How to Strategically Build
the Ultimate Personal Meal Plan
Learn How to Design a Meal Plan Customized to Your Personal Quirks, Tastes and Lifestyle
How to Strategically Build
the Ultimate Personal Meal Plan
Learn How to Design a Meal Plan Customized to Your Personal Quirks, Tastes and Lifestyle
How to Strategically Build
the Ultimate Personal Meal Plan
Learn How to Design a Meal Plan Customized to Your Personal Quirks, Tastes and Lifestyle
How to Strategically Build the Ultimate Personal Meal Plan
I’m going to show you how to setup the ultimate meal plan.
I’m talking a meal plan that helps you reach your goals nutritionally, and in its very setup (which is your custom design), it makes it easy to stick to your plan even when life gets wonky. It balances flexibility and adaptability with clear-cut boundaries.
As you’ll see, I’m not really talking about a meal “plan,” so much as a personal system that keeps you on track.
Why Should Anyone Listen to Me?
For the simple reason that when I first got into fitness and losing weight I screwed up in pretty much every way imaginable.
This means I’ve spent a lot of time coming up with systems that keep my dumb self on track.
A meal plan is one of those systems. But there’s more to it than just following some random set-in-stone meal plan you found on the Internet, or some list of foods sent by a trainer. Following a plan because you feel you “have” to can lead to disordered eating.
Please remember: it’s not that you follow the plan or else you are “bad.” That’s just… do not think that way, okay? Please? (If you have a trainer who’s treating you that way, fire them.)
Instead, having your own plan is about a personal sense of autonomy and agency, self-efficacy, and an internal locus of control.
This post is an attempt to provide a foundation for what a meal plan can do for you, and how it can be used as a tool or strategy to balance fitness with the rest of your life. You can almost ignore the nutritional stuff in this guide; the real oomph is going to be in the psychology of what we’re doing, and how your meal plan’s underlying design and setup will affect your motivation, your willpower, your hunger and satiety, your thoughts towards food, and so on.
(Note that I say you can “almost” ignore the nutritional stuff. Don’t actually ignore it. This is because the nutritional stuff and the psychological stuff are inseparable. You will begin to understand why as you read this post.
As a small side note, I also want to acknowledge the work of others. For example, if you look at the sample meal plan I provide in the downloadable package of files at the end, you might see hints of Scott Abel’s work (e.g. his Cycle Diet), and there are also of course ideas here from other names in fitness (Alan Aragon springs to mind), as well as folks outside of the health and fitness space, such as Kelly McGonigal, Carol Dweck, Charles Duhigg, and more.
Why Should You Setup a Meal Plan? Simplicity.
Proper meal plans are designed to keep things simple for you. They alleviate the mental cost of decision-making. This is a minor cost, but it is one that adds up over time.
We need to do some calorie counting at first, but after that, the goal is to avoid having to think about calories as much as possible. This is about having a personal system you can “lean on” with confidence, without actually having to think about the system very much.
KEY CONCEPT: You do the work up front, then just rely on the system, and let the system do its work.
You setup your own, personal meal plan with custom options. You set up emergency alternate meals and/or backup meals. You calculate alternate this and alternate that. Blah blah.
And when you’re done, you just… don’t think about food. That’s the key. You don’t spend time at your computer or on your phone calculating this, that, or the other thing. You don’t negotiate with yourself about whether this or that will fit into your calories for today.
“Can I fit this in? What if I cut the portion of…?”
No. Stop. You don’t do any of that. You just… follow the plan.
Whatever happens, you just… follow the plan.
The plan allows choices, but only simple choices where you know any option you pick is a “win” that you can feel good about. This is very motivating.
As long as you follow the plan, it’s a win. Got that? As long as you follow the plan, it’s a win. It’s a weight off your shoulders.
Note that I’m not talking about being the diet police, and then taking pride in that. That is just… don’t do that. (Seriously, just don’t.) Adaptability and change and iteration needs to be built in.
As you go, you can change the meal plan based on things like food preferences or cravings, but for the most part, you set things up so you’re not required to think about these things unless you want to.
So, no: you don’t change the plan on a day-to-day basis. You modify the plan when you have some spare time on the weekend and you’re thinking about the plan as a whole. This way, you’re doing it rationally and when you can think about the larger picture.
You don’t modify the plan when you’re at the office and someone offers you a cookie. You don’t modify the plan “on the fly” as you pass by a Cinnabon. You do it when you’ll actually be thinking rationally.
Before We Begin:
I’m going to show you how to set up a healthy meal plan that’s intelligent, smart, and strategic.
I will even include a calculator later on, plus other resources (tools, examples, spreadsheets, etc.), just to make this as easy as possible for you.
However, I’ll be honest: setting this up for the first time is kind of… well, a pain.
Is it a lot of words to read through this guide? Yes.
Is it a pain in the butt to setup something like this? You betcha.
Again: that’s the point. Once you set it up, the work is done.
There is a great deal of peace of mind knowing that you don’t need to second guess yourself. Is your brain playing tricks on you? Probably. But it doesn’t matter, because you just trust the plan. That’s always your answer.
“What about abo—“
No. Trust the plan.
“I know you said that, bu—“
No. Stop. Trust the plan.
Steps 1 to 5 are pretty basic. You’ve seen them before. But as we go through them, and especially when we got to Steps 6-10, you’ll start seeing a theme emerge about creating a system that works for you. You end up being a craftsman. You craft options and rules that will serve you and your values and principles. This requires intelligence, creativity, self-awareness.
We can break down the meal plan design process into three parts: calculations, personalizations, and iterations.
Part 1. Calculations
Step 1. Decide on a Total Calorie Range.
Step 2. Figure Out a Protein Target (in grams)
Step 3. Decide How Many Meals in Your Plan
Step 4. Use Steps 1-3 to Calculate Your Per Meal Calorie Ranges
Step 5. Use Steps 1-3 (again) to Calculate Your Per Meal Protein Target *
* I’ll include a calculator to basically do Steps 1-5 for you.
Part 2. Personalizations
Part 1. Calculations
Step 1. Decide on a Total Calorie Range
Make this up if you have some experience, or just use a simple formula that’ll give you a reasonable target range of daily calories. By simple, I mean simple. For weight loss, I would choose this:
[ bodyweight in pounds ] X 10 = Lower Range[ bodyweight in pounds ] X 13 = Upper Range
Boom. So for a 200 lb. person, we get 2,000 to 2,600 as our total daily range.
I chose 10-13 instead of the usual 10-12 just to round up a bit and play it safe.
You can cut calories later on to “tighten things up.” But I like having a larger range because it lets you make a few decisions based on hunger, without actually overeating. You can always stick to the lower range if you want! (Or, again, if you need to tighten things up.)
Also, forget Harris Benedict or Katch-McCardle or Mifflin (Dunder Mifflin?) or blah blah bleebidy bloo. They all suck, but offer the illusion of not sucking. That way madness lies.
A simple bodyweight X 10-13 has this single advantage: it is not making ANY pretensions about being super accurate.
It is what it claims to be: an estimate to get you started.
Step 2. Figure Out a Protein Target (in grams)
Protein is even simpler than calories. You don’t even need a formula. Your bodyweight in pounds is now what you eat in grams of protein. So our 200 lb. dieter eats 200g protein per day. Boom.
But isn’t the accepted formula for “protein needs” really 0.82g/lb of bodyweight?
Yes. Fine. But going up to 1g/lb has several advantages:
(1) It’s not even a formula. You don’t have to “multiply” your bodyweight by “1”. You just… take your bodyweight. Then you’re done. It’s that simple. Screw maths.
(2) Protein is more thermogenic than carbs or fats. That is, digesting protein burns more calories. A bit more protein can therefore help with dieting.
(3) Protein is more satiating than carbs or fats. Most satiating of all is a combination of protein with a carb or a fat. As you’ll see, that’s exactly what I suggest below.
(4) If you go with my formula and go “over” the minimum, you give yourself some wiggle room, just in case you mess up, or one of your back up meals means you’re actually just under your target. In this system, that’s fine. No worries at all. More is certainly not always better, and you can absolutely take this too far, but going up to 1g/lb from 0.82g/lb is not “too far.”
(5) It’s hard to find unhealthy proteins.
(6) And if you want to use 0.82g / lb of BW… just do that.
Step 3. Decide on How Many Meals Will Be In Your Plan
So then we decide how many meals you will be eating on your meal plan: two meals, three, four, five, six, seven?
This is up to you. However, once you pick, you should stay consistent, day to day. The goal is simplicity, and in this case, the hormonal entrainment of ghrelin (your hunger hormone).
Eating at roughly the same times each day, without snacking just “whenever,” will control hunger, and it will create psychological bright lines. I.e. is it on the plan? No? Then don’t eat it. No psychological negotiating. No spending all day on MyFitnessPal trying to figure out what you can “fit in.”
(Don’t panic. The meal plan will have options.)
Aside from personal preference, as a good rule of thumb, the fewer calories you eat, the fewer meals you should have. If your upper range of calories is 2,000 or below, I recommend not going above five meals. This is just so you can actually feel each meal hit your stomach.
As you will see in the next step, we want to make our meals evenly spaced out in terms of calories, because this will make meal substitutions easy peezy. This is optional, but I recommend it.
Step 4. Use Steps 1-3 to Calculate Your Per Meal Calorie Range(s)
So still using our 200 lb. friend as an example, let’s say he picked 3 as the number of meals per day he will eat.
All we do is divide the upper calories and the lower calories each by 3, and round off to whatever:
2,600 / 3 = ~870
2,000 / 3 = ~670
Calories per meal = 670 – 870
What the above means is that each meal should be above 670 calories (or thereabouts), and below 870 calories (or thereabouts).
What matters is iterating, adjusting, and tweaking based on not just how you progress, but how you experience hunger, or even how hard it is to make your meal plan work in your personal life circumstances. In other words: making it work while living in the real world.
I’ll get to that.
Step 5. Use Steps 1-3 (again) to Calculate Your Per Meal Protein Target
Same as step four, but this time for protein.
You can do two things here. Option 1 is just dividing total protein by total number of meals. Again, with our 200 lb. friend:
200 / 3 = 67g protein per meal.
That’s a general target. If we miss it, no biggie (no, really, it doesn’t matter), especially because we gave ourselves wiggle room earlier. The other thing you can do is give yourself a “minimum.” If you want to do this, just use the same formula, but subtract about 10%.
Step 1. (200 / 3) = 67g
Step 2. 67g – 10% = 61g
…or heck even round down to 60g! (Because seriously, it makes no difference.)
If you’re confused, here is a calculator that basically does Steps 1-5 for you:
(If the calculator doesn’t come up, try clicking here.)
Boom shaka-laka. Steps 1-5 (and Part 1) is done.
Let’s go over what we’ve done at this point:
- We decided on a total calorie range per day, based loosely on bodyweight.
- We decided on the number of meals we would have.
- Using this, we figured out what the range for each meal should be.
- We repeated the above two steps for protein.
What we have in front of us:
We now have a basic set of “rules” we can use to create a meal plan with options that can be swapped in or out. No matter how we swap in or swap out our meals, we will fall within the right range.
Here is an image of a meal plan that should get across what we have at this point:
Some Quick Question and Answers
But what if I want to make one my meals bigger or smaller than the other meals?
No problem. You just have to make sure that your total meals will still add up to your target range. If you add calories to one meal, just subtract those calories from the others.
Let’s say you wanted to make Meal 2 bigger, and it was a three-meals per day plan.
- Add 50 calories to the bottom range and top range of Meal 2. Great: now Meal 2 is bigger. So, to account for this, just subtract 50 calories from the bottom range and top range of Meal 3. Meal 1 stays the same.
- Or, ALTERNATELY: After you add 50 calories to Meal 2, subtract 25 calories from the top and bottom ranges of both Meal 1 and Meal 3. The end result is basically the same.
What about those flex options I see in the screenshot? Won’t this screw that up?
This is a decision you need to make for yourself, based on your own desires, cravings, and how you see yourself actually eating these meals in the real world.
If all your meals are not the same size, you need to be more creative, and just keep an eye on what the end goal is: a set of meal options or rules that basically always keep you on target.
Here are some ideas:
- Make two versions of a flex meal: a bigger portion size and a smaller portion size, depending on what meal it is replacing.
- Subtract just a few calories from the top calorie range of all your meals to account for the fact that one very specific combination of meals right now would put you over the top of your target.
- Just don’t worry about it! You can tighten things up later if it’s a problem.
All you need to do is ask yourself,
“Is my plan set up in such a way that I will always fall within my overall target range, no matter how I mix and match my meals or options?”
Again, the idea is that, on a day-to-day basis, you know that as long as you follow the plan, you can think to yourself, Yes, that’s a win.
In short: you need to make the plan dummy proof. (All dieters are dummies.)
This requires creativity. But go with it. Try things. Put together something that will work for you, not just in “the” real-world, but in the real-world of your life.
Part 2. Personalizations
Step 6. Pick Your Foods and Figure Out Portion Sizes
You now have a few sets of numbers to keep in mind for each meal.Using these, here is how to set up a meal plan that doesn’t suck:
- Each meal should include simple whole foods your grandmother would recognize. My grandmother would recognize “potatoes.” She would not know what an “Xtreme Thinsation” is. She would not know what “low carb sugar alcohols” are. Exceptions for me are protein powder and rice cakes. This is mostly convenience, combined with the fact that they’re both pretty good, regarding your overall satiety.
- If you’re just starting out, then yes, brand-name foods, or pre-made dinners are fine… for some meals, but NOT all of them.
- If you’re just starting a diet or trying to lose weight, I would focus more on getting this system right before I did anything else. In other words, yes, sacrifice other habit- or diet-related priorities to get this right, up front. Move on to those other things when you’re comfortable with this new setup. Yes, this even includes exercise. “Getting the meal plan right” would be my main focus. In general, don’t try to change multiple habits at once, but do aim for big wins. A solid diet strategy and meal plan is a big win. So put in the work now to get it right.
- Each meal in the plan should be comprised of a protein, plus a carb, a fat, or something that’s a little of both. Examples: Chicken and potatoes, cottage cheese mixed with protein powder and almonds, eggs or egg whites and oatmeal mixed with a tablespoon of peanut butter. You get the idea. You should also include portion sizes for all of these, so it’s not just “chicken and potatoes,” but actually “150g chicken and 180g potatoes” or whatever. The portion sizes are up to you, and you’ll have to play with them to make ‘em fit your general ranges.
- Each meal in the plan should have alternate meal options. In addition to these (where the alternate options are tied to an individual meal), you *can* also set up a few vague “alternate meals” that can be swapped in for any of your meals from time to time. Or, really: if all your options fall within your calorie ranges above, your meals can be totally 100% interchangeable. You have to play with this a bit. There is not a hard and fast rule on it, except the plan has to make sure as long as you’re following it, you’re not screwing up too much.
- Use calorie counters like MyFitnessPal or Excel or something to figure out portion sizes and set up your plan and decide on what foods and in what amounts. But after the plan is set up, copy and paste the plan into a text file, and when you do this: don’t include the calorie counts. Yes, do save the calorie counts elsewhere for future reference, when you want to come back to the plan and modify it. But for the plan you print out, don’t include them.
- You can iterate the plan as you go. Do not change up your plan every day. Instead, keep it to once a week (at most) or something. More on this below.
- Carbs after 6 p.m. are allowed and encouraged, especially if they help you sleep!
- Do not count Pam cooking spray or ketchup or things like that. Doing this is going down the calorie-counting rabbit hole. Don’t do it.
In most meal plans, Step 6 would be the very last step. (This is why most meal plans aren’t very good.)
The goal at this point is to have some basic options and variety, but your decision-making is never more complicated than “A or B.” That’s it, that’s all. A or B. “Hmm, maybe I’ll go online to calculate if I can fit in—“
NO! Your options are A… or B. That’s IT.
Make your decision, feel like a cool smart person because you know all your options will produce a “win,” then move on with your day and stop thinking about food.
If you’re still craving whatever it is, have it for a cheat meal later that week (deferred gratification is cool and good), or if what you’re craving is basically a healthy whole food, you can consider setting it up an alternate meal option this weekend, and iterate the plan as a whole.
Step 7. Add In Your Own Personal Weirdo Rules
Personal weirdo rules are important because they are yours.
First, they give you a sense of autonomy and an internal locus of control. (This is also why the plan as a whole should be setup by you.)
Secondly, the other reason for these weirdo rules is to include ones that force you to bring out your best self… however you may define that. This can be about being smarter, more humble, more driven, more passionate, more motivated, whatever.
The purpose is not to include rules because we’re the diet police and we want to keep ourselves in line.
At the same time, the purpose is also not to include rules because, “Well, I really like Skittles.”
The purpose is to ensure you’re thinking about food in a positive and healthy manner, to help you get in touch with the sweet spot of hunger, and things like that.
The rules keep you locked onto your values and principles.
This is where it gets down to a person-by-person thing, and you have to really dig into your motivations.
So, for example, “It’s important to me that I be able to eat out with friends on a regular basis,” could be a very good reason, depending on those underlying motivations. If it’s about maintaining your mental flexibility and wanting to “be there” for your friends, well, that’s a good principle and a good underlying motivation. No matter what, you should not miss social engagements over food; the question is how you approach them. Do you order nothing? Just a Diet Coke? Do you, perhaps, have a rule that when you do go out, you order the salmon with baked potato? Again, you need to be real and honest with what will serve your goals, avoid any mental turmoil, and — as I said — bring out your best self.
In the case of eating out, there are several ways to accommodate that into a diet in a reasonable and healthy manner, by getting used to ordering off the regular menu so that you effectively get a meal that’s pretty close to what’s on your plan anyway (e.g., “I’ll have grilled chicken and a baked potato. Could you hold off on the [whatever] sauce you usually put on the chicken?”). For these, planning ahead makes it much easier. You might have an “order of operations” for what to order: start with the grilled chicken and baked potato. Oh, they don’t have that? That means you move on to the steak and grilled veggies. None of that either? Then it’s the salmon and a salad, please.
Moderation is possible; the only thing I want to acknowledge, is that moderation isn’t always easy to “just do.” Everyone says “use moderation” but half the time that’s the more difficult option!
“Complete abstinence is easier than perfect moderation.”
For example, it can be very motivating to be “perfect” and to “only” eat what’s “exactly” on the plan.
The problem is that you can easily go too far with this.
Too much calorie counting can lead to obsessive calorie counting.
Being “perfect” for some people makes them feel good in one sense, but it means they never go out to social engagements where food will be present, and they feel tormented over it. That is not healthy.
The rules are here to give us a framework for navigating these tensions according to our own values. (No, not my values, and not your personal trainer’s values — your values.)
The system I’m proposing here is that you try to incorporate personal rules (and principles) that allow you to get the best of both worlds, especially when it comes to moderation.
You know you are using some mental flexibility, and you know you are not turning into a social shut in because of your diet, and you know you aren’t getting obsessed about calories… but you feel very good about your meal-to-meal decisions, because they all “fit the plan,” given its structure and the personal weirdo rules you set up beforehand.
In order to do this well, you need to be honest with yourself about your principles, your values, and your actual, real-life circumstances. (What are the potential hiccups for your diet? What responsibilities do you have? etc.)
What rules you make to accommodate these sorts of thing are all up to you, but just ask yourself: is this rule bringing out my best self (however you define that)?
It depends on your priorities, but generally, always come back to the idea that the point of these is to bring out your best self.
“Well, I want to fit this in because its tasty” isn’t necessarily your best self. It’s just a craving. I mean… that’s fine. Cravings are absolutely part of life. It is normal that you have them. Please don’t feel guilty about that at all. They’re a part of you; they’re just not the part of you that makes you an awesome amazing human being.
Good weirdo rules can keep you in a mindset of “I am making decisions that serve me and my goals” while at the same time preventing you from becoming overly obsessed with calories, macros, and being afraid to go out with friends because of the mental turmoil and temptation.
The example rules I have here generally accomplish one of a few things:
What Weirdo Rules Accomplish:
(1) They allow for some mental and real-world flexibility (in the sense of preventing obsession).
(2) They keep you from reifying calorie counts or thinking there is something magic about being overly precise with them.
(3) They help you get in touch with your own hunger and the “sweet spot” of hunger without letting you truly over eat (or binge).
(4) They provide backups for real-life circumstances that allow you to be flexible while feeling good about your decisions.
Here are ideas that I have used or seen other people use:
- Drink as many zero calorie soft drinks as you want, provided that for every glass of calorie-free [whatever] you drink, you drink a glass of water.
- Create an alternate meal option that includes eating at a fast food joint like Subway or McDonald’s. Make this option fit into your calorie guidelines above *mostly*. It’s okay to be off by 50-100 calories. Do this once a week for the sole purpose of reminding yourself that no meal plan is perfect, there is no magic calorie level, and a few preservatives won’t kill you. Whether or not this is a good rule for you depends on your mindset. This isn’t about “well, I like McDonald’s.” It’s about confronting the fact that no plan is perfect, and you can’t maths your way thin.
- For example, let’s say our 200 lb. friend is trying to keep his meals between 525-575 calories (or between 500 and 600, because he’s a cool dude who is willing to round things up or down, for simplicity). So he orders the 6-inch Chicken Teriyaki with X, Y, and Z because the website said that option is 550 calories, and that’s perfect, given his plan. Our 200-lb. friend knows the website’s calories are often off base (even up to 200%!) but he includes this meal anyway, because it’s a reminder to him that no diet is perfect, and consistency matters more than being super obsessed with calorie tracking.
- Same as the above, but go to a non-fast food restaurant, and order off the menu. I.e. ask for grilled chicken and a baked potato, and could they hold the butter? Don’t be afraid of this. Own it. This is a good rule if you need confidence doing something like this.
- Create a set of “go-to” options for restaurants that fit your plan. Grilled chicken and baked potato. Salmon and grilled veggies. Grilled chicken or tuna salad. Acknowledge that these may not match up perfectly with your calories, but you’ll be in the ball park and that’s good enough.
- Go out for a cheat meal once a week. This is to keep things real. A good addendum to this rule might be: go out for a cheat meal once a week, but it has to be with friends, and it has to be at a restaurant. This way, you don’t need to keep tempting foods in the house, and you won’t sit at home alone and binge. You’ll have a real meal, maybe with nice dessert. You won’t have 20,000 calories of ice cream and be a social shut-in.
- Create an alternate “emergency kit” option that can be subbed for any meal. I like protein powder in a Tupperware, plus rice cakes. (I prefer the barbecue flavor.) It’s not my favourite meal, exactly, but it serves me in a pinch. Other good options for this include almonds, beef jerky, and protein powder mixed with cottage cheese. Bad options include the “snack packs” they give for kids’ lunches or whatever.
- For one of your carb sources, forget calories and make the carb source “as much fresh fruit as you want.” This means that on some days you have two apples. On others, you have an apple, a banana, and some bits of watermelon. On other days, have two grapefruits, or just one. Never count calories for these, but always go by hunger. This will teach you to get in touch with your hunger, and it will do so in a way that you won’t overeat. Seriously, try to over eat on pineapple. I double dog dare you. This rule has the added advantage that it will also (again) prevent you going down the “calorie counting” rabbit hole of thinking you can maths your way thin. If/when you’re setting up the meal plan and you want to use this rule, just try to estimate what the average amount of fruit is, and use that as your calorie count. Is that 100% accurate? No. Neither are food labels. Get over it. It’s good enough. Move on.
- Add in a meal that is entirely optional, and is based on hunger. Usually, this would be pre-bed, because other forms of snacking kind of mess things up (in terms of hunger hormones and ghrelin), and if you really feel hungry before bed, it can mess with your sleep to go to bed on an empty, grumbly stomach. Again: just make sure that no matter what options you pick on the plan, you fall *generally* within your preferred range. To use the calories above: say your total range is 2,000 – 2,600. You might set up a basic four meals-per-day plan that kept you within 2,000 – 2,300 calories… but on top of that plan, you had an extra, optional fifth meal of 300 calories. This way, whether you eat that fifth meal or not, you are within the right range. Starting to get the idea? Be creative. Be smart. Be mindful of your own habits, preferences, and patterns.
- Figure out a “worst case” backup scenario. Maybe it’s going into a gas station, finding something that vageuly fits your calorie level, and eating it. You don’t try to get exact protein grams, but you do try to eat something that common sense tells you has some protein. So: a bag of M&Ms might give you the right calorie amount, but it won’t have any protein. A tuna sandwich will likely get you pretty much where you need to be. If it’s from a gas station, a tuna sandwich also might make you a genius, just like that “Parasites Lost” episode of Futurama where Fry gets stomach parasites and learns to play the holophonor. No, I did not have to look up that episode title. Yes, I’m that much of a nerd.
Part 3. Iterations
Step 8. Ongoing Personalization and Optimization of Your Meal Plan
You won’t get things “just right” first thing out of the gate. Also, your tastes and such will change over time. Your lifestyle will change over time.
A plan is always a work in progress. You iterate it. You optimize it. You just keep going.
You iterate it based on cravings, on your day-to-day life and lifestyle circumstances (school, work, job, family, etc.), your hunches, your hunger, your desires, or whatever. But you do it when you’re thinking calmly and rationally.
Here are some reasons to iterate or change the plan:
Reasons to Iterate or Change the Plan:
A meal tastes terrible and you hate it, no matter how many times you try to prep it slightly differently.
It turns out you have a meal that doesn’t travel well, and recently you have needed a viable alternate option for it, much more often than you originally thought you would.
Your third meal, the one you have each day at work, tastes terrible when you eat it out of your Tupperware. It’d be way better to just eat that meal home. Swap it with meal five, which travels much better.
You think _____ might be more satiating than _____.
You are terrible at cooking, but things are going pretty well, and you figure it’s time you tried cooking _____. Throw the new food in the plan and give it a go. (It will suck at first, but if you’re eating it every day or every other day, you’ll get better fast.)
It turns out ______ is very expensive. Or the grocery store you go to just hiked the price on it for some reason. Or the grocery store stopped carrying the brand you like, and the alternate brand just… *sigh* well, it just isn’t the same.
If you want to try something, you try it. Have I mentioned that this is not rocket science?
Step 8 is why you saved or kept some version of the meal plan with the calorie counts, by the way. You want to not think about those calories on a day-to-day basis, but for swapping in foods, yeah, they’re useful to come back to. Again: just don’t do this every day. Do it once a week or so.
The only reason to “go back” to calories is to swap in foods here and there. For example, if you want to swap in __g of oatmeal for __g of oat bran, you don’t need to check the calories—they’re pretty much the same. But if you’re swapping __g of oatmeal for __g of white potatoes, you might need to look that up. That’s fine. Do it. Just don’t do it every day. Do it when you modify the plan as a whole.
Step 9. Make Progress-Related Tweaks to Your Plan
If you hit a plateau for, oh… let’s say three weeks, then sure, modify the plan.
You don’t need to check the calories for this, and you should try to avoid doing it, but you can if you want or really need to.
For example, as an initial step, you can adjust just your upper calorie range. For example, if the range is 2,000 to 2,600, you might make it 2,000 to 2,400. Then you just play with the portion sizes so the plan keeps you between 2,000 and 2,400.
That would be an initial tweak. A later tweak might just shift both the lower and the upper limits down a bit.
However, I want you to TRY avoiding relying too much on calories for this step, if you come to it.
Instead, try to think in terms of your specific plan and your specific options.
If you think about it calmly and rationally, you might know what’s holding you back or causing the plateau. If you stop and address things rationally, you won’t need “calories” or a spreadsheet to tell you what’s going on.
- Maybe you know that Meal 3 is just plain too big, because it fills you up way more than any of the other meals. No problem — that’s where you likely need to adjust the portion sizes.
- Maybe you know that your weekly cheat meal is a bit too big, or that your brilliant idea to include two cheat meals each week is, as it turns out, getting in the way of progress.
- Maybe you feel deep down that going to restaurants every single day is adding up to something that actually will get in the way of progress. Once or twice a week won’t hurt, ever, if you use the suggestions above. If you eat out every day, you might very well need to tighten up what you order in some way. (“How” would depend on your life, the restaurant, what you’re ordering. Use common sense.)
- Maybe you know that your plan initially gave you a range of 2,000 to 2,600 calories, but with the way you’ve set up your options, and with the way you personally make use of those options on a day-to-day basis, you’re always, always eating foods towards the very upper end of your allowed range. In this case, you just think about what you’re actually doing and eating on a day to day basis, and adjust the portions and options on your plan to account for this.
When you do things in this way, you are adjusting the plan directly.
Calories are an exchange value. They are certainly a useful one, but they are not 100% accurate, for just a whole plethora of reasons.
By contrast, the food on your plan is what you’re actually putting into your body. Try to adjust that directly, over and above an abstracted exchange value for those things. Trust me. It works way better, if you can do it without second-guessing this, that, and whatever, then freaking out and quitting.
The idea is you stop and re-evaluate things every once in awhile, when you’re calm and rational and have had a chance to think things over. Also, the fact that you only modify the plan every once in awhile (how often could be a weirdo rule for you, hint hint!) means that you are kind of forced to be patient, instead of just trying something new every day before you’ve had a chance to give what you’re doing an honest test.
As a final note: you can also, of course, raise your portion sizes or re-evaluate the plan if hunger is too high, or you’re losing weight too fast, or if you’re actually trying to put on weight but you’ve plateaued in some way.
Step 10. Use the Plan. Move Forward.
Use the plan. Enjoy life. Make simple decisions based on the plan, then stop thinking about food.
More Questions and Answers
Can I copy someone else’s meal plan? Yours?
I put together a package of examples and a spreadsheet I use. It’s at the bottom. Everyone needs a starting point, and that’s cool.
However, I encourage you to make the plan your own. Use your own options. Think about your own lifestyle and what you’ll be able to do on a day-to-day basis. My life is not your life. My preferences are not your preferences.
Use your own decision-making. Make your own choices. Be a craftsman. This is important for motivation and for other psychological reasons. Your sense of autonomy and control is not just a side-benefit. It’s the thing that makes the whole thing go.
How many alternate options do I need for each meal?
This is up to you.
I prefer one to three total options per meal (so: one main meal, and another option or two). Usually this actually means about two standard options per each individual meal, then a few options at the bottom that can be subbed in anywhere for any of my standard meals.
Also, as you go, you will realize that some options you just never use – sometimes this is because the option you do eat is just so tasty and great that you never want to eat anything else, and sometimes it’s because you don’t really enjoy the alternate, or it always leaves you hungry. If that’s the case, and you don’t enjoy it, nix the option and replace it. If it’s the case that you just really enjoy that other option, then move the option you’re not having to another meal or something. (My breakfast options were often like this. I choose eggs and cream of wheat—always. Having a different option was pointless.)
You can also have options for only the protein or only the carb or fat, so that sometimes you have chicken and Xg potatoes, and sometimes you have chicken and Xg of brown rice, or chicken and so-many rice cakes, or chicken and Xg of legumes—all of that is fine, if you set things up to easily swap in and swap out. (I.e. calculate the calories at first when you set things up, then ignore them.)
What if I’m happy just eating the same five meals, day in and day out, with no alternates?
That’s fine. I would plan at least for backups (road trips, travelling, emergencies), but if you don’t need the variety, don’t use them.
You can have variety in the plan “just in case,” and then not use the alternate options. It won’t kill you to write down an option on a piece of paper.
What if I’m happy literally eating one single meal, but eating that meal six times per day, every single day, for the rest of my life?
Okay, you got me. That is taking things a bit far. (I’ve basically tried it, though!)
Don’t do it. Your brain needs variety, and your body needs micronutrients. This is true in terms of satiety, and it’s true in terms of… not dying (or feeling like a butt).
Seriously, depending on what meal you ate, you could get scurvy or something. Don’t do it.
For things like cottage cheese or egg whites, should I use grams? mL? Cups?
Do whatever works for you. Stay consistent (mostly, within reason).
I like grams because it makes things easy:
- Put bowl on scale: zero it.
- Put food in bowl until I hit whatever amount I need to.
- Zero it.
- Put whatever else I need to.
- Zero it.
Useful for when you have cottage cheese that you add protein powder or “mix ins” to, or even just for something such as oatmeal with water.
Pro tip: if you want to never ever mess up your oatmeal again (i.e too mushy, too dry) figure out how many grams of water to add relative to your portion size. You’ll never get it too mushy again once you figure it out.
My father in law made fun of me for my scale until I explained this, then he was like, “Oh, wow, yeah, that… actually makes a lot of sense.”
My point is that using a scale should not mean “be obsessed with weighing.” It should actually mean “be lazy and make it work for you.” For example, I’m literally so lazy that I put my oatmeal in the microwave for 6:66 seconds because hitting 6 three times is easier, than, say, hitting 7-0-0. Yes, I know. Laugh away.
What if all my meals aren’t the same size? Now my plan is getting complicated!
Again: be a craftsman. This is your baby. All that matters is that, at the end of the day, you have a plan where no matter how stupid you are, you always know that as long as you follow the plan, you’re good to go.
It’s actually totally okay to have 300 calorie meals replacing 600 calorie meals, or 400 calorie meals replacing 200 calorie meals. It’s all good. Yes, that makes things a bit more complicated, but at the end of the day, it’s fine.
Remember: you just need to make sure you can’t screw up the plan.
This means you don’t have to play around with every possible meal combination your personal setup allows; you just have to figure out the extreme top and bottom ranges.
So, if you do have a lot of variance in your options and calorie ranges, or your plan is getting more complicated, just do this extra step:
- Setup the meal plan as best you can. Write it all out. We’re going to check it over.
- For each possible meal in your meal plan, figure out what the higher calorie option is, then what the lower calorie option is. Jot down the numbers somewhere: a text file, a spreadsheet, the back of a napkin—whatever.
- Now add up all the highest calorie options. In other words, go through the plan, meal by meal, and always choose the highest calorie option your particular plan possibly allows for each meal. This represents the highest number of calories you could possibly eat in a day while following your plan. All you’re doing is imagining an actual day of eating and making choices, but always picking the higher calorie choice. Is it below your top range of total calories (or fairly close to that)? If it is, then it’s fine. No matter what meals or combination of meals you pick, you will be under your top range. You don’t really need to know anything beyond that, for now.
- Of course, you should also add up all the lower calorie options. This represents the lowest number of calories you could possibly eat in a day if you followed the plan as written. Make sure it’s above your low range, or pretty close
- You now know what your meal plan’s potential range is, for any possible option. You haven’t gone through every possible combination, but you know the lower and upper limit. You can adjust some of the discrepancies, or just leave it. Anything else will fall in between.
- Is this more work? Yes. If you don’t want to do it, keep each meal option closer together in terms of calories. I want to emphasize, though, that a the idea is to do this work up front, so you don’t need to think about things like this in the future. Set it all up when motivation is high, then just trust the plan.
- I emphasize again: be a craftsman.
Can I eat ‘off the plan’ more often than once or twice per week?
Yes. You can do as you please. Set up rules that serve you, your goals, your mindset. What you “should” do is not up to me or anyone else, ever; it is up to you, your desires, your values.
Partly, this goes back to what I said above. What someone says is “okay” doesn’t make a lick of difference. The food will have the same consequences.
Let’s talk about consequences. Here are some “consequences” related to food choice:
- Some foods will be higher in calories; some will be lower.
- Some foods will have cosmetic benefits; some will make you retain water. (But this difference won’t affect long-term fat loss or weight gain.)
- Some foods will satiate you more than others, relative to their calories and their effect on your body.
- Some foods, unless you have a whole lot of that food, will light up your brain’s reward centers to say, “More! More, please!”
- Some foods will leave you with less energy if you have too much of them, too often.
- Some foods will digest easily; some will give you an upset stomach.
- Some foods will be easier to prepare in advance; some foods will be harder to prepare in advance.
- Some foods smell amazing; some foods will emit and embarrassing stink if you take them out of your Tupperware at the office.
These are all consequences. They are not judgments.
It’s just life and making choices, based on the potential consequences.
Some of the above are positive consequences, some of them will be negative consequences—but how you determine which is which is ALWAYS relative to the person, their goals, their mindset, and so on.
This is a long way of saying that you need to decide for yourself.
If you still want to know what I would do, then in general I recommend you don’t eat off the plan more than once or maybe twice per week.
This is because it becomes easier to negotiate with yourself each time you do it; you stop feeling like you’re following any kind of structure, and you second-guess your motivation for doing so. But again: that is me. And again: consequences. Some negative, some positive.
Other Diets or Systems
Should I account for post-workout (PWO) meals?
In my opinion PWO doesn’t really matter. A functional system like I’m describing in this article is more important. By far. Eat the same things on workout days as you do on non-workout days.
However, I will admit that people I respect do like and use PWO nutrition. (Although even they will tell you most of the other stuff in this guide should be a priority.) Also, I know some readers will want to account for pre-, peri-, and post-workout nutrition, regardless what I say.
So, here are two options:
1. Set things up so that on non-workout days, you edge towards the bottom calorie range, and on workout days, where you have a PWO meal of some sort, that extra meal takes you towards the top end of your range, but not over it.
2. Same as 1), but you actually go over your range, or under your range, depending on what day and whether you eat that PWO meal or shake However, on a day-to-day and then week-to-week basis, your average daily calories still fall within your range. You can calculate your average daily calories by adding up your calories for each day for a week, then dividing by 7. This is not rocket science. This is… I don’t know, maybe Grade 4 maths? (When do kids learn to calculate a mean?)
Can I use a meal plan like this for Paleo / Atkins / Keto / Whatever?
There’s no reason why you can’t, but personally I don’t recommend doing any diet that starts with a capital letter or a definite article (“The ____ Diet”). Use your own weirdo rules, not some celebrity’s.
What about intuitive eating? Or mindful eating?
Yes! Both those things are awesome sauce.
Always eat mindfully. Enjoy your food. Savour it. Eat slowly. It’s good for you mentally, and it’s good just for digestion, and it’s good for slowing down when life wants you to go go go. Sit down and enjoy your food. Mmm.
Now, as for intuitive eating… it’s also… good. To be clear: I like it. I think it is a good idea. But I want to say two things about it.
First, it’s definitely not always easy, and that’s okay. Don’t beat yourself up because you’ve been using some form of regimen, and switching immediately to totally intuitive eating seems like a leap. take it slow. Use a meal plan system like the one here to edge closer and closer to an intuition-based eating strategy.
Second, random snacking when you “intuitively” feel hungry is not a good idea. Different people define “intuitive eating” differently, but if snacking when you “feel” hungry is part of whatever strategy you have read, I would be very careful. Try to keep regular meal times. Yes, this is not always possible. Life happens. But even then, don’t add in snacking at random times to throw even more variation into the mix.
Snacking at random times messes up your hunger signals. You have a hunger rhythm akin to a circadian sleep rhythm. Sleeping off and on at random times messes you up in terms of melatonin, the sleep hormone. Random snacking messes up ghrelin, the hunger hormone. (That’s a massive oversimplification, but whatever.)
The kind of meal plan system I’m proposing is a balance between some structure and intuitive eating based on hunger.
That’s why you get a few weirdo personal rules that include things like “as much fresh fruit as you want” or an optional pre-bed meal that you only have if you’re hungry. Getting int ouch with hunger is important.
Rules like that (feel fry to modify them, or use only one or the other, or neither) should be included in such a way that making a calm, rational, non-emotional decision based on hunger is easier than it otherwise would be. In other words, you do it with things like “fresh fruit,” because you won’t overeat on that, and even going so far as to double up on your portion because you’re super hungry won’t really make a difference or affect progress.
What about IIFYM? How much should I work 'non' diet foods into my regular plan?
This is actually a can of worms.
Let me try to address it as reasonably as possible, because my answer can seem, on a surface-level, to be very similar to ideas expressed by people who think about food in a very unhealthy manner.
First, let me ask: what makes a food a “diet” food? See above re: consequences.
I don’t want to tell anyone to stay away from “bad” foods and only eat the (so-called) “good” foods or “diet” foods. That’s not a healthy way to think. At all. There are no “bad” foods. Some foods have consequences that won’t serve you as well as others. Often this is based on context, in terms of the person, and in terms of their body. For example, eating sugar all day every day won’t serve me well, long-term, based on my personal goals.
Keep in mind, as I go on, that I have a crazy sweet tooth, and in terms of taste buds, I have the refinement of a three-year-old in the grocery store screaming, “No… No… NO!! I want the Count Chocula and the Fruit Loops!” I could eat sugary cereal all day and it would be wonderful.
And yet… with that in mind: yes, I still do recommend eating healthy whole foods for the most part!
At the same time, I’m ALSO saying worshipping “healthy whole foods” isn’t a great way to think, either. If you go too far down that rabbit hole, it’s called orthorexia.
But yes, tl;dr, I do recommend you mostly stick to “healthy whole foods.”
I’ll even go further: I recommend that you stick to what bodybuilders call “clean” foods.
This doesn’t make you better than anyone else, so don’t get on a high horse about how you eat “clean” while all those chumps over there eat “crap.” People like that are insufferable.
(Also: how do you define “crap”? Are you callin’ Krispy Kreme donuts “crap”? Cuz if so… we got problems, mister.)
Here’s why I recommend the healthy whole foods thing: it’s just plain easier!
Most people think that “working in” a few sugary foods is “moderate” and will be easier in the long term.
My argument is that this isn’t as true as people think, especially when you start thinking long-term about satiety, hunger signals, and your energy levels. See my post on hunger.
If you feel you should or want to have more “non clean” or “non-diet” foods, because maybe you think that right now you’re thinking about “clean” foods (or “good” and “bad” foods) in unhealthy ways, and you want to challenge yourself to incorporate the “bad” foods – because deep down you know you shouldn’t think of them as “bad” – then sure, do that. Try to use those personal weirdo rules to address this. If you want to incorporate them to ensure you’re practicing moderation—again, sure, go for it!
I just know that this kind of thing is actually more of a two-way street than most people realize. It took me a long time to realize I didn’t have to practice moderation in every single thing I did, at all time. That is, ironically enough, not very moderate.
With some foods, it’s the bloody torment of Tantalus to have “just a little bit.”
This is especially true if you’ve lost a lot of weight, and your hunger signals and metabolism are a bit out of whack. This is why I save such foods for refeeds and cheat meals when I can actually have a real giant portion, feel that food hit my stomach (and my energy levels), and know as I’m doing it that it’s serving my body.
Believe it or not, it can be empowering and motivating (not to mention easier, for satiety and hunger-related reasons) to only eat “treat” foods when you have a regular cheat meal or something like that. It’s fine to go to a party and not eat the snacks. That won’t make you a total weirdo. (Not going to the party because there will be food there is not healthy at all, though.
Structuring in a bit of deferred gratification is also not an eating disorder, and, if done well, can actually prevent disordered eating or thinking patterns. (Again, as with all things, I want to be careful. People will take this too far.)
Again: I’m not dictating you do things one way or the other. I’m asking you to be honest with yourself and keep things real. I want you to do what will work for you and won’t make you unhappy—short-term or long-term. Mmkay?
"Meal Plan"? Look, can't I just count calories?
Yes, you can, but that’s not what this guide is about, or what I recommend.
Listen, I’ve done it all, at one time or another, and for whatever possible strategy you can come up with, you will find success stories and devoted followers. Use judgment, and be careful, but the choice is ultimately yours.
My opinion in general for why a meal plan is “better” than counting calories:
- Counting calories leads to too much emphasis on numbers, and you get trapped in this mindset of “Argh! But it should work!” Yes, but it’s not So focus on the food, not the numbers (which weren’t *that* accurate to begin with.) Alternatively, you get caught thinking that you can measure your way thing. You can’t. Being totally amazingly 100% accurate down to the tiniest calorie is not the way to do it. I promise.
- Counting calories leads to too much thinking. That drains willpower. It also leads to too much thinking about food specifically, which leads to disordered eating. Should I have this or that? What can I fit into my diet? *Spends three hours calculating and playing with numbers and portion sizes to fit in a Snickers bar*
Calories are a useful exchange value. I use them to set up a meal plan. I sometimes refer back to them if I really need to. But I also know, and try to keep in mind, that it’s best to focus on them as little as possible. Don’t reify them. They are not concrete things. They are a description of a process that we’re lousy at measuring and tracking in real-world, practical terms.
Hey, listen buddy: aren’t meal plans for bros who eat chicken and broccoli five times a day?
No, they are not. At least, no more than IIFYM is only for nerds who chug 100 grams of protein powder so they can chow down on breakfast cereal and Skittles for the rest of the day.
In other words: yes, there are people who take ideas way too far and somehow manage to do the dumbest possible version of an idea.
But… like, who cares about those people? Learn from anything you can, and take what is useful, not what is stupid.
“Well, it’s possible to do [thing] in a really dumb way!” is not an argument against doing that thing. That’s just a lousy strawman argument.
Will you look over my meal plan and tell me if it’s good?
This isn’t because I’m a jerk. Seriously, put in a comment below or email me if you want help. I will do what I can… all I’m saying is I won’t look at your plan and “approve” it.
Having an external source tell you, “Yes. That is good, that is a Good Thing,” doesn’t make any difference, really. Is it working? Good. Then the plan is fine. Is it not working? Then fix it. Even if a famous celebrity guru were to tell you, “Yes, that’s good,” if it ain’t workin’, it ain’t workin’!
Forget what “should” work. Forget what the numbers say should work, and forget what the hot-shot internet guru says should work, and forget whatever else you just read about that should work.
Do what actually does work. You find that out by trying very simple, boring things, but you do them slowly, calmly, patiently. You focus on what you’re actually eating, on a day-to-day basis.
The trick is being patient and understanding the definition of “working.” With respect to a meal plan or diet, it’s working if it does these three things:
- It helps you accomplish your goals: lose fat, add muscle, whatever.
- It keeps you healthy.
- It allows – and even encourages – some mental flexibility.
A lot of diets sacrifice at least one of these three things. If you’re on a system that does all three, stay on that system, and ride the wave.
I have another meal plan question!
Post a comment below. You know the drill. I’ll add them to this list of questions.
(I also wouldn’t mind seeing what weirdo rules other people use in their own circumstances, and to address their own mental challenges.)
Free Meal Plan Tools & Resources
This is a giant post. I didn’t intend (originally) for it to be 10,000 words. I haven’t said all I want to say, either, on things like the weirdo rules and keeping it real.
To help you get set up, I put together a package of tools and resources I thought would be useful. Take a look:
A Downloadable PDF Version of this Guide (.pdf)
This exact guide, but in a downloadable PDF. It is over 35 pages at this point. (Oh man how did that even happen.)
A Cheat Sheet Setup Guide (.pdf)
Just what it sounds like. A summary of the steps, formulas, etc., so you can just go through them in order.
Three “Keeping it Real” Checklists (.pdf)
A collection of ideas for modifying the rules of your plan in order to (1) just be your best self, (2) “tighten” things up if progress stalls, or (3) adjust the rules if you specifically want to be more flexible in your approach (and you think you might be getting a wee bit too obsessed with numbers). I want to write more about this, but for now, this will be extremely useful.
A Meal Plan Blank Template (.doc)
This is just the images you saw above, but in a .doc file you can edit, in case you want to use it as your own personal meal plan template.
An Actual Example Meal Plan (.pdf)
This is like my current one, and how I tend to write mine out. Note that I swapped in some non-vegetarian options that I used before going vegetarian.
An Excel Meal Plan-o-Matic (.xls)
I’m old school. For over a decade I’ve just been using a modified Excel file to mess around with new meals I’m thinking about. This is basically that file. (I cleaned it up. It was seriously a mess that wouldn’t make sense to anyone except me.)
A list of the tools I use
Links to the website I have referenced in the past and the ones I continue to reference.
Get all of this here:
Full disclosure: Yes, you have to sign up to the email list to get it. You should sign up, though. Go on. Do it. In fact: my list is like a secret cool kids club, filled with fun cool people who do fun cool things that other people wish they could do.