How to create a meal plan for weight loss?

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Meal Prep for Weight Loss: Templates, Recipes and More

Meal prepping has long been touted as the nutrition go-to in the fitness world. Advocates praise it for keeping their diet on point and pounds off, all while saving them time and money. But what exactly counts as meal prep and is it worth the hype?

When done right, meal prepping can be one of the biggest factors helping you lose weight fast and hit your fitness goals. But it takes a little strategy to get it right and make meals that you will continue to enjoy for more than a few weeks. To help, we’ve compiled our favorite meal prep ideas for weight loss, including recipes, meal planning strategies and flavor hacks to stop boredom in its tracks.

How to Meal Prep

Learning how to meal prep like a boss doesn’t have to be difficult. In fact, you can tailor your meal plan and approach to your skill level—no chef culinary skills needed. Your diet, just like your meal prep, is personal. And what works for one doesn’t always work for everyone. To get started, let’s get the basics down first.

What is Meal Prep?

Meal prepping is the art of planning and preparing some or all of your meals in advance with the intention to control calories and nutrition to meet personal dietary needs. This could be making your lunch the night before, cooking in batch, or pre-cooking all your food and portioning it out for the week. And it is often done to improve overall nutrition intake, cut calories, gain muscle, support workouts, etc.

Meal Prep Benefits

Meal prepping benefits range from reduced cost and time spent, to lower stress levels and more successful dieting. Taking control of your diet and the foods you’re eating is one of the best ways to make sure you are successful.

Having a plan and food on hand will prevent you from making poor, hunger-based decisions when they arise and can cut down on the amount you are eating out—saving you money in the long run. And with research continuing to suggest that meal planning is associated with better nutrition and more weight loss, it is definitely something worth considering if you are trying to get in shape (1,2,3).

Meal prepping can also help reduce the stress that comes with trying to eat healthier. Dieting, especially cutting calories, can cause you to think about food all day long. And not knowing what your next meal will be, or whether or not it’s going to help your dietary goals, can get overwhelming day after day.

Not to mention, your willpower gets drained much faster, and you are more likely to go off your plan when you’re tired or “not in the mood” to make the healthier decision, especially if it feels more difficult or time-consuming.

Solving for all your food decisions in advance really frees up some of your willpower and mental stress, helping you reach your goals faster and with more ease.

Weight Loss Meal Plan

This is probably the most important part of your meal prep routine. Prepping food alone won’t necessarily help you drop pounds if you aren’t following the basic steps for weight loss. Start with the following, in this order:

  1. Calculate how many calories you need to lose weight here.
  2. Get your macros on point using this.
  3. And read this to learn the best foods for weight loss.

Then download this basic meal prep for weight loss tool-kit to get started. Complete with food lists, menu planning templates and expert advice to help you save time and money in the process.

Sensible Portions

Once you’ve got the basics down, it’s time to start putting it into action.

Calories and macros go hand in hand, which is why meal prepping on a macro diet can make keeping your portion control in check and calorie control even easier – especially since counting macros means you have an idea of how much of each type of food your should be eating.

You may also want to consider buying a food scale or use a food tracking app to be as precise as possible and learn the exact portion sizes that match your individual needs.

Keep in mind, the portions you use may change from one day to the next or one meal to the next, depending on your fitness and health goals. You can adjust your carb and protein portions around your workouts, eating more food when you are more active and a lighter meal on rest days or when you are not moving around as much.

Your carbohydrate needs are directly related to your level of physical activity, and you should eat more carbohydrates when you are the most active.

Here are some easy ways you can automatically get more nutrition and sensible portions into your meals:

  • Load up on veggies. They should make up 1/3 to 1/2 of your meal to provide high amounts of nutrients and fiber that will help keep your appetite in check and metabolism going strong.
  • Pick lean proteins to balance out the dish like chicken, fish, grass-fed beef, or tofu. Minimize breaded and fried versions to keep your calories in check. Eating more protein will help keep you satisfied and supports lean muscle, which is important for weight management.
  • Use whole grains like quinoa, farro, brown rice and whole grain pasta as a base. They travel well and pair with just about any protein, veggies, and flavor you add. You can also use beans, lentils, peas, corn or potatoes. Aim to keep your starch portion to 1/3 or less of your meal.
  • Cook with small amounts of healthy fats like olive oil and avocado oil, or top with whole fats like olives, nuts, and avocados. A little bit goes a long way, so keep your portions small and only add what you need for flavor.
  • Minimize added ingredients like salt, cheese, heavy sauces, high sugar dressings, etc. These can wrack up extra calories quickly from sugar and fat. Instead pile on calorie-free additions to add more flavor and variety – like lemon, fresh herbs, garlic, paprika, or chili flakes. Or choose lighter options like salsa, kimchi, nutritional yeast, and sugar-free dressings.

Weighing Your Food

Been counting calories and still having trouble losing weight?

Learning how to weigh your food using a food scale is the most accurate way to control your portions. Even if you are using measuring cups and spoons, this still requires some eyeballing.

If you are new to meal prep or need to be super strict about your calories, consider using weights instead. Minor differences can really add up, especially when looking at high fat toppings, dressing and cooking oil.

For examples, 1 ounce vs. 1.5 ounces of cheese topping can look pretty similar, but the larger portion adds 43 calories, 3g protein, and 3g fat to your meal. This amount may seem minor, but if this happened twice a day, 5 days a week, you’d be adding almost 500 extra calories without realizing it.

Healthy Meal Prep Ideas for Weight Loss

While the idea of meal planning is simple, the execution can take some strategy. Once you have an idea of the diet plan you are looking to follow – whether it is clean eating, paleo, vegan, etc., you can start planning your approach. You’ll want to consider the following:

  • Gauge your level of commitment. Be realistic with yourself and your level of cooking expertise – how much do you want to cook and how often? If you aren’t a culinary expert, opt for more quick cook foods, pre-chopped produce, and simple recipes.
  • Tackle your weak spots first. What meals or snacks need the most attention? If you’re eating out every night, but doing all right when it comes to lunches, you may want to start with dinner.
  • Start small. Begin by prepping for only 2 to 3 days or meals each week. Or start with something easy like breakfast or snacks.
  • Pick a day to plan and execute. You can dedicate one or more days per week to prepping. And don’t forget to set aside some time to plan for the following week. For many, Sunday works as a great day to menu plan and cook for the week.
  • Stock up on food containers and cooking equipment you will need. Having reliable meal prep containers can help you portion your food better, and keep meals tasting fresh and stored safely. And be prepared with any travel coolers if needed.

Meal Plan Template

Budget

You’ll need to determine exactly how much you plan to spend on meals each week, or your menu planning can easily get out of hand.

Overall, Americans spend roughly 10% of their income on food, so estimating somewhere around 10% of your take-home salary could be a good start (4). Or if you are already tracking how much you spend on food each month, including take-out and restaurant, you can use this amount as a high starting estimate.

Here are a few easy shopping tricks that can help make your planning even more budget-friendly:

  • Mix and match ingredients to get more bang for your buck. As you plan your menu, look for versatile ingredients that work in multiple dishes.
  • Look for items on sale and stock up on non-perishables when they are on sale, like dried beans and grains, and canned and frozen.
  • Swap out expensive foods for a less expensive but similar option, such as cranberries in place of goji berries or brown rice instead of quinoa.
  • Buy portion sizes that make sense to reduce waste. For example, you probably don’t need a 5-pound bag of apples for one person, unless you plan on using them in multiple recipes and for snacking.
  • Shop different stores and online to get the best deals you can find. And look for what’s in season—it’s usually traveled shorter distances to get there, meaning it’s fresher and probably cheaper than during out of season.

Weekly Meal Prep Menu

Once you have your budget in place and plan in mind, you can curate your menu accordingly. It helps to actually write out a full week’s worth of meals and snacks so that you can plan for exactly how much food you will need to buy.

Consider how leftovers can be used or how staples like chicken breast, brown rice or sweet potatoes can be executed in multiple ways.

Download this Meal Plan Template to get started!

Once you have a menu, you’ll need to create detailed recipes for each meal you are looking to prep. Do you need oil or seasonings? How much of each ingredient is necessary for each meal and all of your meals combined?

Shopping Lists

Once you have your desired menu set, you can now create your shopping list and adjust as needed based on your budget. Include weights or desired package sizes on your list to make sure you have enough on hand to execute your plan. It is also helpful to bring your full menu to the store with you in case last-minute substitutions are needed.

Best Meal Prep Recipes for Beginners

Looking for some recipe inspiration? Here are some of our favorite, easy recipes that work for meal preppers.

Up your portions as needed or swap in more variety with multiple proteins, veggies and grains you can divide up throughout the week! And don’t be afraid to get a little fancy with new flavors and seasonings – it will help keep your daily meal grind from getting boring and cut down on cravings.

7 Easy Dinner Recipes

Take the stress out of having to decide what to cook each night with simple prepped options you can reheat or cook in no time.

  1. Salmon Cakes – make ahead of time and reheat in a skillet or oven. Serve with a side salad and baked sweet potatoes. Or go for a salmon burger than won’t disappoint.
  2. Lean Crock Pot Pulled Pork – Everyone loves a good BBQ! Here’s one without any added sugar or fuss. Serve this with a low-fat slaw and corn on the cob.
  3. Sheet Pan Chicken and Veggies – Try with your favorite veggies and add potatoes or serve with brown rice or quinoa.
  4. Low-Calorie Stir Fry – Craving Chinese? Meal prep some of the ingredients ahead of time with pre-chopped veggies and pre-cooked grains. Then toss it all together in a skillet with your favorite protein for an easy dinner in no time.
  5. Butternut Squash and Chicken Pad Thai – Double up this recipe for lunch leftovers and serve with lots of fresh herbs, scallions and a drizzle of extra sriracha to keep it tasting fresh.
  6. Healthy Salmon Chowder – Impress your dinner guests with this light, smoky and flavor packed chowder, or make ahead and enjoy at lunch all week.
  7. Simple Bolognese – Yes, pasta can fit into your diet! Choose whole grain noodles, or swap in zoodles for less carbs, and load up on veggies and protein using this simple sauce recipe.

Breakfasts and Lunches

Breakfast is one of the easiest meals to make ahead of time. And there are also multiple grab and go options you can get from the store, like Greek yogurt with fruit or a lean and protein-packed frozen burrito.

The trick is to get more protein into your mornings and avoid high sugar, high-calorie options—like pastries, sugary cereal, syrups, and white breads—that are going to drain your energy later in the day and mess with your appetite.

10 Breakfast Recipes:

  1. Egg White Frittata – Veggies are also for breakfast! Try these in individual muffin tins for a pre-portioned option. Serve alone, with roasted sweet potatoes, or sprouted grain toast and avocado for more carbs and calories when you need it.
  2. Pumpkin Chia Pudding – Need something a little sweeter in the morning? This simple pudding tastes like Thanksgiving and is guaranteed to make your day. Add 4 to 6 scoops of vanilla protein powder to this recipe for a healthy protein boost.
  3. Maple Sweet Potato Waffles – Need we say more? Make ahead and serve warm with some fruit and yogurt topping or a drizzle of sugar-free syrup.
  4. Greek Yogurt Parfait – These look as good as they taste. Fill small mason jars in advance and grab these on the run.
  5. Freezer Friendly Breakfast Burritos – Forget fast food. Make these bad boys in advance, wrap in plastic wrap and store in the freezer. Then just pop them in the microwave and make everyone jealous!
  6. High Protein Salmon Toast – This simple toast recipe feels gourmet but packs a ton of nutrition into your morning.
  7. Overnight Oats – Mason jars were built for this. Make your hearty oats ahead of time and flavor multiple ways. Add a scoop of protein powder for even more flavor and nutrition.
  8. Clean Eating Breakfast Casserole – Make this once and have breakfast or snack options all week. A perfect blend of eggs, sweet potatoes and veggies.
  9. Egg and Pesto Toast – Enjoy this quick recipe in less than 15 minutes of prep time to fill your belly with a delicious egg sandwich. Loaded with protein and radish for a little kick.
  10. High Protein French Toast – Great way to curb your sweet cravings without the guilt. Make the toast first and pack sugar free syrup or nut butter on the side for topping. You can also top with fresh berries or fruit.

7 Lunch Recipes

Eat lunch like you mean it! Long gone are the days of simple sandwiches and chips once you start meal prepping like a pro. Get some more nutrition by eating lunch like you do dinner – loaded with lean protein, veggies, and whole grains – utensils required.

These four make-in-advance dishes are guaranteed to brighten up your afternoon and keep your hunger at bay.

  1. Steak Fajita Bowls – Tastes like healthy take-out! Double the portions and make in advance for a tasty lunch all week long. Serve with your favorite toppings like tortilla strips or guac.
  2. Grass-fed Meatballs – Shout out to the original protein balls! Roast these with veggies and serve with hummus to dip. Try them with fresh herbs and nutritional yeast added. You can also use ground turkey or chicken.
  3. Hearty Salads – Check out these salads that will keep you feeling full and healthy AF. Change up your toppings each day for variety and opt for low-fat/low-sugar dressings that won’t pack on empty calories.
  4. Avocado Tuna Salad – The perfect blend of creamy and crunchy! Double up this recipe and serve with roasted sweet potatoes, on sprouted grain toast, or on top of lettuce. You can also try it with chicken.
  5. Easy Shrimp Ceviche – High protein, low carb and no cooking required. Mix Trifecta shrimp your your favorite fresh veggies, toss in a zesty vinaigrette and enjoy!
  6. Steak and Avocado Lettuce Wraps – The easiest, high protein lettuce wraps you could eat all week long and not get tired of.
  7. Turkey Stuffed Bell Peppers – Great, portioned controlled dish. Add variety with toppings like low-fat cheese, gauc, or hot sauce. Roast the peppers ahead of time for even more flavor.

4 Plant-Based Recipes

Looking for high protein vegan recipes for meal prep? Just about any traditional recipe can be made vegan or vegetarian with a few protein swaps – just add your favorite vegan meat substitute or plant-based protein. Here some of our favorite plant-powered meals:

  1. Vegan Tofu Scramble – The champion of vegan breakfast cuisine. This carb friendly, protein-packed dish will not let you down. Enjoy as-is or throw it into a sprouted grain tortilla for a healthy breakfast burrito.
  2. Black Bean and Quinoa Veggie Burgers – Veggies with more veggies! Try this recipe with your favorite blends of grains, veggies, beans, and herbs – also works with lentils. These also work great as vegan meatballs served over roasted veggies with a drizzle of tahini sauce.
  3. Vegan Chili – Savory and delicious. Serve this over lentils or quinoa for even more protein, or top a baked sweet potato. For a vegetarian high protein twist, top with a scoop of plain Greek yogurt!
  4. Chana Masala – The easiest Indian recipe you can make! Toss in cauliflower or spinach for a nutrient boost and serve over brown rice or quinoa.

8 Healthy Snack Ideas

Don’t forget to plan your snacks as well. Snacking is one of the easiest ways to make or break your diet. And most convenient food options are loaded with sugar and empty calories.

Instead opt for a simple, nutrient dense fruit or veggie paired with a healthy does of protein or fat to keep you feeling satisfied. Here are some quick options you can grab:

  1. Hard-boiled eggs
  2. Grass-fed jerky
  3. A piece of fruit and low-fat string cheese
  4. A handful of nuts and dried fruit
  5. Whole grain crackers or fruit and nut butter
  6. Tuna or chicken salad with whole grain crackers
  7. Hummus with veggies and grilled chicken strips to dip
  8. Greek yogurt with fruit

Food Prep Hacks

Cooking your food, especially in large quantities in advance, can seem overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be! There are many tricks of the trade to help you cut your meal prep time down and eliminate the stress that comes along with following a healthy eating plan. Check out these popular meal prep ideas:

  • Use big batch cooking to create one-pot dishes that will last you for days. Whip up a healthy chili, stew or curry in a crockpot and serve over your favorite grains. Keep the grains separate before serving to make it taste extra fresh. Enchiladas, lasagna, casseroles, and pilafs also work wonders for getting more meals out of your recipes.
  • Use sheet pans to roast large amounts of fresh veggies, potatoes, and proteins at once. Add some healthy cooking oil, seasoning and roast until browned and cooked through. Then portion it out as needed.
  • Buy pre-chopped veggies, bagged salads, and frozen and canned produce to minimize prep time.
  • Make healthy breakfast or lunch burritos, wrap in foil and freeze for whenever you need them. Then pop them in the oven or microwave for a fast and balanced option.
  • If you’re getting bored of the same dish each day, change it up with healthy toppings and add-ons or switch up you marinades using Ziploc bags and cook more than one flavor at a time.

Just like anything, becoming a master at meal prepping takes time. But learning to meal plan, portion and cook yourself healthy options are important skills that will last you a lifetime, and are invaluable to your health.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the idea of doing it all on your own, check out this simple guide to meal prep for weight loss. An RD-written toolkit complete with everything you need to crush your diet and get results. Plus it pairs perfectly with Trifecta’s A La Carte options.

  1. Lachat C, Nago E, Verstraeten R, Roberfroid D, Van Camp J, Kolsteren P. Eating out of home and its association with dietary intake: a systematic review of the evidence. Obes Rev. 2012 Apr;13(4):329-46.
  2. Nago ES, Lachat CK, Dossa RA, Kolsteren PW. Association of out-of-home eating with anthropometric changes: a systematic review of prospective studies. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2014;54(9):1103-16.
  3. Monsivais P, Anju Aggarwal A, Drewnowsk A. Time spent on home food preparation and indicators of healthy eating. Am J Prev Med. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.amepre.2014.07.033
  4. Pauline Ducrot, Caroline Méjean, Vani Aroumougame, Gladys Ibanez, Benjamin Allès, Emmanuelle Kesse-Guyot, Serge Hercberg, Sandrine Péneau. Meal planning is associated with food variety, diet quality and body weight status in a large sample of French adults. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2017; 14: 12. Published online 2017 Feb 2. doi: 10.1186/s12966-017-0461-7

Meal Plan for Weight Loss: A 7-Day Kickstart

Ready to step it up with your Fitbit tracker and set some new health and fitness goals? That’s awesome! Cue the fireworks! But if your ultimate goal is to lose weight, unfortunately, activity alone isn’t going to get you there—you also have to change what you eat. That does not mean you need to do a cleanse or detox. But it is possible to get a jump on weight loss, the smart and healthy way. Fitbit Dietitian Tracy Morris developed this kickstart one-week meal plan to help her clients see results, fast. Disclaimers: Please don’t try to lose more than 2 pounds per week, or dip below 1200 calories per day, which can compromise your metabolism. This is not a long-term plan, so you definitely don’t want to eat this way every week. But it’s a great way to kick off a weight loss goal, with specific meal and snack ideas, so you’ll see an initial drop—and be extra motivated to keep the momentum going this year. Increase your drive to succeed, and see how many consecutive days your can stay on track, by using Fitbit’s food logging feature.

Here’s the full shopping list for exactly what to buy, and check to make sure you have a few pantry staples on hand. Morris recommends starting on a weekend, so you can make a big pot of veggie soup, and give your body a chance to adjust before diving into a busy week. Her plan cuts carbs for the first couple of days, before slowly reintroducing whole grains. And if you want to mix it up, there are lots more options for healthy snacks, just make sure to get a serving of fruit or vegetables, along with protein.

Meal Prep

Before you start the meal plan, make a pot of the Veggie Soup. Make 2 servings of Overnight Oats, so they can soak in the fridge. It’s also super helpful to prep your veggie snacks—make 4 bags filled with baby carrots and sugar snap peas, and 3 bags filled with broccoli and cauliflower, for alternate days. And if you really want to get ahead, you could also grill the chicken breasts and cook the quinoa and brown rice in advance.

Day 1

Breakfast: green smoothie (made with ½ banana + ½ cup frozen mango + 1 cup kale + ½ cup plain, low-fat Greek yogurt + ½ small avocado + ½ cup nonfat milk)

Morning snack: 1 apple + 1 oz nuts

Lunch: 2 cups Veggie Soup

Afternoon snack: 1 cup baby carrots & sugar snap peas + 2 tablespoons hummus

Dinner: 4 oz salmon + 1 cup steamed carrots + 1 cup steamed broccoli + 2 tablespoons teriyaki sauce + 1 teaspoon sesame seeds

Notes: Bake the salmon at 400°F (200°C) until firm to the touch, 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the thickness. Chop the carrots and broccoli and steam until tender-crisp, about 5 minutes for the carrots, 3 minutes for the broccoli. Drizzle everything with the teriyaki sauce and sprinkle with the sesame seeds.

1,226 total calories for the day

Day 2

Breakfast: berry smoothie (made with ½ banana + 1 cup frozen strawberries + ½ cup plain, low-fat Greek yogurt + ½ cup nonfat milk)

Morning snack: 1 banana + 1 oz nuts

Lunch: 2 cups Veggie Soup

Afternoon snack: 1 cup broccoli & cauliflower + 2 tablespoons tzatziki

Dinner: 4 oz grilled chicken + ½ cup roasted sweet potatoes + 1 cup roasted Brussels sprouts + 1 tablespoon olive oil

Notes: Chop the sweet potatoes and halve the Brussels sprouts, and place on a sheet pan. Drizzle with 2 teaspoons olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and toss to coat. Roast at 450°F (230°C) until tender, about 15 minutes. Brush the chicken with 1 teaspoon olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Grill over medium-high heat until marked and no longer pink in the center, about 5 minutes per side.

1,230 total calories for the day

Day 3

Breakfast: green smoothie (made with ½ banana + ½ cup frozen mango + 1 cup kale + ½ cup plain, low-fat Greek yogurt + ½ small avocado + ½ cup nonfat milk)

Morning snack: 1 cup blueberries + 1 oz nuts

Lunch: 3 oz grilled chicken + ½ cup cooked quinoa + 1 cup cherry tomatoes & chopped cucumber + 2 tablespoons feta cheese + 1 tablespoon vinaigrette

Afternoon snack: 1 cup baby carrots & sugar snap peas + 2 tablespoons hummus

Dinner: 4 oz mahi-mahi + 1 cup steamed carrots + 1 cup steamed broccoli + 2 tablespoons teriyaki sauce + 1 teaspoon sesame seeds

Notes: Bake the mahi-mahi at 400°F (200°C) until firm to the touch, 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the thickness. Chop and steam the carrots and broccoli until tender-crisp, about 5 minutes for the carrots, 3 minutes for the broccoli. Drizzle everything with the teriyaki sauce and sprinkle with the sesame seeds.

1,239 total calories for the day

Day 4

Breakfast: Overnight Oats with blueberries (made with ½ cup oats + 1 tablespoon chia seeds + ½ cup nonfat milk + ½ cup plain, low-fat Greek yogurt + ½ cup blueberries)

Morning snack: 1 banana + 1 oz nuts

Lunch: 3 oz tuna + 2 cups mixed greens + 1 cup cherry tomatoes & chopped cucumber + 1 tablespoon vinaigrette

Afternoon snack: 1 cup broccoli & cauliflower + 2 tablespoons tzatziki

Dinner: 4 oz grilled chicken + ½ cup roasted sweet potatoes + 1 cup roasted Brussels sprouts + 1 tablespoon olive oil

Notes: Chop the sweet potatoes and halve the Brussels sprouts, and place on a sheet pan. Drizzle with 2 teaspoons olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and toss to coat. Roast at 450°F (230°C) until tender, about 15 minutes. Brush the chicken with 1 teaspoon olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Grill over medium-high heat until marked and no longer pink in the center, about 5 minutes per side.

1,303 total calories for the day

Day 5

Breakfast: Overnight Oats with blueberries (made with ½ cup oats + 1 tablespoon chia seeds + ½ cup nonfat milk + ½ cup plain, low-fat Greek yogurt + ½ cup blueberries)

Morning snack: 1 apple + 1 oz nuts

Lunch: 3 oz lean deli turkey + ¼ avocado + 1 whole-wheat tortilla + 1 cup mixed greens

Afternoon snack: 1 cup baby carrots & sugar snap peas + 2 tablespoons hummus

Dinner: 4 oz shrimp + 1 cup steamed carrots + 1 cup steamed broccoli + ½ cup cooked brown rice + 2 tablespoons teriyaki sauce + 1 teaspoon sesame seeds

Notes: Defrost the shrimp under cool running water and pat dry. In a nonstick pan over medium-high heat, toss the shrimp with a little all-natural cooking spray, and cook until bright pink, tightly furled, and warmed through. Chop and steam the carrots and broccoli until tender-crisp, about 5 minutes for the carrots, 3 minutes for the broccoli. Drizzle everything with the teriyaki sauce and sprinkle with the sesame seeds.

1,383 total calories for the day

Day 6

Breakfast: 2 slices whole-wheat toast + 2 hard-boiled eggs + hot sauce (optional)

Morning snack: 1 cup blueberries + 1 oz nuts

Lunch: 3 oz smoked salmon + ¼ avocado + 1 whole-wheat tortilla + 1 cup mixed greens

Afternoon snack: 1 cup broccoli & cauliflower + 2 tablespoons tzatziki

Dinner: 4 oz lean steak + 1 cup roasted sweet potatoes + 1 cup roasted Brussels sprouts + 1 tablespoon olive oil

Notes: Chop the sweet potatoes and halve the Brussels sprouts, and place on a sheet pan. Drizzle with 2 teaspoons olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and toss to coat. Roast at 450°F (230°C) until tender, about 15 minutes. Season the steak with salt and pepper. In a frying pan over medium-high heat, warm 1 teaspoon olive oil. Cook the steak until done to your liking, about 3 minutes per side for medium-rare. (Consuming raw or undercooked meats may increase your risk of foodborne illness.)

1,358 total calories for the day

Day 7

Breakfast: 1 scrambled egg + ½ cup black beans + 1 whole-wheat tortilla

Morning snack: 1 apple + 1 oz nuts

Lunch: 3 oz lean deli turkey + ¼ avocado + 2 slices whole-wheat bread + 1 cup mixed greens

Afternoon snack: 1 cup baby carrots & sugar snap peas + 2 tablespoons hummus

Dinner: whatever you want! (An example, for fun: 2 slices veggie pizza + 1 cup salad greens + 1 tablespoon vinaigrette + 5 fl oz red wine)

1,603 total calories for the day

Most important, at the end of the 7 days, don’t swing straight back to burgers and ice cream! Enjoy that one treat meal, then get right back on track. Figure out how many calories you really need, check out the food logging feature in the Fitbit app, and keep working toward that long-term weight loss goal.

This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.

Becky Duffett

Becky Duffett is a contributing nutrition editor for Fitbit and a lifestyle writer with a passion for eating well. A former Williams-Sonoma cookbook editor and graduate of San Francisco Cooking School, she’s edited dozens of cookbooks and countless recipes. City living has turned her into a spin addict—but she’d still rather be riding a horse. She lives in the cutest neighborhood in San Francisco, spending weekends at the farmers’ market, trying to read at the bakery, and roasting big dinners for friends.

Healthy Eating Plan

A healthy eating plan gives your body the nutrients it needs every day while staying within your daily calorie goal for weight loss. A healthy eating plan also will lower your risk for heart disease and other health conditions.

A healthy eating plan:

  • Emphasizes vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and fat-free or low-fat dairy products
  • Includes lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, eggs, and nuts
  • Limits saturated and trans fats, sodium, and added sugars
  • Controls portion sizes

Calories

To lose weight, most people need to reduce the number of calories they get from food and beverages (energy IN) and increase their physical activity (energy OUT).

For a weight loss of 1–1 ½ pounds per week, daily intake should be reduced by 500 to 750 calories. In general:

  • Eating plans that contain 1,200–1,500 calories each day will help most women lose weight safely.
  • Eating plans that contain 1,500–1,800 calories each day are suitable for men and for women who weigh more or who exercise regularly.

Very low calorie diets of fewer than 800 calories per day should not be used unless you are being monitored by your doctor.

11 Best Meal Planning Apps & Websites to Save You Time, Money & Effort

Last Updated on January 21, 2020

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Meal planning is all the rage these days. Whether you subscribe to one of the best meal kit delivery services like Blue Apron or you are just trying to plan out meals and shopping trips for the week; it’s safe to assume you’re game for anything that will make your life just a wee bit easier.

Wait! Don’t apps and websites typically make your life easier? I mean, they must – given our phones and tablets are riddled with them.

So, what if someone were to list their favorite meal planning apps and websites, so all you had to do was give them a whirl?

Lucky for you, I’ve done that here.

Just know that these are my personal picks for some of the best meal planning websites. Something about each of them spoke to me and my situation.

“Krause! Party of 6!”…

Yeah, that’s me.

So… it’s safe to say I’ve looked into a lot of meal planning sites.

Why?

  • One – to save money.
  • Two- to save time.
  • Three – to stop ordering out or cooking frozen foods so dang much!

But, and there’s always a but, simplicity is a must, and a budget is just as important as diversity.

I’m a mom trying to eat (somewhat) healthy, and I also have young kids who can eat whatever they want. I have a husband who thinks he looks good for his age (and he does!) Beer and hoagies don’t affect him.

Clue me into that superpower!

So, what I need is a meal plan that ticks all of these boxes. Yours may be different. Each family is unique and has their own set of guidelines and necessities, what they consider to be natural foods, so that is why I’ve included something for everyone in my meal planning app review.

Presenting…The 11 best meal planning apps and websites.

​​Side note: If you are looking for additional motivation to exercise and lose weight, try this app that will pay you for your weight loss efforts (up to $10,000).

Save time and money with these 11 meal planning apps:

If you’d like to jump ahead to a specific app, then here’s a quick look at all the meal planning apps featured on this page:

​1. eMeals

Free to try for 14 days, monthly fee after that

eMeals offers a choice of 15 different food styles, including:

eMeals is a subscription meal planning service. However, unlike other services such as Blue Apron, Plated, or Hello Fresh, no food is actually being delivered. Only the recipes are.

Groceries can be delivered via eMeals partnerships with Amazon Fresh and local grocers, but it is not required. It also may not be available in your area. In some instances, curbside pickup may be available in your area as well.

  • Clean eating
  • Quick and healthy
  • Paleo
  • Budget-friendly
  • Kid-friendly
  • Slow cooker
  • Vegan
  • Vegetarian
  • Gluten-free
  • Diabetic

These are just naming a few of what they currently offer. There are also options for families of all sizes. A weekly plan features 7 new meal ideas and allows for unlimited switching between food styles. A smart shopping list is generated and auto-populates as you select your weekly meals.

eMeal plan costs after the free trial are as follows:

The app is available via Google Play and iTunes, but only for subscribers.

Finally, if you’d like to learn more about this app, then I recommend checking out our detailed review of eMeals.

2. Cozi Recipe Box & Dinner Planner

Free

So, if you are familiar with the Cozi Family Organizer, this is a nice little add on feature. If you haven’t tried it, I highly suggest giving it a whirl.

The Cozi Recipe Box & Dinner Planner is available online and as an app. Both offer an import feature that allows you to surf the web for recipes and connect them directly to your profile.

You also have the ability to create shopping lists from your recipes, as well as add them to your weekly calendar – perfect for meal planning!

Specific to the app is a Cooking Mode feature, allowing your screen to remain lit so there are no interruptions (well, except for maybe your kids) when you’re making dinner. It also helps eliminate the greasy fingers on the phone when you are trying to get back to the recipe.

Also, Cozi allows you to link to multiple devices for extra convenience.

Finally, we also have a detailed review of Cozi if you’d like to learn more about this app

​3. $5 Meal Plans

Free recipes, meal planning service additional after free trial, so $5 dinners is a bit of a mashup.

There are a few neat things going on here. For starters, you can choose to simply view the recipes and then print them out and go shopping. It is as easy as that. Kicking it old school.

Another option is to sign up for the $5 meal plan, and this is where it gets interesting. For just $5 per month, the company will send you a delicious meal plan, where every meal costs about $2 per person – and in most cases less.

The meal plan includes recipes and well-organized grocery lists, and there are also free coupons available. Five dollar meal plans currently offers Classic and Gluten-Free meal plan options.

In addition to the standard weekly meal plans, they offer 6-week specialty meal plans at a significant discount to the regular price. Six-week specialty plans follow a theme, and the plans are sent to you all at once, rather than over the course of six weeks.

Currently, 4 specialty plans are being offered:

  • 30-Minute Meals
  • Slow Cooker Meals
  • Paleo Meals
  • Vegetarian Meals

*Keep in mind that this is an online service only.

Finally, we have a detailed review of the $5 meal plan if you’d like to learn more about this service.

​4. Mealime

Free

Mealime is a truly personalized meal planning companion. It allows you to identify which types of recipes you are interested in, including:

  • Classic (no holds barred)
  • Flexitarian (easy on the meat)
  • Pescetarian (vegetarian and seafood)
  • Vegetarian
  • Plant-based meal/Vegan (Also here are a few vegan protein powders that we suggest.)
  • Gluten-Free
  • Low Carb
  • Paleo (And if you want to substitute this diet with protein, then here are the five best-tasting protein powders.)
  • Keto (ultra-low carb)
  • Soy-free

You can also note any allergies, such as peanut and dairy, so those recipes are excluded, as well as tell the app which foods you don’t like.

Finally, you can pick your serving size (2 or 4), and then the number of meals you’d like to make for the week (2, 4, 5 or 6) on your plan.

Once you’ve been given your meal plans, the grocery lists are automatically generated to make shopping a snap. Imagine getting your weekly shopping done in one hour or less! And, bonus, most meals are made in under 30 minutes!

It is easy to use with its user-friendly and customizable meal plans; however, one of its biggest drawbacks is that you are limited to the recipes that are available on the app. You cannot import your own recipes. Also, you cannot save any previously used meal plans or customize calorie preferences unless you upgrade to the pro version.

Mealime is available on Google Play and iTunes.

​5. Yumm​​​​ly

Free

Touted as having one of the most extensive recipe collections, Yummly prides itself on providing you with delicious recipes that match your dietary restrictions and food preferences.

It offers everything from appetizers to smoothies and everything else from main courses to desserts. They have a sort feature that makes it easy to filter through whatever you have a hankering for that day.

Most unique, however, is Yummly’s relationship with Instacart. Instacart is a same-day grocery delivery service that partners with local stores.

So, when you put your zip code into Yummly’s database, the ingredients in the recipes you choose are automatically generated into a grocery list that is sorted by aisle for the store of your choosing. This speeds things up, should you choose not to have the items delivered.

Score!

There is also a coupon link that will pull up offers specific to the grocery store you’ve selected. It will then apply those savings directly to the order.

Pretty amazing, right?

Yummly also uses an algorithm to generate recipes based on your likes and dislikes, with the simple tap of a “yum” button. If you’re diet-conscious, the nutritional information for all of the recipes is included (calories, carbs, fat, and cholesterol).

If you’re using an app like My Fitness Pal, iTrackBites or Weight Watchers, this is a primo feature! Yummly is both an app and a website so you can browse and save recipes that are specifically tailored to your own personal tastes and preferences.

It even provides you with the opportunity to filter your recipes based on skill level and those that have videos, so it is perfect for those novice home cooks looking to learn and refine their skills in the kitchen.

One of the biggest drawbacks to Yummly is that there is no calendar-style meal plan. However, this may not be an issue for you if this isn’t a feature you are looking to have with your meal planning app.

The Yummly meal planning app is available on Google Play and iTunes.

And if you get stuck with what recipes to add to Yummly, then feel free to check out these articles we’ve put together:

  • 35 Healthy Chicken Recipes
  • 36 Great Quinoa Salad Recipes
  • 34 Crockpot Freezer Meals
  • 53 Healthy Breakfast Smoothie Recipes
  • 63 High Protein Breakfast Ideas
  • 56 Healthy Snack Ideas
  • 61 Great Breakfast Ideas

6. Allrecipes Dinner Spinner

Free

This unique meal planning app brings social media into the kitchen with its collection of over 50,000 recipes created by home chefs. You can even follow your favorites for inspiration!

Your feed is personalized – growing smarter with every recipe you save and make, and which cooks you follow. You can rate dishes as well. And, as with similar planning apps, you can search by keyword and cuisine – even dietary restrictions.

But for me, the standout feature with this app is the one that allows you to enter your zip code to find “on sale” items at local stores that are relevant to your recipe and makes meal planning easy.

Now that’s nifty!

The Allrecipes meal planning app is available for download on Google Play, iTunes, Kindle, and Windows Phone.

Note: This is not an “ad free” app, and there are currently no upgrades available to make it so.

​7. Pepper Plate

Free

Pepper Plate allows you to login using your Facebook account, and even share recipes that way, not to mention Twitter and email as well.

Like its competitors, Pepper Plate allows you to import and sort recipes, as well as automatically generate grocery lists. However, a COOK NOW feature is where Pepper Plate stands out. This tool allows the use of multiple timers (on your smartphone or tablet) for all of the recipes on your menu. So, there is no need to worry about overcooking the pasta while sautéing the chicken.

Pepper Plate is available for download on Google Play, iTunes, Amazon App Store, Windows Store, and Nook.

​8. Meal Planner Pro

Free

Save Time. Save Money. Eat Healthy.

That is the Meal Planner Pro tagline.

It encourages healthy eating and incorporates that into your weekly meal planning routine by first allowing you to set up profiles for every member of the family.

Furthermore, their database includes more than just dinner ideas. Their menu also includes healthy breakfast and lunch recipes as well. And that’s something you don’t get with most meal kit delivery services.

The ProScore System is the app’s equivalent to having your own nutritionist. ProScore highlights the good and bad nutritional values of each item and then assigns it a score of 1-100.

The site also offers personalized meal planning and support for things such as:

  • Diabetes (all types)
  • Lactose intolerance
  • Weight management and weight loss
  • Anemia
  • High Blood Pressure
  • High Cholesterol
  • Digestive Health
  • Gluten Intolerance

You can save your favorite recipes and put them directly onto your calendar for the week… even months!

This makes meal planning a snap! And when you’re creating your grocery list, you’ll be given images and nutrition information for all ingredients… even the warning labels, so you will know if it contains something you or a loved one can’t have.

​9. Plan to Eat

Free to try for 30 days, $4.95/month or $39/year after that

Perhaps the most basic app at first glance, Plan to Eat has a few surprises for health-conscious meal planners.

First and foremost, by simply bookmarking the Plan to Eat webpage, you are able to scour the likes of Pinterest or Delish and simply click the recipes you like to automatically add them to your meal plan.

Additionally, the user interface is extremely intuitive, making it a cinch to drag and drop items to populate your meal planner for the week. This is also super helpful if one person is trying to eat gluten-free, while also planning regular meals for kids at the same time.

Speaking of kids – if you bookmark the site on their personal devices as well, they are able to log in and see what’s planned for dinner. Older kids may even be able to get the meal started with the recipe right in front of them.

Do I hear allowance money?

You can also add notes to the planner if leftovers are on the agenda, which cuts back on doubling the ingredients in the shopping list.

The Staples List is a great place to add common, and often forgotten, items to your shopping list. Just click to add the staple to your weekly shopping list, without having to re-enter it time and again.

Got questions? No worries. Plan to Eat has top-notch customer service agents willing and eager to help.

This app is ideal for people who already have a pretty decently sized recipe collection or even for those who love to look around on the internet for new recipes. This is because it does not come with a preset recipe database.

The Plan to Eat app is available online, as well as via Google Play and iTunes.

10. Big Oven

Free, pro membership available for $1.99 per month, or $19.99 per year

Yes, this meal planning app offers more than 350,000 recipes to inspire you! And, yes, it offers a snapshot feature where you can take pics of family recipes, and Big Oven will upload them into your recipe collection for you.

You can comment on recipes and receive notification of feedback, and then create a grocery list that can be shared by other members of the family. These are all awesome features, but cooking with leftovers and controlling your portions is this app’s bread and butter, so to speak.

With Big Oven, simply choose up to 3 leftovers/ingredients and the app will tell you what you can create! For instance:

  1. London broil
  2. Tomatoes
  3. Mushrooms

I typed these in, and Big Oven suggested:

  1. Chili
  2. Slow Cooker Ropa Vieja
  3. Irish stew

There were other suggestions, but these three recipes utilized all three ingredients I typed in. Other recipes were just using one or two of the ingredients as a springboard to something else.

Either way, pretty cool.

Pretty cool.

11. Dealstomeals.com

2 weeks free, $4.95 per month after

Deals to Meals claims to be a one of a kind service! Touting itself as the only meal planning service online that bases its weekly meal plans around the best grocery deals in your area.

Basically, all of your meals will be planned around sale items, which will save you hundreds of dollars each month. The weekly meal planner provides you with one week’s worth of:

  • Main dishes
  • Side dishes
  • Desserts
  • Food storage recipes

The food storage specific recipes are perfect for those nights when you are short on time!

Meal planning doesn’t get much simpler. As for the shopping, you can elect to create your own grocery list… or have one generated for you.

Separate from the meal planning service, Deals to Meals offers an option to save up to 70% on groceries without using coupons.

Every week, you will be given a comparison breakdown of the major grocery stores’ deals to Costco, Sam’s Club, and Walmart. Then, Deals to Meals will tell you where the best deals are in your area to save you the most money; promising savings upwards of $100’s a month, all for just over $1 a week.

In fact, the company guarantees you save more than your membership rate, or they will refund you. Refund sounds like no-risk, and I like the sound of that!

WARNING: If you live outside the USA – this is not the app for you.

And now to sum it up…

Meal planning sites and apps are pretty much all over the place these days. And, quite honestly, they all offer many of the same features.

But if you want to build better healthy habits for your and your family, then it’s really a bit of trial and error when it comes to finding the one that best suits you.

I’ve tried my best to wrangle up some of the better ones…

Regardless of which you choose, you should be on the lookout for these things:

  1. Free, or free trial
  2. Menu/recipe variety
  3. Automatically generated grocery list
  4. Calendar sync
  5. Available as an app

Most of the ones I suggested are free, so I implore you to check them all out if your data plan allows. Not to mention, many are accessible on the web. So, there is really no excuse.

Meal planning works! You’ve just got to commit to it. And if you haven’t got the time or desire, let these sites and apps do it for you! Especially when so many of them are FREE!

​ Finally, if you are looking for an additional motivation to exercise and lose weight, try this app that will pay you for your weight loss efforts (up to $10,000).

Nicole Krause has been writing both personally and professionally for over 20 years. She holds a dual B.A. in English and Film Studies. Her work has appeared in some of the country’s top publications, major news outlets, online publications and blogs. As a happily married (and extremely busy) mother of four… her articles primarily focus on parenting, marriage, family, finance, organization and product reviews.

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zen habits : breathe

Post written by Leo Babauta.

Not long ago, I was against meal plans because I felt they were too restrictive. I generally prefer to stick to simple principles of eating whole foods, staying active, and eating moderate portions.

But I’ve had a change of heart recently as I’ve focused on losing the last of my bellyfat — in the last year I’ve lost about 35 lbs., and in the last 3.5 months of sticking (mostly) to a general meal plan, I’ve lost 18 lbs.

That’s a goodly amount, to be sure, and I don’t think I could have done it (healthily) without sticking to some kind of plan.

Diet is the biggest component to losing fat — you can burn 600 calories (for example) in a workout, but you can easily eat 2-3 times that much in one sitting if you’re eating junk food. As they say, you can’t out-exercise a bad diet. I’d still recommend getting active and burning calories as much as you can (with adequate rest), but if you really want to lose fat, you need to look at your diet.

So if diet is important, how do you stick to a good diet? The meal plan is often the simplest answer — plan out the foods you’re going to eat, measured for your calorie goal, and then just eat those meals (for the most part). You don’t have to track your eating because it’s already planned out.

Sticking to the meal plan is often the hard part, though. Most people aren’t used to it, and they often fail and feel guilty. So I thought I’d share some of what I’ve learned, what’s worked for me, in hopes that it’ll help you.

I’ve gotten pretty good at sticking to my plan, and I actually enjoy it. Go figure.

The Simple Method

So here’s what I’ve done, and what I’d recommend. Keep it simple.

1. Eat real, whole foods you love. Do NOT see this as a sacrifice. If you hate carrots or eggplant but you eat them because they’re somehow “virtuous” or you think that sacrifice is the only way to lose that fat, you’ll fail. You cannot stick to something you hate for very long. Instead, go for healthy foods you actually enjoy eating. For me, this is berries, fruits of all kinds, raw almonds, veggies cooked tastefully in stir-fries or chili or what have you. Your list will be different, and it could take some experimenting with different recipes you find online, in magazines or in cookbooks to find the healthy foods you like best. Main rule of thumb, though: try for real foods, not packaged ones (not even “healthy” convenience foods). In as natural a state as possible — meaning, not processed or extracted, not fried or smothered with cream or sauces.

2. Improve in iterations. Cut back a little at a time. You don’t have to go from Standard American Diet to a diet of Only Raw Carrots in one day (nor should you ever eat only raw carrots, but you know what I mean). Try a meal plan that’s a little better than the diet you’ve been eating for years — perhaps cutting out the liquid calories at first, or adding more fruits or veggies you love. As I said above, cut the calories just a little. This first meal plan doesn’t have to be perfect — just a little better. Then, once you get used to that, make a meal plan that’s a little better yet — maybe a couple hundred calories less, more veggies, less fatty stuff, less snack food, or more real food. With each iteration of your meal plan, get a little better. I’m still getting better at mine.

3. Look ahead for bumps, and plan. We all have those bumps in our routines: an office party, someone’s birthday dinner, going on a date with your honey, taking a trip, being on the road all day and not having access to your usual foods. The key is to think ahead — what’s going on tomorrow? How will I deal with it? Should I pack food, or find out what the menu is at the restaurant so I can pick something healthy, or should I use this as a cheat meal? Thing is, don’t just do cheat meals all the time — then you’re not on a meal plan anymore. More on that below. Again, plan ahead and prepare — as you keep doing this, you’ll get good at packing snacks or meals so you’re covered, no matter what the occasion.

4. Make it public. Use your blog or Twitter/Facebook or a public forum or just email to let people know how your meal plan is going (I use Daytum, but that’s only one way to do it). Or get a partner and report to each other. Making it public or having a partner gives you accountability and motivation, and works like a charm. Don’t skip this step.

5. Cheat, & don’t feel guilty. Guilt often derails people from meal plans — they indulge and then feel like they failed, and so they stop. Don’t fall into this trap. You’re not going to be 100% compliant to any plan — shoot for 90% and be happy if you come close to that. Know that you’ll cheat sometimes, and make this part of your plan. However, learn to control the cheating: only do it a couple times a week, perhaps, and even then don’t just pig out. Eat reasonable portions of things you’d consider cheating, eat them slowly and enjoy them, and then move on. Get back to your plan. Over the long term, a little cheating won’t stall you, but a lot might.

A few warnings

1. Watch out for sneaky calories. Liquid calories are a good example — sodas, teas, coffees, sports drinks, vitamin waters and more, all contain calories that many people don’t account for, and then wonder why they’re not losing weight. Other examples include salad dressings, sauces, little bites of foods that “don’t count”, smoothies, candies or chips you snack on from the break room, meals that are bigger than you realize. There are many others, of course.

2. Do not make it extreme. This should be clear from the above method, but I have to say it explicitly. People will try any diet if they think it’ll work — the Grapefruit Diet, the Cookie Diet, a liquid diet, a “cleanse” or “detox”, an 800-calorie a day diet, the Cabbage Soup diet, the Lemonade detox. Please don’t do these diets — they’re not healthy and you won’t get good nutrition. Remember: you’re in this for the long term.

3. Don’t starve yourself. A little hunger is OK — I’ve learned that it won’t kill me to go slightly hungry for a couple hours. But if you feel like you’re starving, you might be reducing too drastically. Again, it’s best to reduce portions a little at a time, get used to that amount, and then reduce a little more.

My 1800-cal meal plan

For most of the last few months, I created (with the help of my sister and running partner, Kat) a 2,000-calorie meal plan and have been sticking to it, varying it a bit when I get tired of the foods. Recently as I’ve lost a lot of weight I’ve cut the plan down to 1,800 calories, as my lighter body requires fewer calories for maintenance.

Calorie goal: You shouldn’t follow my calorie goal — use an online calculator to calculate your basal metabolic rate (or BMR — the amount of calories you need just to maintain each day), and then subtract perhaps 200-300 for your meal plan’s target. If you exercise, you’ll be adding to the calorie deficit, which is good, but even if you don’t exercise on some days, you’ll still have a 200-300 calorie deficit. My calorie goal is actually closer to a 500-calorie reduction of my BMR, but it’s usually best to start smaller and adjust as you get used to it and as you see results, after maybe 3-4 weeks. Please, don’t drop below 1,200 calories (women) or 1,500 calories (men) — it’s hard to get good nutrition if you go too low on calories. Remember, this is long-term, not a quickie fix.

Basics: For the most part, the meal plan is:

  • measured for my calorie goal
  • broken into 5 meals (although this can be varied to any number that suits you)
  • made of whole, real foods I love
  • pretty much the same every day — I don’t mind routine, though you might want some variety
  • flexible — I can eat out if I want without guilt

My plan: Here’s my current plan — please note that it changes as needed:

  • Breakfast: loaded oatmeal – whole rolled oats, blueberries, raisins, cinnamon, raw almonds, flaxseed + cup of coffee (450)
  • Lunch: Typically scrambled tofu or lentil-spinach-squash curry or veggie chili, on top of quinoa (400)
  • Snack: soy yogurt, berries, raw almonds (350)
  • Dinner: Typically scrambled tofu or lentil-spinach-squash curry or veggie chili, on top of quinoa (400)
  • Snack (whenever I get hungry): fruits & nuts (200)

You could use this if you like the foods, but be sure to measure all your foods at first to get the calories you want for each meal. For example, if you want a 1600-cal meal plan, you could cut 100 cals from two of the meals or skip the last snack. However, if these aren’t foods you love, don’t follow this plan — make your own or find one you like. This is provided for illustration only.

Calorie Counting × Meal Planning

I made a really simple calorie counting × meal planning web app. It’s open-source, and you can use it here if you’d like (not for the faint of heart). Following it worked pretty well for me—I was able to lose fat, save money, and learn to cook some new things.

But hold on. Calorie counting? Meal planning? Yes, this post is about fat loss.1 This side project isn’t really on-brand for me, so I wanted to write everything out in one go. What follows is my brain dump on calorie counting, meal planning, and the resulting little app I made to help me out. While it’s not flashy or exciting, I admit it’s the only app I’ve made that I actually use on a day-to-day basis.

Disclaimer

An honest take on the science of food and nutrition seems to be: we have no idea what’s going on. And yet of course the internet and bookstores are filled with diets and exercise plans. There’s a lot that works for many people, and a lot that doesn’t. Take everything I write with a Samin Nosrat helping of salt.2

Losing fat

My goal was to lose some fat.

Losing fat seems both potentially quite simple, but at the same time extremely challenging for myriad reasons that may be different for each person. And though it’s a fascinating topic, fat loss seems to have suffered from years of bad information and tabloid-level expertise,3 making it both slightly uncomfortable to discuss, yet somehow critical to both shallow ideas of beauty and seemingly legitimate effects on one’s health.4

Why food?

If you consume American media, it’s hard not to think that exercise is the key to achieving a fit body. On TV, you’re bombarded with videos of beautifully sweaty athletes, pumping their gleaming bodies around to the latest beats, rocking the freshest sportswear and headphones. (And right after, you’ll probably see ads for pizza, soda, and beer.) 5

I remember seeing a graph a while ago that I can’t find, so I’ve made one that expresses the same idea:

With food, you control calories from roughly 1800 – 3500 per day, but with exercise, you only control 200 – 400.

This idea changed how I thought about fitness. The simple reality is that you control vastly more calories through what you eat than what you burn through exercise.6

And so it turns out that food, not exercise, is actually paramount in losing fat.

This was annoying for me to realize. While I’d liked exercising and learning new sports over the years, I’d never had that much interest in cooking or choosing what I eat. (In hindsight, this is probably why I ended up with a bit more fat than I’d like.)

Is exercise still important? It seems to be. You don’t want your muscles to atrophy, and you probably want them to even grow a bit. And exercise seems to help your mood, sleep, thinking, longevity, and mental health in all kinds of difficult-to-measure ways.

But let’s be clear: exercise takes a back seat to food in the quest of consuming fewer calories than you burn. There’s just no contest.

Is losing fat as simple as consuming fewer calories than you burn? Aside from lifting weights sometimes to keep your muscles, I think so. I might be wrong. You can read a lot about this on the internet, but consuming fewer calories than you burn seems to be an overwhelmingly reasonable approach to losing fat. The strongest case against this is the idea that your body adjusts to needing fewer calories when you feed it less—but if this is true, the effect seems to be small.

Counting calories

San Pellegrino with a splash of aperol. My friend Woody correctly observed that buying water in a bottle shipped from Italy is stupid given access to clean and nearly free tap water. But I maintain it’s a great treat substitute for a beer.

Once you’re on board with calories in vs calories out, the natural next step is to try to figure out what your numbers are. I used some calculators to see my ballpark basic metabolic rate and about how much I was burning with exercise. Then you do the subtraction game. And then you eat that much.

A side note on counting calories: counting calories is so interesting! It’s an ultra-pragmatic lens through which to view food. Through it, things you thought were bad aren’t, and vice versa. Bacon? Wow, not so bad. A bagel and cream cheese? Holy cow, I don’t have the budget for that. I don’t claim that this is the whole story on nutrition, but it’s certainly a useful one.

One my favorite illustrations of calorie amounts was on the website ss.fitness. One medium Dairy Queen blizzard—1050 calories—is equivalent to fifteen eggs. Fifteen! Imagine that for dessert.

To me, the idea of counting calories still sounds obsessive and insane. A few years ago, I never imagined I would ever do it, much less advocate for it. But it makes such a difference in guiding your eating during a diet. It’s like navigating with the lights on.

Here’s an example of the difference. Say it’s 4pm and you get hungry. If you’re counting calories with a plan, you know exactly what your budget is. This makes it easier to say, “I kind of want a snack… but actually, I know I’m going to hit my calorie numbers with dinner, I can just have some fizzy water and switch gears at work.” Or you might have a light snack: maybe half an apple (~50 calories) and some black decaf (~0 calories).

If instead you were just vaguely trying to eat healthier, it’s easy to think, “I’ll just have a small handful of nuts, that feels pretty healthy.” You grab a 1/2 cup of cashews, which ends up being as much as a workout (~360 calories) and can easily erase your progress for the day.

Once you’ve decided to count your calories, you enter this challenge of figuring out the calorie content of literally every single thing you put in your mouth. If you cook your food, this is a bit annoying, but gets much easier once you’ve looked up your ingredients a couple times. For eating out, it can be almost impossible, at least until you’re really good at estimating.

So cooking seems like the right way to go for counting calories. You have much more control. But wait, does this mean cooking all your food?

How do you get your food?

If you’re with me so far, food choice is paramount to losing fat. And if you’re determined to lose fat and don’t want the guesswork, counting calories gives you total control.

But you’re a human being with money and time to manage. When I thought about getting my food, I really had three goals: cheap, fast, and healthy. Could I get all three at once?

Only meal prepping hit all three marks of cheap, fast, and healthy.

This surprised me.

  • Cheap: If you’re frugal by habit or necessity, it seems like you really have two options: cook or eat fast food. Cooking your own food can be unbelievably cheap. And if you’re limiting your calorie intake, fast food is not your friend.

  • Healthy If you eat food prepared by others, it’s difficult, but possible, to control your calorie intake. Restaurants usually have some healthy dishes, and occasionally even calorie estimates. Meal kit subscriptions I’ve tried also score good marks here. But of course, both restaurants and meal kit subscriptions are an order of magnitude more expensive than cooking.

  • Fast: I’m constantly trying to do more things than I probably have time for. While cooking all of your meals right before you eat them is cheap and lets you control your calorie intake exactly, it takes a huge amount of time. I found that between cooking and cleaning up, making breakfast, lunch, and dinner for myself before each meal took almost all of my free time. Meal kit subscriptions don’t quite fit the bill because they target cooking a meal you’ll eat right then, not cooking in bulk in advance.

It seems that the only answer here is to meal prep. Plan out your meals in advance to hit specific calorie requirements, and cook some of them in bulk in advance. Cheap, fast, and healthy.

But I want to highlight one point about meal prepping I found to be absolutely critical.

Planning calories in advance

Advance meal planning front-loads your decision making, which makes it so much easier to stay on track with calorie goals. I really can’t emphasize enough the enormous difference this makes.

Advanced calorie planning is so helpful because you don’t want to make decisions about what to eat when you’re hungry. If you’re like me, you don’t have much useful experience with the sensation of hunger.7 When you’re hungry, you fix that problem. You have a hard time regulating your emotions and actions when you’re hungry. And if you’re trying to lose fat, you’re going to start feeling hungry more often. Being hungry and making decisions about what to eat taxes your willpower like crazy.

With meal prepping, you can make all of your meal decisions in advance. Say you plan your meals during the weekend and cook some of them in advance to save time. Then, during the week, you just eat that food. No decisions, just eat that food.

If you get hungry sometimes, that’s OK. Having a bit of background hunger becomes much more tolerable when you know where you’re at calorie wise. At first, it feels wrong and awful to be hungry. You may have gone your entire life without feeling the sensation of hunger and just sitting with it. But the crazy thing is, it’s not that bad.8 You can handle a lot more of this than you think. And it gets better with some practice.

Having a meal plan, and knowing calorie amounts, also helps guide your decisions when you do decide to deviate. You can choose smaller treats, or compensate for them with your meals.

Satiety

But wait, it’s not all about being hungry. I found that calorie counting forced me to develop an understanding of which foods made me feel more full for longer.

With no rules on what you can eat aside from hitting calorie goals9, you quickly discover what makes you feel full for longer. A breakfast of buttered toast left me famished by 10:45am, but with a scramble of eggs and vegetables, I’d feel comfortably full until lunchtime.

Dealing with hunger, then, was kind of a natural feedback mechanism for screwing up food choices.

Sometimes you just need a cup full of chicken.

The method

In service of losing fat, count calories. In service of counting calories and your money, cook your own food. In service of actually sticking to your calorie plan, plan your meals in advance. And in service of your time, cook some dishes in bulk.

Simply put, this means combining calorie counting with meal planning.

Calorie counting × meal planning

I originally began my meal planning with a spreadsheet. Looking up the calories for each ingredient is both hugely annoying and hugely informative. One of my earlier sheets looked like this:

I don’t think I had all of the colors originally.

I think it’s helpful to have an early phase of looking up calories on your own, especially if you’re thinking about eventually using a service that does it for you. I can’t imagine anyone would like to count calories or pay for a meal planning subscription forever. But doing it manually for a few days or weeks gives you all kinds of surprising moments, as I mentioned above about Dairy Queen vs eggs. For the first time, you have an apples-to-apples tool to compare apples and oranges.10 More importantly, having a basic background understanding of calorie counts will serve you in the tens of thousands of decisions you make for the rest of your life. After all, we eat every day.

But when your hammer is programming, repetitive tasks look like nails. I was looking up the same ingredients multiple times. I’d copy and paste meals I had already put together. I’d manually look through the week to compile a grocery list. I wished I had an inventory of the meals I liked to cook, and the calories for common ingredients. If only I could automate some parts of this…

Calorie counting apps

I eventually looked up calorie counting apps. Would they help me meal plan with calories in mind?

No. The calorie counting apps I found solve the wrong problem. Calorie counting apps expect you to record calories as you eat them. Though some had limited features for advance planning, it was the exception rather than the expected workflow. But this is exactly backwards for the easiest way to meet calorie goals. If I was trying to figure out how many calories something was at the time I was eating it, it was already too late.

Instead, I specifically wanted to plan, in advance, all of the meals I’d eat for the week, along with their calorie amounts. Then, I’d shop, cook, and eat.

If you’re planning your meals in advance, then tracking your calories for every meal in an app when you eat the meal is completely pointless. At best, you have to constantly type every damn thing into the app. At worst, this will keep you painfully aware of past failures.

Another problem is that the calorie counts apps that give for foods vary widely. If you’re in a significant caloric deficit, this is a huge deal. Being off by even 200 calories over the course of several meals is the difference between being slightly hungry and absolutely tortured. Some apps seem to assume you use cooking oil in preparing some food, which leads to huge variations because oil is so calorie dense. Plus, many apps crowdsource their calorie counts, which leads to all sorts of garbage like calorie counts for “1 caesar salad,” which in reality could be anywhere from 200 – 2000.11

In addition to not doing what I wanted, it felt like calorie counting apps do way too much other stuff. Exercise tracking, sleep logging, sensor integration, weight loss graphs, built-in journal, and so on. For some, this may be fun. But I only wanted to plan and eat my meals.

Meal planning apps

If your goal is counting calories, you might not think to Google a different set of keywords. But the approach closer to what I wanted is “meal planning.”

So, what about meal planning apps? They have the opposite problem: they don’t have any interest in calorie counting. Calories often aren’t available at all. When they are, they’re often estimates, and are never shown per-ingredient. You can’t afford guesswork when you really care about hitting numeric goals. Knowing calories per-ingredient is vital when you want to make a bigger meal or make it more satiating. As soon as you have to tweak something yourself, you need to break back out into a spreadsheet.

The few apps that I saw that attempted to be hybrids (both calorie counting and meal planning) made it tough to customize what you eat, add your own recipes, or cook in bulk. It felt like these apps try to do as much automation as possible, sacrificing control.

This sounds like I’m griping over minutae, but I challenge you to follow an app that prescribes you “2 tbsp peanut butter” for lunch and not start gnawing at your potted plants by 3:30.

The final factor is money. Call me stingy, but when my calorie counting and meal planning were going pretty well with spreadsheets, it felt absurd to pay a subscription (they’re nearly all subscription-based) for an app that did almost the same thing, and left me without the control I wanted.

Interlude: apps translating Japanese menus

This is off topic but I can’t resist.

I can’t believe it’s not sand!

What should a calorie counting × meal planning app do?

Recap: calorie counting apps suck for meal planning, meal planning apps suck for calorie counting.

Now enters the part where we figure out what we actually want from an app.

As I began to make meal plans, first with spreadsheets, and then with early versions of my app, a few realities revealed themselves to me:

  1. I don’t actually cook that many different dishes. I’d like to think that I do, but twenty-one meals per week is a lot to cook. Even if I’m cooking a new dish or two every week, that means most meals will be repeats. Plus, you repeat dishes a lot when cooking in bulk. So a key feature is defining and saving meals.

  2. Accurate calorie info is vital. When you’re eating less, food is precious. You don’t want to eat too much because you care about losing fat. But you really want to eat all of your allowance. This means, at least once, looking up each thing I eat. I use the nutrition label whenever possible, and cross-reference four or five websites for meats or produce.

  3. Looking up calories is a pain in the ass. I really want to do it just once, which also means the app should be able to do basic unit conversions.

  4. Might as well generate a grocery list. I would meal plan and then immediately shop, so I’d might as well make it easy to get a list of what I need. And I don’t want it telling me to buy salt or oil every week, so I’d like a separate section for food I have in bulk.

… and that’s pretty much it. So, without further ado:

Voila

The main view of the web app looks like this:

The dishes are on the right, and you drag and drop them into the meal slots for the upcoming week:

There’s a calorie bank that looks up the components for each dish. And it’s easy to split a dish into multiple servings, allowing you to cook in bulk while still tracking calories:

At the bottom, a grocery list is generated, along with a little meal prep checklist:

The app is super rough around the edges. You have to edit data (.json) files by hand to add ingredients or dishes. Here’s the chili from above:

“chili”: { “title”: “Chili”, “mealHint”: “dinner”, “ingredients”: , “img”: “img/chili.png”, “recipe”: “cookingclassy.com/slow-cooker-chili/”, “recipeServings”: 5 },

There’s no logging in, so there’s no user accounts or databases or anything. You have to run the app by starting a web server on your computer (fortunately this is just one line of code). Oh, and it’s not mobile friendly at all.

But with all that said, it’s the first app I’ve made that I actually use every week. If you download it, you’ll find dozens of dishes and weeks tucked away. You know, in case you want to know what I had for dinner on September 15th.

That’s it

Thank you for making it all the way through this lengthy diatribe on calorie counting, meal planning, and my tiny meal prepping app.

I started this post because I finished the app as a side project, and it seemed like the app needed some context for why it exists at all. To be honest, I would be shocked (but delighted) if the app is ever used by another person.

Instead, my hope is that someone in the cognitive ballpark of wanting to lose fat will find something in this post that’s helpful or useful to them, and it will aid them in their journey.

Epilogue

After several months of counting calories and losing some fat, I found my perspective on a few things changed. I mentioned some of these in passing above, but to put them all in one place:

  • Satiety — Some foods are really good at making me feel full for longer with fewer calories than others. Good examples: eggs, broccoli, chicken. Bad examples: cocktails, fettuccini alfredo, potato chips.12

  • Hunger — You probably noticed this from above, but losing weight forced me to confront hunger in a way I never had before. It never felt OK to be hungry. I still don’t love being hungry, but I think I’m a bit more patient with it. Now, I realize that I’m not literally starving when I’m hungry. I’m just hungry.

  • Exercise — Since I no longer tied exercise as closely to losing fat, I started to view exercise as being about my mental health. I paid more attention to how it made me feel afterward. It’s mind-boggling what a difference exercise seems to make in my perception of the world. It seems like even a small mood boost and decrease in stress can change the dozens of interactions I have with humans and my thoughts throughout the day.

  • Cooking — After looking up a lot of calories and cooking a lot of food, some broad patterns emerged. The basic formula was to eat mostly protein and vegetables, and drink a lot of water. As I transition away from purely calorie counting and towards cooking for daily life, I’m starting to try to learn how to make food more delicious. Cooking so much has made me more interested in cooking well, which turns out to be a deep and wonderful world in its own right (news only to me).13

Further resources

  • ss.fitness — Advocates focusing on food and cooking your own meals. Lots of nice graphs and illustrations. I didn’t give any citations for my claims throughout this post, but this site provides hundreds of links to studies. Ultimately very helpful, though a bit annoying because the website is constantly redesigned and different pieces get randomly shuffled or locked behind paywalls.

  • Salt Fat Acid Heat by Samin Nosrat (Simon & Schuster, 2017) — Samin teaches you foundational cooking. I was looking for a book that teaches you about how to cook, not just lists of recipes. And I didn’t want a chemistry book or history tome. This seems to strike a great sweet spot. Fun reading, and the few recipes I’ve tried at random have been shockingly great, even by my clumsy hand.

  1. I consciously wrote “fat” throughout this post instead of “weight,” even though “losing fat” reads awkwardly. I think it’s be worth being honest when talking about this stuff. Nobody wants to lose their vital organs or bones. And I doubt many people want to lose their muscle. All those things are weight on your body. People want to lose fat. ↩

  2. A Samin Nosrat helping of salt: https://youtu.be/HER4efpDCis?t=75 ↩

  3. To which I, with no qualifications, submit my own treatise. ↩

  4. Allow me to present one more observation: in addition to beauty and health, at least in America, fat is also a socioeconomic symbol. Being skinny is a demonstration of class and status.

    There’s a big question I’m avoiding here: should one lose fat? The hairy part is that people can’t distinguish which ideal you’re going for. ↩

  5. Conspiracy theory time: Wouldn’t a perfect corporate equilibrium be achieved if you were never in a state you liked? Drawn in one direction by high calorie foods and drinks, and drawn in the other by expensive exercise clothes and equipment, never quite becoming what you dream to look like. What if you were sold both the goal, and the processes that move you both towards and away from it? Hmmm. HMMMMMM. ↩

  6. Extreme exercise will burn an order of magnitude more calories, but isn’t the norm for us suckers with desk jobs. ↩

  7. I wish to point out that it’s a great blessing to have never had to worry about being hungry in my life. ↩

  8. I feel the need to explicitly point out that I only use “hunger” to mean the body sensation, and in the context of intentionally losing weight at a moderate pace. Completely separately, people use the word “hunger” to mean the issue of people needing food to survive and not being able to access it. ↩

  9. Speaking of having no rules on what you eat, check out this Twinkie diet ↩

  10. I couldn’t resist. ↩

  11. Just to demonstrate this, I recently looked up how many calories are in 3oz of pulled pork on several different websites, and I found: 195, 143, 171, 158, 283, 151, 160, 229, 172, and 143. Honestly, this is actually probably fair because it depends how much fat and muscle are in the portion you’re eating. But this kind of thing shows up all the time, even in more predictable foods. ↩

  12. I can polish off a whole bag of Baked Lays without blinking. For those of you that think Baked Lays is not a good potato chip, please get right out of town. ↩

  13. For better or for worse, I will have a hard time turning off my calorie counting instincts, such as when Amiel advises us to use a tablespoon of butter per egg: https://youtu.be/BW1x6F63F80?t=172 ↩

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