Many people struggle with their diet because they’re not sure what to make. Or they don’t give much thought to it until it’s too late and they’re starving. They revert to convenience, familiarity, and old habits. This is where the 1-2-3 meal planning method can help.
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What is the 1-2-3 meal planning method?
You eat one breakfast all week long. Rotate 2 different lunches and 3 different dinners with one of those dinners being a social meal if you’d like.
- 1 breakfast
- 2 different lunches
- 3 different dinners
Thus, the 1-2-3 meal planning method.
- Breakfast: Greek yogurt + vanilla protein powder, almond butter, and blueberries
- Lunch: Chicken salad with olive oil and an apple or Turkey with mixed veggies and rice
- Dinner: Lettuce wrap burgers with a side salad and sweet potato, salmon with asparagus and rice, or dinner out at a sushi restaurant
A simple way to create meals for yourself is to choose your 3 favorite proteins, veggies, carbs, and healthy fats. At each meal, you choose one of each to create a balanced plate.
- Protein: Chicken thigh
- Veggie: Brussel sprouts
- Carb: White rice
- Fat: Olive oil
- Season to taste
If you’re not sure what proteins, veggies, carbs, and fats to use. Download the free macro food list with portion size recommendations.
How much should I eat when using the 1-2-3 meal planning method?
There are a few ways you could approach this.
- Weighing food and tracking your macros
- Using your hands to estimate portions
Whichever method you choose it’s a good idea to create calorie awareness first. You don’t need to count calories to be successful. But as Yale researchers showed us, for fat loss creating a calorie deficit is important. If fat loss isn’t your goal, having an idea about how many calories you need per day to maintain your weight is still helpful.
The most basic formula for estimating your calories needs:
- Fat loss: Bodyweight x 10-12
- Maintain weight: Bodyweight x 13-15
- Gain weight: Bodyweight x 16-18
Is this perfect? No, but it also doesn’t need to be. We’re just looking for a number so we have a target. With a target, it’s much easier to aim and adjust. If you’d like a more precise estimate try the NIH bodyweight planner.
Use this number to give yourself a rough idea of how many calories to eat per meal. For example, if 2,100 calories are needed to reach your goals, and you like to eat 3 meals a day with no snacks. You now know this is roughly 700 calories per meal.
Tips for tracking your calories and macros using the 1-2-3 meal planning method
Most people do not lose weight because they’re eating too much. Even if they think they’re not – they are. Studies show over and over again that people are terrible at estimating the calories in foods and how many calories are in foods and meals.
Tracking calories and macros is one way to create more awareness around how much you’re eating. It also helps with teaching portion sizes.
Calorie tracking isn’t an exact science and what you track may actually be off a bit. This could be because of the way a meal was prepared, labeling being off, and other reasons. But 100% accuracy isn’t the point. What you’re doing by weighing portions and tracking calories and macros is shrinking the margin for error.
The idea is to create a baseline of how much you’re eating so that it’s easier to adjust based on the results you’re getting. It’s sort of like looking at your bank account. You make deposits, take out money, but you can look to see where you stand.
The downside of tracking is that it can be tedious when you first start. And it’s usually not a long term solution for most people – but it also doesn’t have to be. You can use it as a teaching tool to identify portion sizes and calories in your favorite foods.
Here are a few tips to make tracking easier.
- Protein: 4 calories per gram of protein
- Carbs: 4 calories per gram of carbohydrate
- Fat: 9 calories per gram of fat
- Alcohol: 7 calories per gram
Weigh everything (sorta) – You’ll need a reliable food scale for this and an app to track your foods in. Some recommendations below.
The apps come in handy because most of them have label scanners you can use for foods or already prepped meals.
Weigh protein 🥩 (chicken, fish, beef, etc…) before cooking. If it’s already cooked you can look up the information on your tracking app.
Weighing things from a jar. Set your scale to zero and place the jar on it. This will give you the weight of the jar and the contents. Take out what you need using a measuring utensil or spoon and re-weigh the jar. The difference between the two is your serving size or what you will track. You can also use the tare function on your food scale.
Weigh rice cooked, banana without the peel, and most other carbs (sweet potato, oatmeal, etc..) before cooking. For most fruits, you can skip weighing and select the small, medium, or larger version. The calorie difference will be small enough that it won’t make a huge difference.
Weigh your veggies but don’t get too worried about them. Non-starchy veggies like broccoli, cucumber, lettuce, spinach, etc.. are so low in calories that not weighing them won’t matter much. But it might be a good habit to weigh them when you start.
Start with weighing and tracking 1 meal. If you’re having trouble weighing and tracking consistently. Try just tracking 1 meal per day to start. You’ll learn plenty about the calories in foods and how much you’re eating.
Tracking when eating out. Most restaurants will have their info online. But if you can’t find it try looking up a similar meal. Or break down the meal into individual components and estimate the serving sizes. Keep in mind that meals out won’t be super accurate because the way they are prepared is going to be different from restaurant to restaurant. But again, perfection isn’t’ the idea. Awareness and getting a baseline is.
Please watch this video of me showing how to use MyFitnessPal to plan meals each week that fit your calorie needs.
Tips for using hand size portions with the 1-2-3 meal planning method
For most people, this is an easy strategy to apply and one that seems to work well long-term. It might not be as precise as weighing portions and tracking food but it can be good enough.
Starter hand-sized servings for most men (assuming 3 meals and no snacks per day)
- 2 palms of protein
- 2 fists of veggies
- 2 cupped handfuls of carbs
- 2 thumbs of fats
Starter hand-sized servings for most women (assuming 3 meals and no snacks per day)
- 1 palm of protein
- 1 fist of veggies
- 1 cupped handful of carbs
- 1 thumb of fats
Based on the feedback you get from measurements, mood, energy levels, and performance you can adjust the portions to eat more or less.
Start with 1 macronutrient and level up. Start by using your hand to estimate protein for 2-weeks. If you’re consistent, then level up to veggies, then carbs, and finally fats.
Start with 1 meal. If you already feel pretty confident but not ready to do this at all your meals, try just 1.
A half plate of veggies. If you’re really struggling, a simple adjustment is filling half your plate with veggies and the other half can be split into ¼ proteins and ¼ carbs.
Read nutrition labels. Even when using your hands to estimate portion sizes a good habit to get into is reading nutrition labels. Look at calories, serving sizes, and create awareness around how much you’re eating. Same when you go out to restaurants – look up the info online or in an app.
Use smaller plates or Tupperware. This is a great way to control portions and calories without changing the foods you eat.
Combo meals. If it’s a combination meal that was already prepared for you (chili, mac n cheese, stir-fry) try the 1-2 cupped hands method. It shouldn’t be more than 1-2 cupped hands together.
This is a place to start. You’ll inevitably adjust as you go.
Why uniform eating and the 1-2-3 meal planning method can make eating “healthier” easier at first
I know what you’re thinking – “I can’t eat the same thing every day.” Odds are if you took a good look at the diet you probably already are. Uniform eating also helps you to know exactly how much you’re eating each week. Thus, making adjusting serving sizes easier based on how you’re progressing.
Some studies (1) are even showing that as food variety increases, so can calorie intake and weight gain.
You can fix this by eating the same few meals for a week and then adjusting them the following week. This makes planning and prepping much easier. It’s also one less decision you have to make each week.
You can start small by trying to eat the same breakfast each week. Or you could level up and try it with all your meals. You might not need to do this forever. But think about it until you’re consistently making progress.
Plan and prepare meals twice per week when using the 1-2-3 meal method
Any two days will work. Whatever works well for you and your schedule. I like Sundays and Wednesdays.
Why twice? To keep things fresh and give yourself the ability to change something up if you want. Plus, it will reduce cooking and prep time.
Keep your planning and prep simple at first. Despite what you see on Instagram most meals don’t actually look like that. Buy chopped frozen veggies to save you prep time. Use fruit as a carb so reduce food prep. Rotisserie chickens and precooked protein are useful when you don’t have time to cook.
Take action exercise
Most people read a blog post, nod their head and say these are great ideas, and then do absolutely nothing with it. It’s on to the next blog post, Instagram photo, or Facebook update.