How to meal plan.
In his book Drive, Daniel Pink tells us we like feeling in control of our lives. We strive for autonomy and want to feel like we’re the ones directing it. A Meal plan gives us the feeling of organization and control that we’re looking for. They provide a quick hit of feel-good dopamine much as a to-do list does.
But just like a to-do list, a meal plan makes us feel much more productive than we actually are. Planning out your meals for a month or week feels like an accomplishment.
And it is sort of. But as you and I both know planning doesn’t always equal implementation.
Today’s article is all about overcoming common mistakes with meal planning and how you can create a meal plan that you’ll actually stick to, want to stick to, and can easily adjust on the fly.
Table of Contents
MEAL PLANNING PROBLEM #1: IT’S NOT HOW YOU REALLY EAT
I’m confident you’ve sat down on a weekend afternoon determined to change your diet. You put pen to paper and construct the perfect plan of attack. You know exactly what you’ll be eating for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the next month.
And with the determination of Thanos searching for infinity stones. You head to the grocery store on a mission to stock up on supplies so you can meal prep for the week.
It’s now Sunday night and you’re ready to get to work. You pull out your meal plan and it looks something like this.
- 1/4 cup oats
- 3 strawberries
- 1 egg +3 eggs whites
- 1 tablespoon of almond butter
- 16-ounce water with lemon
- 5 ounces of chicken
- 1 cup of lettuce
- 1/4 cup of cucumber
- 1/4 cup of chopped carrots
- 10 almonds
- Unsweetened tea
- 6 ounce of salmon
- 1 teaspoon of olive oil
- 10 asparagus spears
- 1 small sweet potato
- 16-ounce water with lemon
- 10 almonds
- 3 celery sticks
- 1/2 cup of cottage cheese
This looks good at first but there’s a glaring problem here – And excuse my language, but nobody fucking eats like this. Nor do they want to eat like this long-term. Mostly because it’s a pain in the ass to measure your food out all the time.
And this is coming from a guy who did it for 8 years.
Sure, if you want to compete in a bodybuilding competition, are trying to achieve 5% body fat, or are a competitive athlete then it may be necessary, but for most folks trying to look better naked, fit into a pair of jeans, and have more energy to play with their kids it’s not.
Most people don’t eat 2 whole wheat buns, 6 ounces of 93% ground beef, 2 slices of onion, lettuce, 1 slice of tomato, 1 ounce of cheese, and 1 tablespoon of ketchup.
They eat a freaking cheeseburger.
Start with foods you currently eat and make them a little bit better
The list of ingredients above known more commonly as a cheeseburger is a common dinner. A typical side with that is french fries or chips and maybe a diet coke to drink.
How can you make that meal a little bit better?
You don’t need to change the entire thing, just one small change will do for now.
Your first small change could be to swap the fries or chips out for a piece of fruit. After successfully doing that for a few days you could then try swapping the diet coke for water with lemon. Again, after a few more days you could try eating the burger with just half the bun. A few more days later, no bun.
Whatever feels right for you.
Let’s try another one.
A common breakfast is a coffee with sugar and creamer or a specialty drink from Starbucks. A bagel with cream cheese and a banana eaten in the car very quickly.
A small improvement to this could be opting for a black coffee to get you going in the morning. After consistently practicing that small change for a week or two you could try swapping that bagel with cream cheese for a slice of whole-grain toast and almond butter. Because it’s a pretty carbohydrate dominant breakfast, a week or two after making that bagel swap you could try replacing the banana with 2 scrambled eggs.
Now you’ve got yourself a double espresso, a slice of whole-grain toast with almond butter and 2 eggs. Try eating this slowly and at home and you’ve made a huge improvement in the quality of food that you’re eating every day.
MEAL PLANNING PROBLEM #2: IT’S WAY TOO COMPLICATED
There’s a pretty good chance you eat the same meals over and over again but when most people do meal planning they end up with 7 different breakfasts, lunches, and dinners.
They’ve trashed the simplicity of how they currently eat for a more complicated version. You’re much more likely to do something if it’s convenient.
This means buying a ton of different things at the grocery store and cooking 21 different meals every single week may not be the best fit.
The one day diet
I realize that reads like the title of some scammy new diet fad but stay with me here. Plan one day’s worth of meals. Just one day and that’s it. Choose a breakfast, lunch, and dinner that you’re confident you can eat for 2-3 days in a row.
You can cook all these meals in bulk on a Sunday. If cooking food in advance isn’t your thing you can easily cook these 3 meals at the end of your day and have them ready for tomorrow.
Once they’re gone take time to reflect. Did I enjoy these meals? Can I use them as part of my diet in the future?
MEAL PLANNING PROBLEM #3: YOU’RE INCLUDING FOODS YOU THINK YOU “SHOULD” EAT
Oatmeal, chicken breast, broccoli – these are pretty standard foods that most people identify as being “healthy” and something that they “should” be eating.
Do you even like those foods?
I don’t enjoy chicken breast. I’m team chicken thigh all the way. It’s dry and is boring to me. No matter how I season it my face looks like this when I have to eat it. Instead, I eat steak and my face looks like this.
Include foods you actually like
I know what you’re thinking, “but I like pizza, taco’s, and Chinese food.” And to that I say awesome! Explore ways you can improve those foods and make them just a little bit better for you. How can you create these dishes at home so that they are of higher quality?
An exercise that I like my clients to do is to write 3 to 5 of their favorite protein sources, 3 to 5 of their favorite vegetables, 3 to 5 of their favorite fruits, and 3 to 5 of their favorite healthy fats. You can use the simple weekly meal planning chart below to help you with this.
Revolve your meals around protein, veggies, healthy fats, low sugar fruits, and zero-calorie beverages. You do this consistently and you’ll do quite all right for yourself.
Add a little flavor to your meals by using olive oil, salt, or some of your favorite spices and you’ve got yourself a kick-ass meal that you’ll actually enjoy.
A little spice can go a long way but it can be a bit confusing trying to figure out what’s going to go best with what you’re serving, especially if you’re winging it.
Below I’m breaking down the best spices for different proteins. You’ll notice I’m keeping the list to only five spices per protein. The reason being I want you to do less thinking in the kitchen and more cooking.
These are spices and seasonings that should always be on hand. They add flavor and variety to any dish.
- Iodized Sea Salt (or Himalayan Salt)
- Whole Peppercorns (you can grind these on your own)
Proteins, Herbs & Spice Combinations For The Win:
- Beef: Cayenne, Curry Powder, Garlic, Onion, Thyme
- Eggs: Chives, Curry Powder, Dill, Ginger, Red Pepper
- Fish/Seafood: Bay Leaf, Dill, Fennel, Lemon Zest, Turmeric
- Lamb/Other Game Meat: Cumin, Curry Powder, Garlic, Rosemary, Thyme
- Poultry: Bay Leaf, Cilantro, Garlic, Paprika, Thyme
- Pork: Cloves, Fennel, Ginger, Paprika, Sage
Darya Rose of Summer Tomato has a great post talking about how she learned to cook without recipes and has even created a course if you’re interested in learning more.
MEAL PLANNING PROBLEM #4: MEAL PLANS DON’T ADDRESS THE MOST IMPORTANT THINGS
Meal plans are simple in theory but harder in practice. Why is this? It’s because they don’t take into account life.
Meal plans don’t address psychological, environmental, physiological, or randomical (a new word I just invented) factors that influence how, what, why, when, and where you eat.
They don’t care that you’ve just been asked to stay late at work, got sick, had your dog shit on the carpet, or are traveling.
Meal plans don’t care if you’re stressed, depressed, or super excited. All of which can affect how, what, why, when, and where you eat.
Eating a 1/4 cup of oatmeal, 3 eggs, and 10 almonds for breakfast isn’t going to be easy when you’re starving at the airport and realize that you forgot to prepare this ahead of time. Thus, frustration and disappointment ensue.
Focus on these 5 things with each meal
As mentioned above revolve your meals around these things instead of particular foods:
- Healthy fats
- Low sugar fruits
- Zero-calorie beverages
If the majority of your meals include these things that’s a big win!
MEAL PLANNING PROBLEM #5: MEAL PLANS ARE DEMANDING. SORTA LIKE YOUR MOTHER IN LAW. OH SNAP, I SAID IT.
Meal plans are often written with an all or nothing mentality and can require restraint, a schedule, willpower, and skills you may or may not have.
6 ounces of steak for dinner but have you ever cooked one before?
And because meal plans are simple in theory. Failure to execute them can be extremely frustrating. Ever tried to hit a golf ball before? Yeah, not that easy and the stupid thing is just sitting there. Executing meal plans can kind of be like that.
Strive for progress and not perfection
In her book The Progress Principle, Teresa Amabile discusses how we actually just want to see progress towards our goals and the actual achievement of them is often less rewarding.
Small wins that we can experience each day release dopamine in our brains which helps to stimulate the brain’s reward and pleasure centers.
It’s going to be impossible to avoid setbacks but striving for small wins each day instead of dramatic changes makes it much more likely for you to avoid some of the mistakes that could lead to this setback effect. But making progress isn’t enough, you have to measure it as well.
Focus on making one small change and track how consistent you are with it. Use a simple calendar and put a giant X through each day you feel you did a little bit better than you normally would do – even if it’s just 1% better. If you remember from this article you won’t want to break the chain of X’s once they’ve been established.
HOW TO MEAL PLAN: WHAT TO DO NOW
It’s not that I don’t want you to meal plan. I want you to be more effective with it when you do. Far too many times I see people repeating the same meal planning process over and over hoping for different results.
To sum up, today’s post lets put together a little cheat sheet together for how you can actually take action using it.
- Make the meals you eat now better
- Avoid getting too complicated and having too much variety in your meal plan. Use the 1-day diet and plan a single day of what you’d consider eating better than you normally would.
- Choose foods you want to eat and not the ones you feel you should eat.
- Build meals around the most important things. Protein, vegetables, low sugar fruit, healthy fats, and zero-calorie beverages.
- Strive for progress and not perfection. Measure your progress and shoot for 1% better than the day before.
Hey, and if worst comes to worst, you throw up your arms, and are like screw this! There are some pretty awesome services out there that will deliver healthy meals or ingredients right to your door.
Well, that’s it for how to meal plan. Any questions?
Photo credit: Mantra Media