How to Plan Your Meals for the Week

If you're looking to change your body, meal prepping is one of the most powerful tools you can use.

While meal prepping isn’t magical, it can save you a ton of stress and decision making. Both of those things make it good for busy people trying to lose weight.

Dietitians specialize in food, I'm going to give you a lot of the steps without a meal plan.

What is meal prepping and how can it help you change your body?

How to Stick to Your Healthy Eating Plan

Meal prepping is preparing your food in advance.

When you have a busy schedule, it can be easier than you might think to miss a meal. Eating healthy on the go is a lot harder than finding the nearest McDonalds.

Making all your food in advance sounds like a lot of work, because it is.

The reason why meal prep is so popular is because it’s insanely effective.

Think about how tired you would get trying to make 21 individual meals. It's much easier to make 3-7 for a week.

You can take this idea to its fullest extent by having a complete meal finished and ready to go when you get hungry.

That process looks like this:

  1. Figure out how much you need to eat to reach your goals
  2. Plan your schedule for the week filling in meals for each day
  3. Shop for what you need
  4. Cook all the things
  5. Store your food
  6. Warm your food and enjoy!

Another option is to take some of the steps and do them in advance.

In writing this, I'm assuming that you are healthy. If you have any health concerns a registered dietitian can assist you with this process.

The first place I'm going to start is with how much you need to eat.

Once you know the number of calories that you need, you can begin to work on how you will spread this all around.

Step 1: Figure Out How Much You Need to Eat

You can’t begin to prep your meals for the week without knowing how much food you need to eat in the first place.

Are you aiming to lose weight?

Gain weight?

How about maintain your weight?

There's one big problem here.

No matter how much math you do on the front end, you're going to need to adjust this. What we're aiming for is getting close to the number of calories that you need in a day.

We can use the guess and check method to find you landmarks by following these steps:

  1. Do math to figure out how many calories you need to add, lose or maintain weight
  2. Measure your average scale weight over the course of 7-14 days
  3. Make adjustments based on how your body is adjusting over time

1a. Try This to Figure Out Overall Calories

The Mifflin-St Jeor Equation can help you get started. This equation is an update to the Harris Benedict Equation for calories. There are two parts to doing your math.

  1. Find your basal metabolic rate, or the amount of energy (commonly in calories) you use at rest.
  2. Multiply your basal metabolic rate by how active you are (Physical Activity Level).

For Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR):

For Men: BMR = (10 × weight in kg) + (6.25 × height in cm) - (5 × age in years) + 5

For Women: BMR = (10 × weight in kg) + (6.25 × height in cm) - (5 × age in years) - 161

Next, multiply your result by one of these ranges to get your total daily energy expenditure:

  • Sedentary or light activity- 1.40-1.69
  • Active or moderately active- 1.70-1.99
  • Vigorously active- 2.00-2.40*

*PAL above 2.4 is very difficult to maintain

You can learn more about the numbers behind these PAL ranges here

You should know that people inherently tend to overestimate how active they are. Don't be afraid to guess low.

Alternatively, you can journal how much you are eating now and use that as a starting number.

1b. Divide Your Calories Up Based on Your Goals

Depending on what your goals are, you will split your calories up into 3 different categories:

  1. Protein
  2. Fat
  3. Carbs

For protein you will want to eat around 0.8-1.0g/lb of body weight per day. A 120 lb woman would need anywhere from 96-120 grams of protein a day.

With the rest of your calories, you some flexibility. You can choose to change what you eat based on the day or keep things the same from day to day.

A caveat to this flexibility is no lower than 20% of your daily calories should come from fat. Less than this on a regular basis can cause nutrient deficiencies.

Adults over 18 should aim for 20-35% of their total calories to come from fat.

More active people might opt for more carbs. If you work in an office sitting down, you might opt for more fats.

Example Person A: Female

  • Age-31
  • Height-5'5" or 165.1cm
  • Weight-140 lbs or 63.50kg
  • Activity Level-Moderately Active-1.82
  • Desired Goal: Weight Loss

Starting Macronutrients:

  • Protein-140g
  • Fat-65g
  • Carbohydrates-203g

Starting Calories: 1957

Example Person B: Male

  • Age-40
  • Height-5'8" or 172.72cm
  • Weight-165 lbs or 74.84kg
  • Activity Level-Moderately Active-1.94
  • Desired Goal: Muscle Gain

Starting Macronutrients:

  • Protein-165g
  • Fat-135g
  • Carbohydrates-398g

Starting Calories: 3467

Example Person C: Female

  • Age-52
  • Height-5'6" or 167.64cm
  • Weight-185 lbs or 83.91kg
  • Activity Level-Sedentary-1.53
  • Desired Goal: Weight Loss

Starting Macronutrients:

  • Protein-185g
  • Fat-81g
  • Carbohydrates-194g

Starting Calories: 2245

A Few Extra Tips on Macros

It appears that the ideal amount of protein is best spread over at minimum four meals. If you are portioning out your food, aim for 0.55 g/kg/meal or 0.25 g/lb/meal.

That 120 lbs woman would need 30g per meal of protein over four meals.

With that in mind, you might opt for 3 meals and a snack. You can keep protein the same at each meal. You could also spread it over 3 meals and have some left over for a snack or midnight protein shake.

With carbs and fats, different sources will have different amounts of energy per gram.

Example:

  • A cup of diced watermelon (152g) contains 46 calories.
  • A cup of cooked oatmeal (234g) contains 158 calories.

If it seems hard to hit your numbers, try to eat denser or less calorically dense foods. The watermelon would be an example of a less dense food.

If you’re having trouble getting that much protein in (most of my clients do at first) opt for more meat sources. Protein smoothies are also good options.

Falling short on fat is an easy fix, you can add tablespoons of olive oil to meals without changing flavor much. Nut butters and avocado are also solid additional fat sources.

This may take some figuring at first but, there are MANY foods you can eat that contain a lot of protein.

Nursing clients appreciate this article I wrote on easy non-refrigerated protein sources

Step 3: Plan Your Meals for the Week

Keep your meals simple. You do not have to follow a ton of steps, that might make you less likely to successfully engrain this process. We want cooking to be part of a process you enjoy.

Don’t be afraid to repeat a meal several times over, in fact, it makes things easier.

Say you’re planning to eat stir fry for dinner every meal this week. You could:

  • Pick the recipes that you would like to enjoy based on your diet
  • Buy all your food over the weekend
  • Schedule out some time to cook enough food to last you throughout the week
  • Get out all the pots, pans, and spices you will need to cook
  • Wash and cut your vegetables
  • Begin cooking your meat
  • Add your vegetables, spices and finish cooking the dish
  • Portion out your meals for consumption

That's how this process looks in a perfect world.

You can also perform a partial prep:

  • Follow the same initial process as above, buying groceries and scheduling time
  • Get out some containers that you will use to store your prepped food
  • Cut your vegetables but, store them for when you decide to cook
  • You can also take time to marinate whatever meat that you will be using to cook at this stage.

At first, it may take you some time to get your meal prepping routine down. Like anything else, it will improve the more you do it.

Try to recycle a food throughout the week. You can use chicken in multiple meals, seasoning it differently throughout.

You will figure out how to do this faster as you repeat the process.

Side Note: When shopping personally, I like to go mid-week

Some of the most common times that people seem to go to the grocery store include:

  • Saturdays
  • Sundays
  • The first of the month

If your schedule permits, avoid those lines.

Protein Dense Food Options

You might find these lists helpful when planning your meals. I got this idea from The Lean Muscle Diet by Alan Aragon and Lou Schuler. Lists have been very helpful with clients.

These sources are often mixed when it comes to protein, fat and carbs. They're grouped by their main macronutrient, protein.

​Protein Dense Foods:

Animal Sources: Very Lean:

  • 95% Lean Ground Beef
  • Beef, Eye of Round, Fat Trimmed
  • Top Sirloin
  • Bison
  • Canadian Bacon
  • Carp
  • Channel Catfish
  • Chicken Breast
  • Clam
  • Cod
  • Alaskan King Crab
  • Egg White Protein Powder
  • Egg Whites
  • Elk
  • Emu
  • Flatfish
  • Haddock
  • Extra Lean Ham
  • Canned Salmon
  • Cooked Shrimp
  • Tilapia
  • Canned Tuna, In water
  • Turkey Breast, Meat Only
  • Cottage Cheese, Lowfat, 1% Milkfat
  • Casein Protein
  • Fat Free Greek Yogurt

Animal Sources: Moderate Fat:

  • Prime Rib, Roasted
  • Corned Beef Brisket
  • 90% or Leaner Ground Beef
  • Short Ribs
  • Chicken, Thigh
  • Chicken, Leg
  • Chicken, Wing
  • Duck
  • Hard Boiled Egg
  • Pork Chop, Bone in
  • Beef/Chicken/Pork Sausage, Smoked
  • Sardines
  • 90% or Leaner Ground Turkey
  • Feta Cheese, Reduced Fat
  • Ricotta Cheese, Reduced Fat

Vegetable Sources: Lean:

  • Black Beans
  • Kidney Beans
  • Lima Beans
  • Navy Beans
  • Pinto Beans
  • Edamame
  • Pea Protein Isolate
  • Hemp Protein Powder
  • Lentils
  • Split Peas
  • Green Peas
  • Soy Milk
  • Soy Protein Powder
  • Vegetarian Meatloaf
  • Veggie Soy Burgers
  • Wheat Germ, Toasted

Vegetable Sources: Lean to Moderate Fat:

  • Falafel
  • Hummus
  • Roasted Soybeans
  • Tempeh
  • Firm Tofu

Step 4: Store Your Food For Future Use

There is more than one way to look at food storage. You can store your dry foods in your pantry, premade meals can go in your refrigerator or freezer.

I've found several options available on Amazon from plastic to glass.

Products I have personally used:

If you're looking to spend some money, opt for glass and get a container for every single meal of the week ha! (glassware can be pretty pricey)

Different foods will have different storage lives. Food52 wrote a helpful post on food storage that can be found here.

Conclusion

Now that you know what you are doing, you can go out and plan a menu for yourself. Include variety to keep you interested but, not so much that planning becomes a chore.

It would remiss to not mention the Instant Pot.

The Instant Pot is basically a crockpot on steroids. I've used the Instant Pot to cook 5lbs of meat and a few pounds of vegetables all in under an hour. It's my favorite adult kitchen purchase.

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