Meal Planning & Prepping 101: How to plan your meals stress-free
You like the idea of planning and prepping your meals, but you don't really know where to start? Then you're absolutely in the right place! This is a very basic step-by-step guide, with helpful tips and tricks on how to start planning your meals for a stressful week ahead.
In fact, it takes just very little effort to plan your meals. So, let's get right into it.
What exactly is meal prepping?
Are you sick of asking yourself every day the same question: "What's for dinner?". Then meal planning might be a thing for you. Basically, when you plan your meals ahead, you ask yourself this question only once per week.
Meal planning consist of three simple steps:
- Plan the recipes for the week
- Shop the ingredients
- Meal prepping (aka cooking/preparing the food)
Meal planning is a personal thing. What works for me might not work for you. You have to experiment and see what kind of foods you want to eat at what time of the day or week (do you need a healthier version of comfort food on Mondays to start the week better, for instance?).
For me, it's very important to find ways to look forward to my meals. Even if it's just cutting a PB&J sandwich into a new shape or adding half of a snickers-bar to my oatmeal. That's the spirit that animates this whole endeavor.
The whole point of meal planning and prepping is not to start from zero every day and to make it much easier for you to stick to your diet.
Benefits of meal planning and prepping
Pre-planned and cooked meals stay fresh by keeping them in the fridge. But you also have more time to grab a coffee with friends and family, get a workout in or read a book. See, you don't have to sacrifice anything.
Especially when you try to lose body fat or build muscle mass, meal planning can be a powerful tool. Here are some of the best benefits you get from meal planning.
- You save money: This one's for those who think that eating healthy has to be super expensive. It's not. Meal prepping will save money. Don't be scared to buy five bags of chicken instead of one. Take advantage of your freezer.
- You eat healthier: When you plan your meals, you can decide what to eat before the hunger strikes, which might lead to on-the-go or processed foods. Hence, you will stick to a healthier diet full of nutrient-dense whole foods.
- You minimise food waste: If you ask me, this is one of the biggest advantages of meal prepping: You know exactly how you are going to use all of the food you just bought. You can more easily take leftovers into account.
- You'll save time: Having one day per week where you plan and prep your meals in bulk will save you so much time. You can pre-make the meals, keep them in the freezer and just stick one in the microwave on busy days.
- You learn portion control: When you prep your food in advance you know what you're consuming. Plus, it will give you insight about what a true portion of food is. Hence, you are less likely to overeat.
Make a commitment
Before you start, you have to make a commitment to yourself. Doesn't matter if it's to lose weight, gain lean muscle mass or eat healthier - you have to decide for yourself to stick to it. Involve your family and friends in your plans so they can support you.
It's not just about what you want to eat, but what you need to eat
Meal plans should be tailored to your individual needs. My meal plan might work for me, but it might not work for you. You have other dietary habits or intolerances than I have.
What do you want to achieve? Do you want to build lean muscle mass, lose some excess body fat or simply live a healthier lifestyle?
As mentioned above, it's crucial to have a goal in mind, not only to stick to your diet, but also for calculating your caloric need and macro-nutrient distribution, which are the most important variables for success. If you don't know how many calories you should eat per day, or how your macro-nutrient distribution should look like, I'll explain that in a second.
It doesn't matter if you prefer high carb/low fat, low carb/high fat or slow carb/medium fat diets. In the end, it all comes down to energy balance.
The following calculator uses one of the best formulas out there to accurately estimate the calories you need on a daily basis. Activity levels are expressed in a way that better suits most people's daily lives.
Decide how many meals you want to eat per day
Please, don't get fooled by statements like "smaller meals every 3 hours to stoke the metabolic fire".
Let's take a look at this weight loss study. In this 8-week long study, people were split into 2 dietary groups. One half ate 3 meals per day, the other half 3 meals plus 3 snacks per day. Both were in a caloric deficit. After 8 weeks, researchers found no significant difference in their average weight loss, fat loss or muscle loss.
See, it's totally up to you, how often and when you want to eat. In the end, all that matters is a caloric surplus (if you want to gain muscle mass), caloric deficit (if you want to lose body fat) or caloric maintenance (if you want to stay healthy and maintain your weight).
I personally choose my meal frequency depending on how I'm feeling that day. If I feel hungrier I eat more frequent. If I feel quite satiated I eat 3 bigger meals.
Spend time looking for recipes
My personal favourite. Use the web to get some inspiration. If you ask me, this is the most important step since it sets the whole process in motion. Don't choose just a bunch of recipes.
Lay your meal plan down next to you and see which foods and recipes fit in your caloric target and in your macros. Also, make sure that your diet is well-balanced. Meaning, you have to enjoy your food. Plan in a little treat every now and then, such as my favourite ooey-gooey no bake chocolatey peanut butter bars, which are perfect for meal prepping!
Eat the foods you actually like. There are so many myths out there regarding foods you can't or can eat during a diet. All that matters is how much you eat and the macros, when it comes to fat loss or muscle gain, not what specifically. Plus, there is no such thing as weight loss foods.
Combining foods rich in protein, such as lean meats, with fiber, such as vegetables, legumes or whole grains, at every meal and snack will keep you longer satiated.
By the way, theme days can be really fun, such as Meat-Free-Mondays or Taco-Tuesdays. Just stick to your caloric limit.
Plan your week
You might think "Duh, that's what this is all about". However, it's crucial to keep the upcoming week in mind when planning your meals.
Will your Wednesday be extra stressful? Or do you workout several times per week, so you can go a little bit higher with your calories? Do you have a specific ritual on Friday evening, such as pizza night? How will the weather be? If it's hot, you might want something light and refreshing, if it's rainy you might want a soup instead.
You have to take all this into consideration if you want to create a routine you can stick to.
Do the shopping
Now that you're done with the planning, you can start writing your grocery list and do the shopping. Shop on a day that works best for you.
Furthermore, be flexible with your grocery list. If asparagus is on your list, but it's out or the broccoli looks better, go with the broccoli. It will make no significant difference.
If you live in a country like the UK or the US, that has low cost online ordering available for groceries, try it out. It's a lot less tempting to buy unhealthy food, when you don't stand in front of it!
Prepare the food
Now it's time to do the prep! I would recommend to set aside an hour on Sunday for meal prepping. The reason behind meal prepping is to make life much easier for you during the week. You can pre-cook all your foods, but you don't have to. For example, you can marinate your beef, chicken or tofu, place them in the freezer and defrost them whenever you need them.
I also recommend to cook foods, that take a little longer to prepare - such as quinoa, rice, pasta, potatoes, lentils - upfront.
Weight everything you want to consume! Really everything! Sauces, oil, milk, butter. Don't fool yourself!
What a lot of people get wrong though, is when to measure the food.
Always measure your food raw!
100g of rice means before cooking. Same with chicken breast and everything else! Keep that in mind. I see this question come up a lot.
Everything that is cooked with water will increase in weight (e.g. oats, rice), everything that is baked or stir-fried will decrease in weight (meat, vegetables). Make sure you don't get that wrong.
Are you interested in your own personalised meal plan, but you're too lazy to do it yourself? Or you want help from an expert? No problem at all! Let me help you with that!
Based on carefully crafted questions, I determine which diet is best for you and your goals. I don't advocate any specific diet and don't profit in any way from recommending a specific diet - unlike many others in the fitness industry. I don't like crash diets and similar, unsustainable fads. Based on my years of experience, I will change the amount of calories in your diet only when necessary and useful for further progress! Everything I do is completely science-based, using the latest research available.
So feel free to contact me on social media or via mail, if you need any help at all!