I’m going to show you how to setup your personalized 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 crazy. 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 you 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 you can think of
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.
Having your own plan is about a personal sense of autonomy, self-efficacy, and an internal focus 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.
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.
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.
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. Just let that sink in! 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.
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 about?“
No. Trust the plan.
“I know you said that, but what if?“
No. Stop. Trust the plan.
Steps 1 to 5 are pretty basic. You’ve probably seen them before. But as we go through them, and especially when we get to later steps, you’ll start seeing a common theme come together 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.
We will go through Calculations in part 1.
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.
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, try this:
(bodyweight in pounds) X 10 = Lower Range, (bodyweight in pounds) X 12 = Upper Range
For weight maintenance, use this:
(bodyweight in pounds) x 13 = Lower Range, (Bodyweight in pounds) x 15 = Upper Range
For Mass Gain, this works:
(bodyweight in pounds) x 16 = Lower Range, (Bodyweight in pounds) x 18 = Upper Range
Boom. So for a 180 lb. person, we get 1,800 to 2,160 as our total daily range.
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 most of those crazy calculations. They make things complicated, but offer the illusion of being very accurate. That's where the madness lies.
A simple bodyweight X 10-12 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 easier than calories.
Here it is:
(bodyweight in pounds) X .80 = Lower Range, (bodyweight in pounds) X 1 = Upper Range
So our 180 lb. trainee will eat between 140g - 180g protein per day.
But isn’t the accepted formula for “protein needs” really 0.82g/lb of bodyweight?
Yeah for sure but going up to 1g/lb has several advantages:
1. Protein is more thermogenic than carbs or fats. That is, digesting protein burns more calories. A bit more protein can therefore help with dieting.
2. 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.
3. It’s hard to find unhealthy proteins.
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.
(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 peasy lemon squeezy. 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% = 60g
Give yourself a pat on the back. 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 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: