Just a heads-up - there’s a lot of information to cover, so this will be a long post. Hopefully, it will be helpful, though :)
First, a disclaimer, yo: I’m not a doctor dietician, nutritionist, or any other sort of expert on making diet plans. You should consult with one of these people if you have ANY concerns, questions, or deficient knowledge when making a meal plan for yourself. This is especially true if you have any kind of health problems. In fact, you should always consult with a doctor before you significantly change your diet and/or activity levels.
So that’s out of the way. Now on to the main event.
A.) Before making the plan - there are things you need to do before you sit down to write or type your meal plan:
1. Research nutrition and proper diet. Read *reputable* books and magazines on the subject of nutrition. If you go to college or you have a community college in your area, you could take a nutrition course.
Avoid the following types of advice: cut out or greatly limit particular food groups or macronutrients (carbs, fat, protein); primarily eat one or two foods or types of food (i.e. cabbage soup diet, liquid diets, etc.); severely limit calories (I wouldn’t advise more than 500 calories below your daily calorie needs); tricks to losing weight other than creating a calorie deficit through eating fewer calories and exercising more; take diet supplements/pills or use hormones; skip meals (you should have at least three a day).
No matter what the trick or piece of advice, you should research it to see if there’s a scientific basis or any evidence that it works. I get good results from typing in whatever it is along with the word “evidence” or “myth” in a Google search. For instance, nearly everyone has heard of negative calorie foods, right? Try this out now - type in “negative calorie foods myth” in Google and see what you get.
The same goes for books, the people who write them, diet plans that are meant for sale (like NutriSystem), etc. - look up reviews for these things. Do searches for them with the word “scam” to see if anyone is claiming there is a scam involved.
In short, do research - lots of it - and be skeptical while you’re doing it. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
2. Research YOU. What do you like to eat? What are your patterns of eating? Do you eat when you’re emotional? Do you eat when you’re bored? Do you go for hours without eating and then binge?
Keep a food diary. Don’t count calories, and don’t worry too much about portions - you’re not keeping it with the idea of changing your eating at this point. You’re keeping it so you can get to know how you eat, why you eat, and when you eat when your habits are unconstrained.
Keep receipts. When you go grocery shopping, keep your receipts. This is helpful in identifying your choices while shopping. It’s also helpful for finances. If you shop at more than one grocery store, you can easily compare prices on things you buy often by keeping receipts.
3. Gather information about the skeleton of your plan - the number of calories you want to eat each day, the servings of each food group, stuff like that.
First thing - figure out how many calories you need.
Go here to figure out your BMR: http://www.bmi-calculator.net/bmr-calculator/
When you are done, multiply that number by 1.2. This is how many calories you need each day if you do not exercise at all - your daily calorie needs.
To lose 1 pound per week, you need to burn 500 calories a day more than you consume. You do this through a combination of eating fewer calories and exercising.
Let’s say your daily calorie needs is 2,000 calories. You plan to burn 200 calories a day through exercise. You will need to reduce your caloric intake by 300 calories in order to create a total calorie deficit of 300 calories. So, you will eat 1700 calories a day.
This is not written in stone, it is just an estimate. People vary. The first week, you will typically lose a few pounds. If you lose more than 2 pounds the second week, increase your calories by one or two hundred a day. If you haven’t lost more than a half pound, decrease your calories by one or two hundred a day. Reassess your progress the next week and adjust again if needed.
4. List foods. Utilize what you have learned about healthy eating and about yourself to make a list of foods and the calories they include. Divide the foods into food groups as you list them. Think of as many things as you can to list in order to give yourself options and variety.
It’s a good idea to go to your kitchen and include things you already have on hand. This will save you from having a big starting cost.
B.) Making the plan - things to take into account while planning meals.
1. Eat things you like. This doesn’t mean you should have ice cream at every meal, but it does mean that you should like every item on your meal plan*. If you don’t like onions, don’t try to make yourself eat them. You will be more successful at sticking to your plan if you like what you’re eating.
Also, include treats! Sometimes, a treat can be part of a regular meal. I, for instance, cannot live without chocolate. So, I try to incorporate it into my meals (Chocolate Cheerios, for instance), or I will have it for a treat (Sugar-free pudding or a 100 calorie frozen fudge bar).
2. Start by making a two tables. One you will fill in with your meals. I recommend three meals a day and three snacks - so 7 columns for the days and 6 rows for the meals (plus a rows and columns for labeling days of the week, or adding up total calories for the day, etc., if you wish). The other you will fill out information about each day that will help you plan your meals (you will need 7 columns and you may want to put in rows to organize as you see fit).
At the end of this post, you will find a meal plan I have made and the planning sheet I used as well. Refer to these if you need to visualize what I’m talking about.
3. Planning sheet - In each column, list what that day is like for you. Do you have class on Mondays? Do you work on Thursdays?
How many calories will you allot for each meal? 400 cals for lunch? 100 calorie snack? 200 calorie afternoon snack? When are you most hungry? When are you least hungry?
For each meal, list what level of convenience would be best for you. I use the terms ‘pack’, ‘quick cook’, ‘cook’, and ‘out’.
Pack = I will take this with me to eat in the car or to eat later for lunch.
Quick Cook = I will be tired or busy at this time. I will eat at home, but I want a meal that can be easily and quickly prepared. (Can be cereal or a salad, not necessarily cooked)
Cook = I have time to spend on preparing this meal, and will use this opportunity to make something nice. I use these meals to try out recipes and new foods as well.
Out = I will eat out for this meal. These are rare. I will either plan the meal ahead of time, or I if I don’t know where I’ll be eating, I will consult my handy-dandy restaurant calorie counter app (There are several of these available. There is also a really good book put out by the Calorie King website for this).
I find it helpful to plan the main ingredient for recipe nights, too. For instance, I make a salmon recipe on Sunday nights and a chicken recipe on Monday nights.
4. Start writing in foods on your meal table.
Keep your planning sheet beside you, and consult it as you go. Start by filling in things you want to include on a weekly basis. For instance, if you want to have salmon twice a week, decide which nights those will be and simply write/type “salmon” in those squares to reserve those meals for that purpose.
Once you have filled in all these kinds of meal “reservations”, go back and begin to add detail. Make a skeleton of each meal by listing a general idea of what the main dish will be, and maybe what the side item(s) will be if it’s definite (for instance, if you always have soup with a sandwich). So, for Monday’s lunch, let’s say I want to have a turkey sandwich on rye with tomato, light mayo, and lettuce. At this stage, I would simply write in “sandwich”.
Remember - when you use a food that comes in a package with several servings, consider how quickly you need to use it before it goes bad. For instance, you don’t want to use sliced bread only once a week. Most of the loaf will go bad before you can use it. Especially important if you will be the only one using that food in the household.
5. Add detail.
Go back over the plan and begin to fill in specifics. Pay close attention to your food groups at this point. Are you having fruit all over the place and no veggies? Are you including a good source of protein in each meal? Things like that.
Make sure you are listing portion sizes. Write, “1 cup blueberries” instead of just “blueberries”. Be careful with brand name items, also. For instance, Oikos has several different sizes of yogurt. Are you going to eat the 4 oz size or the 5.3 oz size?
As you write in specific items, list the number of calories next to each item. Don’t just add up calories for each meal. This is because if something happens and you can’t have a particular item for some reason, you automatically know how many calories it is, and can easily make a substitution. It’s also helpful when you’re making new plans in the future and want to change things up.
As you complete each meal, add up the total calories for that meal, in keeping with however many calories you allotted for that meal.
Remember - the more you include low-calorie foods, the more food you get to eat.
6. Edit. I know, this is beginning to sound like English class, huh? It’s a similar process.
Once you have a complete table of meals listed, look at them more closely. Count up the number of servings in each food group you have listed. Remember that something like a salad is likely 2 or 3 servings of vegetables rather than just one.
Picture eating these meals. Will you be satisfied or left hungry? Do you need to eat a more substantial snack at work than you need when in class? Have you met all your daily and weekly goals?
Adjust as needed.
7. Don’t overplan your sides.
Assign a calorie amount and simply say “fruit”, “vegetables”, or something a bit more specific like “berries,” or “orange veggie”. This is also true for grains like rice, pasta, etc. Different rices and different pastas have roughly the same calories per serving.
When you shop, you will be free to choose whatever is in season, is of the best quality, or is just something you’re craving. You should go for variety both for health and to prevent boredom.
C.) After making your plan
1. Make a shopping list. This is really rather easy. I like to handwrite this and then type it up. Just start with the very first food item. Write it down and then cross it out. Then go through and find every time you have listed that item, crossing them out as you go and putting tally marks on your list. I go through my plan on my computer. I find each item by using the “find” function in word, and I then highlight it and hit the strikethrough button to cross it out. Easy-peasy.
When you have the list and the amount of each item you need in one week, begin to type your list up.
You can organize this in a few ways - you can go by food group, or you can get a little more detailed and go by area of grocery store and food group. With the first, you would put frozen peas and fresh kale under “vegetables” or “fruits and vegetables”. With the second, you would put frozen peas under “frozen veggies” and the fresh kale under “fresh veggies” or “produce”.
This is important - for each item, you want to list the calories per serving! You don’t want to get to the store and start looking for bread, for instance, and realize they don’t have the brand you usually get, and you have no idea which bread to get as a substitute because you can’t remember the calories in the bread you usually get.
If you’re on a budget, you’ll also want to have a column where you can write in prices as you shop. I shop at two different stores. A receipt will tell you what something costs at one store. But say I buy it and then I go to another store and find that it’s a different price. Whether cheaper or more expensive, I want to know that so I can plan my shopping better.
2. Do inventory.
Go to your kitchen with your shopping list and a marker. If you have enough of something, just cross it out with your marker. If you have something on hand, but not enough of it, cross through the quantity on your list and write in the quantity you actually need. For instance, if your list says 2 apples, and you have 1 apple in your kitchen, cross out the 2, write in 1.
Yay! Fun part :) Remember to take coupons with you, and look for sales. I also highly recommend farmer’s markets for whole foods.
As you shop, mark out each item, and remember to write in the price at each store if you’re on a budget (the price of perishable foods like produce, meats, seafood, milk, and eggs can change quickly. Shelf foods like rice, beans, and frozen items typically don’t change quickly so you’ll only need to keep track of these every now and then).
D.) Starting to use your plan
1. Continue keeping a food diary. You do not need to keep calorie counts if you’re sticking to your plan. If you make substitutions, you’ll need to include them.
In your diary, note how satisfied you were by the meal, how much you like it, ideas for making it better, etc.
Review your plan and edit it as needed so that it is - satisfying, balanced, and neither too strict nor too permissive.
2. Continue to read and research, and include what you learn in your plan.
3. Don’t use the same plan for more than a few weeks. Remember - you need variety for both mind and body. Variety ensures you won’t get bored or feel deprived as easily. Variety also ensures that you will get a wide range of nutrients.
It’s a lot of work, but it will be worth it to work up to a full month (four weeks) of meal plans. Or, even more if you’re up to it.
Remember, when you make a new plan, consider what food you have on hand from the last week’s plan. Do you still have lunchmeat, bread, or eggs, etc., that need to be used soon?
4. Try new things. Start out by going with territory you are used to - foods you are familiar with. As you go along, gather recipes you want to try or foods you’ve never had, and use them on your “cook” nights or on new menu plans.
One last note - I hesitate to recommend taking a multivitamin. This is because research doesn’t currently show that it does any good. However, I will say this - it’s difficult to get everything your body needs from your diet. My personal choice is to take a multivitamin.
A recent study showed a correlation between multivitamin use and higher incidence of death in older women. This is the only study I’ve seen so far that says this. Things to consider about this study - 1. The sample was not representative of the entire population as it focused on women who were 55-69 when the study began. 2. Correlation does not equal causation. In other words, just because A happened when B happened, it does not mean that B caused A to happen. 3. The method of data collection was self-reporting. The researchers relied on the women answering questions about their usage of vitamins. This can lead to any number of inaccuracies in the data.
So there’s that. You have to make your own choice when it comes to vitamin supplements.
Good luck, and please feel free to message me with any questions. I’ll help if I can!
Below is a link to a pdf you can download - it’s a menu plan and planning sheet I just made in the last few days. Feel free to use it for ideas and as an example of the layouts of the tables - just know that this menu still needs some editing, and I am not recommending it as a plan you should follow.