If you’re looking to improve your diet, save money and save yourself time on shopping and cooking, then creating a meal plan might just be exactly what you need.
A meal plan is essentially an outline of what you’re going to eat over the coming week, month or any other duration of time. What this allows you to do, is to carefully plan in advance all of your meals, such that you can ensure you have all the ingredients that you need and nothing will go to waste.
This is particularly useful for people living alone or in a couple, who will often find themselves forced to buy ‘family packs’ of vegetables and other foods which are then left to go off.
Moreover though, meal plans are also very useful for improving your diet and your health as a result.
Benefits of Meal Plans
• Because meal plans ensure you know all the ingredients you will need in advance, you can use them more efficiently and avoid waste – thereby saving money.
• This also allows you to take advantage of the ‘economy of scale’ by buying in bulk to take advantage of savings.
• You also save a lot of time, because you will be able to buy all the food you need in a single shop.
• Furthermore, you’ll be able to cook all the meals for your coming week/month in one go and then freeze them to eat at your convenience.
• Knowing your precise meals for the coming weeks will allow you to precisely calculate your caloric intake, grams of protein etc. without having to add them up as you go. This makes it much easier to stick to a particular diet.
• Because you’ll have all your supplies, ready cooked meals and an idea of what you’re going to eat each night, you won’t be likely to find that a lack of inspiration or energy leads you to cheat on your diet as you otherwise might.
How to Create Your Meal Plan
As you can see then, there are a vast number of reasons to consider creating and sticking to a meal plan. So how do you go about doing that?
To start with, you should set the number of weeks that you’re going to create the plan for. Creating a long meal plan will make it easier to stick to your diet as you won’t keep having to create new plans as you go. That said though, when you first start out, you might find it easier to create a smaller diet plan and from here you can make changes in order to iron out the kinks before you develop a longer one. If you’re the ambitious type, you could even eventually set yourself a plan for the entire duration of a diet. This can be very satisfying as it allows you to calculating the precise number of calories you’re likely to be eating over the course of several months. If you compare this to an average of what you would previously have been eating, you can save yourself a lot of time and effort.
The starting point for any meal plan should be the two or three meals that you’re inspired to make for a particular week. These should be meals that you want to eat and that work within your specific diet. Once you’ve identified those meals, you can then build the others around it.
For each of your ‘big meals’, you should create a list of ingredients that you want to include and the number of grams for each one (you can do this on paper, or in Excel to make it easier to keep a running total of the number of calories). If you’re counting calories, you can then also list the number of calories for ingredient and thus for each meal. Alternatively, if you’re more interested in keeping track of the precise macronutrients, then you should work out how many grams of protein/carbs/fats each ingredient will land you. You might also want to work out the precise cost of each ingredient if you’re trying to stick within a certain budget.
If you’re trying to keep your calories within a certain limit each day or each week, then you can simply ‘tweak’ your ingredients to keep within your projected target.
Note: If you’re creating a meal plan for your family, then remember that you need to multiply and divide your figures accordingly.
Next, think about how many grams of each ingredient you are likely to buy, versus how many you are likely to actually eat. For instance, you may find that you’re required to buy a whole pot of salad cream, when in fact you only need half for one or two people.
What this will then allow you to do, is to assess the ingredients you will have leftover and to start thinking about how you can put those to use in making some more, smaller meals. This will allow you to create a meal plan that’s highly efficient and that prevents foods from going to waste.
Once you have a meal down for every day alongside the number of calories, the price and the macronutrients, you can then work out your totals.
When creating a meal plan, you’re setting yourself a relatively strict outline for everything you’re going to be eating over the coming months. In short, you are deciding your fate in terms of your food intake and thus your weight gain or loss for a long time to come. That means you need to get it right in a number of ways.
The below tips will help you to get your diet plan right so that you actually stick to it and it’s as effective as possible.
1. For starters, you need to ensure that your meal plan isn’t too ambitious. It’s very easy when you’re creating a plan to carry out in advance, to make it unrealistically healthy or to assume you’re going to spend huge amounts of time cooking. If every meal is a salad, or if every meal involves hours of cooking, then you probably aren’t going to be able to stick to it. It’s better to create an imperfect plan and stick to it than it is to create a perfect plan and then ignore it.
2. One trick you can use to make your plan easier to stick to, is to cook up large meals that can last you for multiple nights. For instance, this could mean eating a bolognaise on two nights of the week. This can save you money and time and it makes it much easier to eat healthy and high quality meals on multiple nights.
3. One way to avoid your diet being too strict meanwhile, is to allow yourself at least one cheat day. This is something that is recommended by most diet plans and it’s certainly advice worth following. Not only will having a cheat day make your diet much easier to stick to because it will be tastier and more enjoyable, but it will also help prevent your metabolism from slowing down too much if you’re trying to restrict your intake of calories or of simple carbs.
4. Being flexible is also highly important. While you can make highly elaborate and detailed plans, life doesn’t always go according to plan and every now and then something will get in your way. This is why it’s a good idea to make one or two meals of your plan ‘expendable’. These should be the meals that are the quickest to make and the most ‘isolated’ in terms of their ingredients. Beans on toast might be a good example for instance.
5. If you want your meal plan to be comprehensive in terms of how much you’re going to spend and how many calories/macronutrients you’re taking in, then you will need to create provision for ‘snacks’ that you can add.
What this then means, is that when someone invites you out for dinner, you can simply swap that meal out for your ‘expendable’ meal. Better yet, is to use your cheat day in order to deal with unexpected surprises. Invited out on the Friday night? Then swap your cheat day on Sunday for your meal plan on Friday. There’s no need to update the sheet in this scenario: your body doesn’t care what day of the week it is!