One of the most important habits you can master if you want to build a leaner, more muscular body is the habit of planning your meals ahead of time.
Developing a solid approach to meal prep and planning for fat loss and muscle gain is one of those “foundational” things that, while relatively simple, is often glossed over for more interesting things like macro splits, protein partitioning, and deciding what supplements to take.
But in the almost 10 years I’ve been doing this, every person I’ve seen successfully transform their body – and keep it – mastered the art of meal planning and prep.
The problem is, few people consistently plan their meals and do any kind of meal prep. Most who fail to do so fall into one of two categories:
- They get caught up focusing on more “advanced” things, mistaking meal prep and planning as something “too basic” (I get it – “plan your meals” isn’t as sexy as “take this supplement and drop 10 pounds by Monday.”)
- They recognize the importance of meal prep and planning, but they feel it’s too complicated or time consuming for them to do consistently (hey, I get it. We’re busy, stressed and balancing to-do lists that never seem to get checked off — how can we find the time for anything else?).
Truth is, though, neither of these are good reason for not doing meal prep consistently. While there are many other things that go into building muscle and losing fat, meal planning should be at the top of the list.
Rather than shaken off as something “too simple”, it should be seen as an essential foundation that lets everything else work.
So before you go toggling with your macro split or toying with a handful of different supplements – master meal prep and planning – and then add in the extra, more advanced stuff.
Alright, so it’s important — excuse number one eliminated.
But what if you’re in the “I don’t have time” camp?
I feel for you. I really do. I have a wife, two kids, and work 60+ hours per week. So when you feel like adding meal prep to your list of shit to do is impossible, I get it.
But we’re not talking about spending an hour preparing every meal here. And Every meal you make doesn’t have to be of 5-star restaurant quality to eat “healthy”, lose fat, and build muscle.
Done right, meal planning and prep can be relatively simple, and something that fits into even a busy, hectic schedule rather seamlessly.
And today, you’re gonna learn how.
MEAL PLANNING AND PREP MADE SIMPLE (A 3-STEP FORMULA)
Let’s get one thing painfully clear: We’re not bodybuilding gym rats or high-level athletes trying to win the next Crossfit Games.
For that kinda stuff, you’d have to bring a whole nother level of precision, attention, time, and detail.
Instead, we’re about losing weight and building muscle and becoming stronger and healthier… while enjoying some ice cream now and then, having a beer or two on the weekends, and living a fun and “normal” life.
“Is that even possible?”, is what you may have just said in your head. Sure is. But not without a little bit of planning and a good dose of consistency.
And the best way to accomplish your goal of building the lean, muscular, body you want while having a life is through consistently planning your meals.
When it comes to developing a fat-loss meal plan, most people don’t know where to begin. We’re going to remedy that today with a simple, 3-step formula for creating the personalized meal plan that will set you on the path the lean and muscular, starting today.
STEP 1: DECIDE ON YOUR “SYSTEM”
Your “system” is simply the guidelines you use to determine what types of foods you will eat on a day-to-day basis to reach your goals.
Whether it’s Paleo, Weight Watchers, Atkins, IIFYM, etc., etc. – it doesn’t really matter as long as you have some kind of system in place to help you determine what types of foods will make up your meals.
Before you can sit down and plan out meals, you have to have some sort of direction about what you should be eating to reach your goals.
Makes sense, right?
- If your system is counting calories, then you need to determine your caloric intake for each day so that you can plan meals that fit within those limitations.
- If your system is Paleo (or weight-watchers or any other “diet”), then you know that your meals are dictated by what that particular diet allows or doesn’t allow.
If you already have a system and it’s working well for you, feel free to skip on to step 2.
If you don’t have a system, or you currently find yourself in a situation where you’re trying to follow a particular diet – and you’re hating it, let me offer the MTM Nutrition System.
Over the past 10 years, I’ve experimented with pretty much every kind of diet and way of eating you can think of…
- Counting calories by weighing and measuring food
- Etc., etc.
Some of these were effective (as in, they helped me lose fat and build muscle), but I found almost all of them too restrictive, time-consuming, or unrealistic within the context of a “normal” life.
So I’ve developed my own nutritional system that we use here at MTM to direct our food choices. It’s really simple, and it’s the most effective way I’ve found to look, feel, and perform my best, without becoming too obsessive about what I’m eating.
Here are the 4 Principles of the MTM Nutrition System:
- Eat lean protein with each meal.
- Fruits and veggies at each meal.
- Focus on whole, unprocessed (or minimally processed) foods
- Don’t drink your calories.
- 10% “wiggle room” (follow the above guidelines 90% of the time and indulge in other stuff every now and then).
For me, this is the system I use to determine what types of foods I will eat. You may need to make some minor adjustments based on individual differences, but this is a good place to start.
Before you move on to step 2, you need to decide on a System. Whether it’s mine or some other “diet” you’re currently following, you have to make a decision.
Once you have your system in place, proceed to step 2.
STEP 2: DECIDE ON MEAL TIMING AND FREQUENCY
Now that you know your “system” it’s time to decide the structure of your day-to-day eating.
Before you get too deep into the specifics of what you’re going to eat, you need to decide when you will be eating your meals each day.
You’ve probably heard all of the myths out there…
- If you don’t eat every 2-3 hours, your body will go into “starvation” mode”
- If you don’t eat breakfast, you will gain weight
- If you eat carbs after 6pm, you’ll get fat
Thing is, all of this is total and utter garbage.
All of these fancy “tricks” (and all others like it), simply help to reduce your overall calories, which in turn helps you lose weight.
So meal timing and frequency don’t matter? Not quite…
When and how often you eat is actually really important, but less for the reason of “stoking your metabolism” and more for the reason of aligning your eating schedule with your lifestyle.
See, your nutrition plan should work for you, not the other way around.
And when you align your eating schedule with your schedule and preferences, it vastly increases the likelihood that you’ll be able to stick to the plan consistently.
The crucial decisions revolve around deciding when you will eat each day (meal timing), and how often you eat each day (meal frequency).
Being on a consistent meal schedule is 100% crucial to your success.
So, now it’s time to ask yourself two questions:
- When do I want to eat each day?
- How many times do I want to eat each day?
My suggestion to you: the simpler, the better.
There’s no need to be eating 5, 6, or 7 times per day. Planning and prepping that many meals is going to take up a lot of time – time you probably don’t have.
I recommend you eat 2-4 times per day, depending on your preferences.
A few sample set-ups:
—> Skip breakfast and eat lunch and dinner (A.K.A – Intermittent Fasting).
If you’re someone who falls into one of the following categories:
- Busy throughout the morning and would rather not worry about planning/prepping/eating meals.
- Prefers to eat a lot of food when you eat
…. then skipping breakfast and eating lunch and dinner is a great option for you.
—> Eat a standard 3-meal format of breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Prefer the cadence/structure of 3 balanced meals per day? Find yourself hungry first thing in the morning?Then this is a great option for you.
—> Eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner and mix in a snack wherever you prefer.
Similar to the standard 3-meal format, by making each meal just a bit smaller, you can toss in a snack at whatever point in the day you typically struggle with cravings/hunger between meals.
You get to decide when/how often you eat… But you HAVE to decide.
And once you’ve decided when you’re eating each day, you stick to that schedule. You only at the times you’ve decided to eat, and you don’t eat at other times.
Once you’ve decided on meal timing and frequency, move on to step 3.
STEP 3: PLAN YOUR MEALS
You know what types of foods you will be eating each day – your “system” – and you know when and how often you will be eating each day – meal timing and frequency.
The next step is to plan your meals.
People who get and stay in great shape don’t do so by “winging it.”
With few exceptions, people who successfully transform their physiques do so by knowing what and when they are going to eat each day, and following that plan consistently.
To build this habit into your life, here’s what you gotta do:
- Open up a document (or go old-school and grab pen and paper) and map out your daily meal schedule for each day of the following week by planning what you will be eating for each meal on each day for the next week.
On your document (or in your notebook), make a heading for each day of the week with space below it to plan out your meals.
So it will look like this:
What I need: Here, you will make a list of all the foods you will need to buy at the grocery store to prepare the meals you’ve planned for today.
If you’re wondering, “But what am I supposed to eat?”… Remember your “system.” For us here at Muscle That Matters HQ, our system is those 4 main principles:
- Eat lean protein with each meal.
- Fruits and veggies at each meal (or at least, most meals).
- Focus on whole, unprocessed (or minimally processed) foods
- Don’t drink your calories (water, unsweetened tea, black coffee).
So when I sit down to plan out my meals, I create recipes/foods that meet those guidelines. If you’re new to this, it may seem complicated at first, but once you get used to it, it becomes very simple.
To plan all of my meals, I simply pick a food from the following categories (or find a recipe that includes all of these):
- Lean protein source (chicken, fish, beef, eggs, pork, etc.)
- Fruit and/or veggie (I don’t always get both of these at all meals, but I try to get at least one per meal — and make sure at the end of the day it wasn’t all fruit).
- Minimally processed starchy carbs (rice, oats, potatoes, and yams are my go-to sources).
- If I need some kind of oil to cook with or for use as a salad dressing, I make sure to pick a quality fat source (olive oil, coconut oil, ghee, etc.). This isn’t required, but more of a “choose quality” and keep it minimal if you’re gonna use it type of thing.
*Note: For fat loss, I often have clients “cycle” carbohydrates by consuming less on “rest” days and more on days they work out. A good place to start is 1 cupped handful on “rest” days and 2 cupped handfuls on workout days, especially in the first meal following your workout.
Obviously, the combinations here are endless and you can make this as complicated (full-on recipes) or as simple (chicken breast + broccoli + rice) as you want.
As I’ll talk about below, most find it helpful to plan really simple meals during the day and save the recipe experimenting for the evenings or weekends when you have a bit more time.
That’s how we do it here at MTM.
If you’re rolling with a different System, say Paleo, you’d obviously have to come up with recipes or find foods that are “allowed” on that particular style of eating.
Repeat this process for each day of the week.
Remember: you’ve already decided how many times you will be eating each day. The example above shows what planning would look like if you’re following the standard “3 meals per day” set up, but this will look a little different if you’ve chosen to follow another template. The important thing is that you plan out each of your meals each day, regardless of what meal timing/frequency you’ve chosen.
PRO TIPS FOR SIMPLE AND EFFECTIVE MEAL PLANNING (HOW TO FIT HEALTHY EATING INTO A BUSY LIFESTYLE)
“Good enough done consistently beats perfect done sporadically.”
As a busy person with a family, a job – a “normal” life – that’s got to become your mantra. You don’t need to be perfect all the time. Do “good enough”, consistently enough, and your lean and muscular physique goals are in grasp.
When it comes to your meal plan, every meal you eat doesn’t have to take an hour to prepare and cook.
Sometimes, you have to allow convenience to win out over perfection. The key is making sure you do this without sabotaging your health and fitness goals.
Here are a few “pro tips” that will help make the meal planning process more doable within the context of a busy lifestyle.
Pro Tip #1: Eat Similar Meals From Day to Day.
Eating meals that are similar from day to day and week to week makes planning and preparing food much easier. As my life has become more busy and stressful, I’ve found I only have time to cook one meal per day. For me, that’s usually supper. For breakfast and lunch, I want simple meals that take very little time to prep, prepare, and eat.
This way, I’m not expending a ton of time or mental effort thinking about what I’m eating throughout the day when I’m busy working.
A typical day for me looks like this:
11:30 (ish): Leftovers from last night’s supper – or, if I don’t have leftovers, I’ll go with something simple and convenient like a protein shake and a piece of fruit.
3:00 (ish): Piece of fruit + handful of nuts
6:00 (ish): Home-cooked supper, or occasionally (around once per week), something from a restaurant that fits into the guidelines of the MTM Nutrition System.
As you can see, I follow the “skip breakfast and eat lunch and supper” template with a snack thrown in mid-afternoon.
Pro Tip #2: Cook in Bulk.
As you can see above, I often eat leftovers. By cooking extra food to use for future meals, you make the time you do spend in the kitchen more efficient. Any time you are taking the time to cook a meal at home, buy double what you need and use the extra for a meal tomorrow.
Pro Tip #3: Prepare what you can ahead of time.
Spend 5-10 minutes each evening getting the foods you will during the following day separated into containers/baggies so that it’s a simple “grab and go” the next morning. You could also do this on Sunday for the whole week.
Pro Tip #4: Plan for flexibility.
You aren’t going to be able to stick to your meal plan 100% of the time. Things will come up – holidays, vacations, parties, etc. Your goal is 85-90% consistency. If you stick to a well-designed meal plan 85-90% of the time, you should have no problem getting (and/or staying) lean. The key is being ruthless about the 85-90% consistency.
You’ll have to make sacrifices from time to time. It’s about balance. Pick the times/experiences when indulging is truly worth it and do it unapologetically (around 10% of the time), and then get back on the plan.
Happy meal planning,
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