Why You Should Be Planning Your Meals

This is a post from Team NF Member Staci.

Think about walking into a gym and randomly doing a few sets here, a few sets there… a wandering sheep without a shepherd. We’ve all been there. Do we REALLY expect to make huge progress without knowing what we’re doing?

No, of course not! It’s why we love having a plan to follow: it eliminates 99% of the decisions that can derail us on our progress: “Should I do 3 sets of 5 or 5 sets of 5? Gah!”

Now, we know we need a workout plan to follow to make progress, but why don’t we think of food the same way?

Today I want to try to convince you that you should.

A few decisions early in the week can eliminate hours of work (or dozens of bad decisions) later on in the week, and be the difference between success and failure (whether you are trying to gain weight or lose weight!).

How is this possible? We say it so often on the blog, and we won’t let up because it’s so damn true: 80-90% of your success or failure, no matter your goals, will come from your diet.

We have a tendency to think we “know” about food and thus planning is unnecessary. “Oh, I don’t know about deadlifts, but I’ve been eating food since I was born! I know, sugar is bad, eat less processed food and more real stuff. I don’t have time to plan, so I’ll just make healthy choices as I go.”

As Morpheus tells Neo, “there’s a difference between knowing the path, and walking the path.” Whether you’re trying to become the One or trying to get yourself to stop eating like a jackass, I think most of us know how difficult “just doing it” can be.

Making choices based on emotion and convenience are just too easy. We have that part of our brain – the lizard brain – that only thinks in short term: gimme gimme gimme, now now now!

How many times have you gotten out of work after a ruthlessly long and miserable day, skipped lunch, had to pick the kids up from daycare (or insert some errand), and THEN you still need to think about what to make for dinner? Brutal.

Our days can sap our willpower, decision fatigue sets in, and instead of going home to make a healthy decision… you jump on Team Lizard Brain and do the thing to make your stomach happy temporarily:

  • speed dialing your favorite pizza place
  • picking up fast food on the way home
  • eating junk food in your pantry
  • calling that one Chinese food place that gives you extra dumplings
  • eating a healthy dinner but eating too much of it (or grabbing dessert too frequently)

You meant well, you had every intention of eating healthy, you even had the ingredients in your fridge. But f*** it, hit up Domino’s and fire up Daredevil on Netflix. You had a hard day. You “earned it,” right?

Remember, life isn’t a superhero fantasy. It’s more like Deadpool: things get messy. Shit happens. And we KNOW this, which means if we can set ourselves up for success with a good meal prep system amidst this messy reality, it’s a near guaranteed way to level up.

Why Meal Prep?

chicken and potatos in the oven_1024x768

Exhausted-with-life situations aside, there are enormous perks to having your meals planned and prepped.

Even just having a single meal each day partially planned (say, lunch), can set you up for effortless progress for months and months. Why?

  1. It’s easier to not overeat (or undereat!) if you have pre-portioned your meals ahead of time – Making the decision ahead of time removes the emotion out of ‘how much food should I eat’ or ‘should I go back for seconds’. You know you eat what is in that container… no more, or no less.
  2. It has built in accountability (punishment) –  If you pre-cook your meals, what happens if you don’t eat them? You throw them away – which is basically like throwing away the money you spent on the food. This is similar version of the strategy that helped Saint lose weight for his wedding. He bet a friend $500 that he would get in shape by his wedding day; not wanting to lose his money, he was pressured into actually making healthy changes!
  3. Save some money! I’ll let you do the math about your specific situation, but when you do your own meal prep it is nearly always a strategy which saves you a ton of money compared to eating out. You can then spend that extra money on the important stuff (“Treat yo’self!”). And this doesn’t even factor in the costs we refuse to think about for some reason: the money we’ll spend on medication, hospital visits, surgery, and a shortened life span: you know, the REAL cost of living an unhealthy life.
  4. It also saves you precious time! It seems like a large time investment up front, but you can make a week’s worth of meals in nearly the same time as it takes you to make a single meal. For the same reason the assembly line revolutionized mass production, the strategy of cooking everything at once will pay you dividends in extra hours in your week. Still complaining that you don’t have time to work out? Get a few extra hours back by meal prepping! Bazinga!
  5. Avoid willpower demands – spend it elsewhere. If you know that you need to be eating what is in your pre-planned and pre-cooked meals, you just need enough willpower to cook once. Think about how many times you’ve gone into the week with good intentions, but by Tuesday or Wednesday you’ve already switched back to something… erm, other than the healthy option? It’s FAR easier to stay on track if your meals are ready to go. Not only that, but you can use this extra willpower on other habits you are forming… like getting to the gym or to that new martial arts class.

Note: Meal planning DOES NOT consist of making 21 different recipes for 21 different meals each week. Even those of us who have been doing this for years aren’t that crazy… that just sounds exhausting!

Instead, you’ll be picking ONE meal per day (lunch? dinner?), perhaps the one you struggle the most with. You’ll prepare those 5 meals for your workweek.

Are you on board? Great, stay tuned because tomorrow we’re going to guide you through exactly how to plan and prep your meals. Step by step, you’ll have no excuses!

We’ll start with lunch as an example and guide you through the whole process; when you’re done you’ll be ready to go to the grocery store to reclaim your time, money, and willpower throughout your week.

Do you plan/prep any of your meals?

What sorts of questions do you have that I can answer in tomorrow’s article?

-Staci

PS – The second part of this article has been published. Check it out here: A Step By Step Guide to Meal Planning and Prep.

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  • Audrey Davidiuk

    Been pre-prepping my lunches for over a year now. Which means I’ve had the exact.same.thing. for lunch almost every weekday over that time. This might sound horrible to some, but this is my “Steve Jobs turtleneck” thing. I don’t have to think about it. I don’t have to think “what am I going to make for lunches this week?” and then during the week, I don’t have to think “what am I going to eat for lunch today?” It is *SO* much easier! (And you get used to eating the same thing all the time really quickly)

    We don’t pre-cook our dinners, but we *DO* pre-plan them. Every Thursday night, we decide what we’re going to have for dinner each night for the next week, and we put what we need on the grocery list so we have it all handy.

  • Amanda

    I agree with this! I’m a mother of soon-to-be three, and if I didn’t pre-plan most of our meals, it would cost us a small fortune to eat every single day! Don’t forget the slow cooker, though. It is one of your very best meal-planning friends. You can dump in some ingredients, walk away from it all day, and come back to an almost-entire meal prepared and hot!

  • Audrey Davidiuk

    +1 for Slow cooker! *high five* We use ours at least once a week!

  • MTangel

    I like to prepare a couple simple “base ingredients” that are easy to customize. This week, I cooked pork loin in the crockpot for Sunday dinner, so there’s leftovers for 5-6 more meals. I also have cooked chicken breast, cut into bite-size pieces, and salad greens. Chicken salad is obviously quick to put together and easy to pack for lunch, but since it’s plain chicken it’s also easy to customize. Half the salads are Asian with mandarin orange slices, crispy wonton topping, and ginger sesame dressing. The other salads have dried cherries, goat cheese, and balsamic dressing.

  • Jenni Schultz

    I love the idea of pre planning your meals. What do you do when your SO refuses to eat left overs? He wants a different meal every day and its just too much for me to do all that work.

  • Ken Presley

    Maybe not surprisingly due to being a much better money nerd than fitness nerd, we do the same with our finances. Spend it on paper, and then spend it for real, rally helps us think through what’s important, and what’s junk.

    I like the idea of bulk cooking for lunch though, that oven bursting with chicken and sweet potatoes is heavenly. thanks for the tips!

  • Barbara Conrad Bissett

    I have a question for tomorrow’s post. I work out around lunch time 5 days a week, and eat afterwards, will this affect how/what I pack?

  • Matt

    One thing we do is make a big batch of meatballs, we freeze them and once a week or whenever we feel like making them we just pull out however many we need for that meal. So look for things that freeze well so you don’t have to eat it all at once. Chili works pretty well too.

  • Audrey Davidiuk

    If he doesn’t want to eat what you’ve cooked, then he has to cook his own food. :p

  • Christopher Durkin

    Meal planning can be hard too. I have a handful of favorites that I make and it really simplifies life. My wife has emergency soup cans in her office in case she doesn’t have lunch prepped on a day.

  • dzeldaz

    Mom of three, worked full-time (same lunch every day out of convenience – and now know most of it, while seemingly healthy, was not good for me), now an empty-nester. Pre-planning is not in my DNA. I do cook a lot of a dinner meal so I will have leftovers for lunches for me for a few days. I have to cook for a hubby who is not into how I prefer to eat and who won’t eat the same thing two days in a row and who won’t eat leftovers (he has other redeeming qualities and I’ve had him around for almost thirty years) and I don’t have the time to make two dinners each night (being an empty-nester means being more busy, not less). That said, I do love reading about people who can and do pre-prep. Hats off to you!

  • Sheila Wood

    I plan & prep a month of slow cooker suppers every month, with leftovers built in. When supper is done, I portion out the leftovers for us the next day (or two).

  • Tyler Benack

    I’d love to hear experiences and tips about prepping vegetarian meals that combine needed protein, carbs, and healthy fats. My attempts at prepping tofu have not gone well in the past.

  • Dana Myles

    You’ve been following me the last couple of weeks, huh? lol I SO am doing this – the lizard brain decision making not the meal planning. So, needless to say, since you so obviously wrote this one for me ;-), I’ll be making my list and gathering my stuff tonight. Thank you. Seriously, I so needed this. Love you guys!

  • Darshan Desai

    Perfect timing for this article! I’ve been preparing for breakfast the evening before for over a month now and I am looking for ideas on lunch prep now.

  • Jenni Schultz

    That would be awesome if he would, but I can barely get him off his fat butt to eat at the kitchen table. He refuses to help with the cooking and cleaning and it is frustrating me to say the least.

  • Annie Ginder

    What is in the picture that you are cooking in the article. That looks good can we have that recipe in your article tomorrow?

  • Jenni Schultz

    I like that idea, but he is a picky eater. If it didn’t come from a can or a box he turns his nose up at it. I have made so many nice healthy meals lately and all he does is sniff it and take a bite or two and then say he’s full and goes out to the living to watch tv and eat junk food. Makes me so freaking mad.

  • Elle

    My reaction would probably be just, if he isn’t supportive, that he needs to maybe reexamine WHY. Why isn’t he supportive of healthy decisions, or at least of your efforts to eat well? Why isn’t he supportive of having a welcoming hope (cooking and cleaning)? Where can you two meet in a spot that is good for both of you? In my relationships, if it’s not at least quasi-equitable, there’s not a relationship. Obviously what you’ve shared isn’t the full picture, but that’s where I am in relationships. It’s a partnership, and hopefully you both are mindful of that.

    Or maybe ask why he doesn’t like those things? What about them turn him off, hunger wise? These questions might be easier than my initial set.

    Good luck!

  • PositiveBlue

    I have a picky SO and a picky son (thankfully my girl tries everything). Part of what works with my husband is involving him and also, picking the “box” foods he likes and making homemade versions. For example, Kraft Mac N’ Cheese used to be a frequent visitor in my home. Then I decided to make a homemade Mac and Cheese. Now, that is what he prefers over the blue box. The added bonus is that I can change up the cheese (a blend of cheddar and cheddar jack is the norm).
    Maybe try doctoring up what he already likes.
    The other, slightly annoying option, is make whatever the hell you want and either a quick something for him or tell him to fend for himself. I’m the only one who likes red meat at home, so 1 or 2 times per month, I make a “meat and potatoes” dish. Everyone else can try it or fend. This also means I get leftovers for a day or two – meal planning in action.

  • Tim Powell

    obviously I don’t have all the information about your relationship and won’t try to give you advice, but I know that if I insisted on being cooked for every day, refused to eat what was cooked for me, and refused to help clean or help with any other part of the process, my ass would be on the curb.

  • Jenni Schultz

    I have tried to discuss this problem over and over again. He says he doesn’t know how to cook and hates cleaning. Well no one really “likes” cleaning, but its a part of life that all of us need to do. He won’t even offer to assist me with a meal to learn how to make something. I feel like I have to stay because him and his mother have given me a lot of expensive gifts and I feel guilty leaving him. I know it’s weird and wrong, but still I don’t know. :/

  • Dean Rux

    I’m on board with the idea of pre planning one meal a day to start. I really am. I just find it impossible to start on my own.

    My family are restaurant take out junkies. We know it’s way more expensive, that it’s unimaginably unhealthy, and doesn’t save us any time at all. But it’s a tough habit to break. If you can just make a phone call and have food show up and not have to wash dishes, it’s just too easy.

    There is a meal prep service with plenty of delicious meals and they even will custom paleo meals for me but they are just as expensive as take away so they are not an option. How does one get started with pre planning meals? We have both a slow cooker and a pressure cooker. I must say now that while I’m okay with assembly line cooking, I’m mostly against just having the cooked ingredients in my chill chest waiting to be mixed at random. I’d much rather have entire meals waiting for me.

    I’m completely overwhelmed here, Staci. BTW, I made Steve’s paleo spaghetti squash thing and everyone who had the guts to try some thought it was great. When I was using the above mentioned food service, I would pick up a week’s worth of meals with a menu telling me when to eat what. I loved it but wish I could do it myself. I think having a complete set of containers might help overcome some of the fear of pre-planned meals. Should I make the investment?

  • Max_Freedom

    Let him eat spaghetti-o’s.
    Sounds like he needs a baby sitter.

  • Jenni Schultz

    I have asked him why he doesn’t like the good meals I make and why he is so suspicious of a new recipe I try. He says it’s not his normal food like his mom makes. Well his mom makes crap food and the same 7 dishes all the time. She never makes anything new or different. I love to try new recipes and new cuisines. I’m frustrated.

  • Marie

    Eliminate the junk food from the house. Don’t make a big deal out of whether he eats or not. When he’s hungry, he’ll eat. When being a “picky eater” doesn’t make him the center of attention, you might be surprised how quickly he’ll come around.

  • Jenni Schultz

    Yes he does. He acts like he is 5 years old most days. I can’t understand what he says most days because he talks like a baby.

  • Jenni Schultz

    That’s about the only thing he will eat is red meat and potatoes. He doesn’t like turkey, fish, vegetarian. He wants ribeye or prime rib and fried potatoes all the time. There is so much fat and carbs in that. I can’t eat that. I do try to make his box foods from scratch and he gets even more weirded out. I really think he needs to see a therapist that specializes in eating disorders.

  • Elle

    Friend, that’s not a healthy picture you’re painting. Perhaps some couples’ therapy would be helpful, if you’re intent on staying and making things work? It won’t work for everyone, and both parties need to be committed to at least trying to make the relationship work for all involved, but if his life revolves on his mother or his childhood… maybe he’s just not ready for a grown-up relationship. At least, what you’re saying doesn’t sound like he’s acting like he’s ready.

  • Jenni Schultz

    I wish I could do that. I really want to go through the house and throw everything away and start over. I really want to see if Jillian Michaels could come and scare him into facing reality. I don’t know if she would help or not. lol

  • Jenni Schultz

    I know he’s not ready. He always puts his mother before me, ALWAYS. It’s scary. I am starting therapy on my own next week and we will see if my therapist wants to see him or not. She is a licensed marriage and family counselor so she should be able to help. I am willing but I really don’t think he is.

  • Elle

    I think you may be approaching the answer, there. That sucks, especially since our relationships often make up a great part of our lives, but at least it sounds like you’re doing your part. Hopefully he realizes you’re going to do what you do, and that he wants to be (and stay!) part of it! <3

  • Tim Powell

    Cooking is a hobby for me, I love to do it and love to feed people. I’ve worked for some great local chefs, too. Consequently, I’m always trying to make my food AWESOME, and if it isn’t, I’m less likely to choose it over the pizza place down the street. Tips on getting over this mental barrier would be great.

  • staciardison

    I use my slow cooker and my pressure cooker allll the time. best.

  • staciardison

    Could you make yours and have him make his own food? You could still eat together, but he gets his, and you get yours. That way you can make the decisions you want and maybe after seeing you and the amazing things you get to eat he’ll want to try some?

    EDIT: read all the comments – I agree with what was said below and think the counselor would be a great step to being more supportive. Remember that if he’s not ready, and you are, you can always make your own – make the decisions that are best for you and your health. Good luck 🙂

  • DianaBreeze

    I recently re-discovered meal prep, and it’s amazing! The trick was finding something for lunch that I actually wanted to eat over and over again. In this case, some marinated and baked chicken (the marinating was crucial), sweet potato, and a salad. Once I discovered that combo, I realized I looked forward to my pre-planned lunch more than 99% of what I could grab quickly. I’ve also started eating the same breakfast every morning. Dinner can vary, but usually it’s some kind of stir fry, meatballs, or crock pot dinner that can be recycled through the week. The freedom from making decisions and the ease of just grabbing my lunch out of the refrigerator and going to work has allowed me to feel less rushed in the morning and stick to my healthy-eating goals. The trick really was making sure I did it with healthy foods that I truly enjoy. Otherwise I wouldn’t feel satisfied.

    For what it’s worth, my hubs and I don’t eat the same breakfast and lunch, but he also just eats the same thing every day, and that works well for him.

  • Benjamin Taylor

    My wife and I have started meal planning because it is just the best way to get an actual cooked – not pre-packaged & reheated – meal during the week since our baby girl has been born. Sunday afternoons we crank up a little Frank Sinatra, pop a bottle of wine (we plan it into our macros!) and cook together while baby watches or naps. It feels almost like a cooking class date.
    We usually only do dinners during the week, just because it does take a lot longer to do dinner and lunch. I’ve definitely noticed that I eat better on the weeks that we meal plan and cook ahead, which means we feel better at the end of the week too! I run into trouble on the weeks that we don’t plan/cook ahead because I’m a pretty impulsive eater (darn that lizard brain!).
    I’ve also found that when I plan and cook meals ahead I’m more apt to just eat the same thing for that meal everyday of the week (is that healthy?). I like doing that because I’ve noticed that having a lot of variety in my meals causes me to want to eat more at each of them. If I’m eating the same thing over and over I start to just eat what I need and not want anything extra – a good thing for me. So, I wonder, are there meals that would be better to have repeatedly like that? Can we come up with some so we can make healthy eating a low-brain-energy decision?

    Thanks for a great article and for helping me think about how much better things go when we make time to just plan ahead!
    Now some more recipes? How about some meals that we can eat everyday of the week and still get complete nutrition?

  • staciardison

    Nope! Since exact amounts / macros are different per person, you can modify it to fit your goals easily.

  • staciardison

    I used to keep chicken sausage in the freezer at work – those worked great 🙂 I do have staples – it makes it easier!

  • staciardison

    A month! Hats off to you 🙂 That’s awesome.

  • staciardison

    Tomorrow we’re making exactly that 🙂

  • staciardison

    Hopefully tomorrow’s step by step will help with some of the overwhelm!

    I make my own food for every meal and plan it out ahead – but I’ve been doing this for years now, so it comes natural to me. I started slow and just did the one meal a day. For the containers –> while fancy glass containers are nice, I get the plastic “take alongs” containers – if you get one to two packages of those, it’s a $3-5 investment to start!

  • Fantastic article! Meal prep is an awesome way to get/stay on track with your diet (which is Oh so important) or to gain an edge in the gym and in life! You nailed it with the benefits in this article.

    I spend an hour every Sunday prepping my lunches for the week ahead. I save a lot of time and money because I’m not running out and being food every day. Plus I’m eating a healthy meal instead of a quick fix fast food burger.

    I wrote an article on my blog about meal prepping with Mason Jars. Super easy and portable (and pretty much leak proof) I’ll just leave this here if anyone’s interested… http://ironandgrit.com/2016/01/28/healthy-mason-jar-meals/

    Thanks for sharing Staci.

    -Hoz

  • Giancarlo Fusco

    This is starting to sound less like an eating issue that can be solved with teamwork, and more like a “marital” issue that could benefit from some counseling. As someone else suggested, try getting him involved, picking out foods, cutting up veggies, etc. This works well with kids, so it might with him. Another option might be a compromise where you’ll make an “unhealthy” meal, as long as he eats what you make for x days in a row. You can also stop buying junk, stop involving him in the process, tell him he needs to cook for himself, etc… which is all going to set you both up for either counseling, or a break-up.

  • Carrie

    If I don’t have a lot of time to do a big meal prep on a Sunday, if I at least cook a bunch of chicken breasts (done like Staci’s here) and also about 4-5 whole sweet potatoes,I am in good shape for the week. Monday morning, I bring to work about 2 of those chicken breasts and 3-4 bunches of raw broccoli. At lunch, just snap off the florets and cook 2 mins in the microwave, warm up a pre-cooked sweet potato and the chicken and I eat that almost every day. Sometimes switch out broccoli for baby spinach. Sometimes toss in some olives. It’s really easy and like someone else commented here, I just don’t get sick of it. For dinners, I definitely try to make a lot of whatever it is so I don’t have to cook every night like a whole chicken or a chili. My motto is to “keep it simple stupid.” If you don’t have meals planned, don’t overthink it. Just season and cook the meat you have (ground turkey, chicken, pork chops, whatever) it’s done and you can figure out what to do with it that night for dinner.

  • Sara White

    I just started meal prepping a couple of months ago and it has made my life so much easier. I would see posts about it on blogs or other places and think it always looked so intimidating but then I finally tried it and find it to be shockingly simple. I pre-cook my lunches and portion out my breakfast and snacks for work. I’m hungriest during mid-morning and early afternoon, not as much right when I wake up or after my evening workouts, so I eat probably 90% of my calories for the day at work.

    Usually I’ll find some kind of crockpot meal, casserole, or other kind of bake that makes enough for five meals. Or i’ll make a big roast or flank steak then sides. I barely have to cook anything on the stove, almost everything is crockpot, oven, or my rice cooker which doubles as a veggie steamer.

    As someone who said she would never have the drive to meal prep, take it from me. It’s easier than you think and worth giving a shot!

  • carrie

    btw, “eating like a jackass” had me laughing at my desk. Hilarious!

  • Lôbo

    It seens your partner wants a substitute for his mother, but with some added bonus.
    Your mission, should you accept it, is to do what his mom should’ve done many years ago, when he was a young child, that is present him with only one option of meal (she probably wasn’t very fond of life levelling-up).
    He’ll have to eat it or find his own way of feeding himself.
    Maybe you’ll have to plan some excuses ahead in order to do this with minimal conflict, but I’m sure you’ll find your way around it.

  • Peggy Thomson

    I am a routine person, so every Saturday night I get groceries, and Sunday afternoon is for cooking. I like making one pot meals: casseroles, soups, stews. Its a great way for me to hide veggies and add a whole bunch of flavour. I often start with a recipe I find online, then tweak it to make it healthier or to add more protein or add more vegetables. I like cooking, so for me this is fun! I LOVED Staci’s Instagram post showing her “choose your meal adventure” containers – and so did my trainer/nutritionist! 🙂

  • Lumbrarian

    I’ve been pre-making my breakfasts for years and years – plain yogurt from a big 32oz tub, fresh or frozen fruit, protein powder, and sometimes oats or muesli and spices like cinnamon. I’ll make 4 or 5 breakfasts at a time from one tub, and they really do benefit from sitting in the fridge a couple days. I love it! Plus the big tubs are great for freezing batches of marinara, chili, soups, beans, slow cooker stews, you name it! I prep most lunches too since it’s just so much cheaper/healthier than eating out.