with more specific aspects involved. Here goes.
Start Small, Win Big
You may feel like you need to tackle “forever” in planning meals for the future. But just because the past has been a disorganized mess doesn’t mean you have to perfect the next 10 years, or even 10 weeks, of food planning.
Start with a small, measurable amount of time. I usually advise first-time meal planners to start with 3-5 days. It’s an easily manageable amount of time and the meal preparation work for it won’t bog down an entire weekend (which is when most meal planning and prep seems to happen.)
This means you’re more likely to actually enjoy the process and experience. Enjoying the experience means you are more likely to repeat the process. You won’t continue long with anything you really don’t like.
Before actually planning a menu, there are a few things you’ll need to know. The first is this: what kind of food plan are you making? Are you simply creating a healthier, balanced meal plan? Are you using a paleo, ketogenic or Whole30 plan? Have you done your homework?
Knowing what kind of plan you’re using matters, since each diet plan requires specific cooking styles and ingredients. My suggestion? Start with a balanced, healthy meal plan. Try to include 40 percent of calories from protein, 30 percent from carbohydrates (primarily fruits and vegetables) and 30 percent from fats.
So if you’re eating 2,000 calories a day, that breaks down to 800 calories of protein, 600 calories from carbohydrates and 600 calories from fat. You’ll want to avoid processed foods and foods with added sugars and salts.
PS…That’s a suggestion. You may want to consult your doctor or a nutritionist before choosing a plan.
And before you ask, no, you don’t have to buy all organic foods. If you can afford to do that, great. But if it breaks the bank and adds stress to the process, don’t worry about it. Get the freshest fruits and veggies you can buy. Get fresh dairy products and high-quality meats and fish. It’s the menu and prep that will really matter in the end.
Part of this first meal plan is to pay attention to how you feel about the process. If it’s enjoyable, or at least not a miserable pain in the butt to complete, take note of that. Also notice your satisfaction levels for each of the meals you make. That’s important, too.
Set Aside Time and Start Smart
How long do you need to organize and execute meal planning and preparation? That really depends on the menu you create, the foods you choose to prepare and your skill levels in the kitchen.
Kitchen skills lacking? Don’t worry, your skills will get better with repetition, which will in turn speed the process.
If possible, choose the same time each week for the planning of the menu, shopping and meal preparation. Being disciplined about this means it is less likely to “interfere” with other aspects of your life. In our house, it’s most often menu planning over Friday morning coffee, with shopping Saturday morning and prep work Sunday mid-day.
Try to create some variety in your menu. That being said, you’ll want to keep a stable of “winners” handy. These are meals that make everyone happy and are relatively simple to make. They’ll be handy for filling in the gaps in your plan between newer or more complex meals.
They will also be handy for “stress weeks.” Those are weeks when you know your weekend is busy or the coming week has expected challenges. The last thing you need is a complex meal plan or a bunch of meals you haven’t tried during these weeks. Simplicity can help conquer stress.
When designing your menu, get the family involved. Kids are more likely to want to eat the meals you’ve prepped if they have a say in what they are.
Get Organized and Stock Up
Being organized is a key to success here. I’m lucky enough to be married to a woman who keeps a very organized kitchen. I mean, her spices are in alphabetical order. Yes, I know I’m very lucky.
Get your pantry, refrigerator and other food related spaces organized the way you want them. Be sure to have the tools you need to complete the meal plan you have in mind.
There is one kitchen tool that is essential in our house and should be in yours, too, in my opinion. A crock pot or slow cooker can allow you to cook a meal while you do other meal preparation. A lot of people swear by their instant pot, but I’ll take the slow cooker, thank you.
Stews, soups, chili, pork loin, beef roasts and even a whole chicken (split into parts) can be cooked in a slow cooker. Throw in your potatoes, onions and other hard veggies and you’ve got a meal. You’re welcome!
I mentioned a spice rack earlier. You’re going to want one, and you’re going to want it well-stocked. Salt and pepper are no-brainers. Onion powder, garlic powder, cinnamon, sage, thyme, rosemary, celery salt, cumin and a host of other spices can not only lend unique flavors to food, but many have unique health-enhancing properties as well.
Your pantry is another place to stock and organize. Here are some of the things I’d suggest you stock in your pantry (depending on your taste and meal plans, of course):
- Canned tomatoes – whole, chopped and/or diced
- Broths – chicken, beef and bone broths are common
- Canned tuna, chicken and salmon
- Canned veggies (for convenience) and no-sugar-added fruits
- Grains – brown, black or wild rice, quinoa, bulgur, oats
- Oils – olive, coconut, avocado
- Dried or canned lentils, black beans, red beans
- Baking needs – baking soda and powder, cocoa powder, flour, cornstarch
- Other needs like nut butters, nuts and seeds and dried fruit
You’ll also want to keep your recipes together. Whether you do this digitally or old-school is up to you and should fit your lifestyle. Highlight the “winners” and the meals you’ve tried that have unique appeal or are appropriate for special occasions.
Here’s a time-and-energy-saving trick. When you plan a week’s menu of meals that works really well from the perspective of planning and execution AND the eating perspective, save the whole menu somewhere! Then, when you want to repeat it, boom! You have the menu, shopping list and everything else ready to go!
I hope by now you’ve figured out that when you are planning your meals and putting your shopping list together, the first place to “shop” is in your own pantry, fridge and kitchen. That way, you don’t duplicate things and you can stay ahead of needs, too.
Don’t go food shopping without a list of exactly what you need. Also, stick to your list. Avoid “whimsy” purchases. You know, those “ooh, those look good” kind of things. Be disciplined and diligent.
One great way to end up with a shopping cart full of crap you don’t need and shouldn’t be eating anyway is to go food shopping when you’re hungry. One bit of advice: don’t do it. Even if you have steel willpower, being hungry in the middle of all that food is just too tempting.
If you can, buy in bulk. Eating chicken or ground beef (among other meats and fish) this week? Buying it at one of the club stores (Costco, Sam’s Club, etc.) will let you have what need for this meal plan and freeze some for later. You’ll get a better price for something you’re going to use again.
The same goes for less perishable food items like olive and coconut oil, nut butters, rice, beans and a host of other foods. It’s not hard to figure out what can be bought in bulk and stored for later use.
Prep Smart and Have Fun
When it comes time to make the meals on your plan, there are a few things that can make your life easier and might even make the process more fun.
Are you trying to eat more fruits and vegetables? Wash those and prep them first. Cut and portion some of them into “snackable” portions. Put them in a prominent spot in your fridge, so they’re right in your hungry little face when you want a snack.
Cook things in batches. Cooking chicken for meals? Think about cooking a few extra and freezing them when they’re finished. Now you’ve got ready-to-go chicken for any extra meals or “just in case.” Making chili or stew in your crock pot? Make a double batch and freeze half. Now you’ve got a meal-sized batch ready to go for another meal plan.
Plan leftovers for lunches. When we cook meals on our plan, we cook enough so that we can have a dinner and at least 1-2 lunches from that meal. This helps ensure that your lunches are “on the plan,” too.
You can meal prep your breakfasts, too. There are lots of great breakfast casserole recipes available that will make a bunch of breakfast portions that fit your plan. You can even make omelets and reheat them up to 5-6 days later.
If possible, get the whole family involved. You can teach your kids about food prep and get them started with good food habits early. Plus it might be fun! Turn it into a game or put them “in charge” of certain parts of the process. I’d choose the parts without knives or whirring blades, but that’s just me.
There are other tips and tricks for meal planning and preparation. These are just some that I and my clients have found useful and effective over the past 2+ decades.
I hope this was helpful to you! If you have any really good meal planning and preparation tips, feel free to drop them in the comments or on my Facebook page by clicking right here: Coach Phil Hueston.
Keep the faith and keep after it!