I’ll never forget shelling out $120 for a 10-day detox meal plan and recipe collection during my junior year of college. While the meal plan helped me slim down and lose some water weight, it wasn’t sustainable at all. Not because of the food, but because the meal-prep part didn’t fit into my busy lifestyle. I was making an egg white omelet or protein pancakes every single morning. Meanwhile, I barely had time to brush my teeth before heading out the door for the day. Needless to say, that plan didn’t last long.
Three years later, I finally cracked the code: Sustainable meal planning all comes down to effective meal prepping. And not just what you're cooking in the kitchen on Sunday, but also deciding which foods and meals you want to eat for the week. To help you get started, I’m breaking down steps to create a customizable meal plan you can actually stick to.
All you need: a goal and a spreadsheet.
1. Determine your goal.
Committing to a meal plan works best when there’s something behind it to drive you. So what’s your goal? Maybe you want to work on getting rid of sugar cravings, make sure you’re getting enough greens, or try to develop healthier eating habits to get in better shape. You might even just be sick of spending so much time in the kitchen and looking for a better plan.
For me, the motivation came down to making all of my food decisions ahead of time. That way, I’m less likely to stunt my progress by making impulsive unhealthy decisions. Because let's be honest... I'm not saying no to Bagel Fridays unless I have egg muffins left over from all the meal-prepping I did on Sunday.
2. Nerd out with a spreadsheet.
You know what "they" say: Those who fail to prepare, prepare to fail. And it all starts with a super-simple spreadsheet. Whether you prefer Excel or Google sheets, just pick one. And then nerd out like I do and color code it to keep yourself organized.
Here’s my empty meal plan grid. Consider this the first step in deciding what to meal-prep for the week.
My personal goal is to keep my meals balanced, so I split them all up into food groups: protein, produce, and carbs (a starch). I even split up my snacks like this too. Thinking about my meals in three food groups
forces reminds me to make sure every meal I eat is nutritionally balanced.
3. Be real with your social life.You're only human, and that means you're probably not going to go home after work every night, eat a perfectly healthy meal, and get a full eight hours of sleep. So before you plan your meals for the week, check your calendar to see what you have going on. This will be a huge help in determining exactly how much to buy at the grocery store (a.k.a. you aren't wasting food or spending more than you need to). If you don't have any plans set in stone, but you’re someone who lives for spontaneity, go ahead and mark nights that you’re likely to go out after work and eat with friends or coworkers.
4. Go "easy" when choosing your meals.
This is the fun part. All you have to do now is fill in the meals you’re going to meal-prep and cook at home. I like to use meal-prep formulas instead of recipes. It's just so easy to think of food that way instead of stressing out about following a recipe to a T.
Here’s an example day. Yes, this is really how I eat.
Notice that instead of “tofu stir-fry” for lunch, I wrote tofu, broccoli, and brown rice. Jotting down the main ingredients versus the recipe name helps me stay focused on getting that balance at each meal. Plus it leaves a lot of room for creativity. To make a meal actually taste good, I always use ingredients such as garlic, soy sauce, agave, onions, lemons, limes, and spices.
Here’s what it will look like once I've filled in each meal:
You won't see my weekends filled out, because if I'm too strict, then I set myself up for failure. I've also gained some self-control and know which foods will make me feel healthier. But guess what? If I go a little crazy with pizza and beer one night, life goes on.
5. Make your grocery list.
Now that you know what you’re eating, you can make your grocery list accordingly. This is my favorite part because it’s so easy: Write your list directly below your grid, so you just need to tally up how much you need of each ingredient. Take a screenshot before heading to the store so that all you need to do is pull up your photos.
6. Pick a day to meal-prep.
Now that you have your groceries, choose the best day to meal-prep your food for the week. My favorite days are Saturday and/or Sunday. Sometimes I spread it out by going to the store on Saturday, then meal-prepping all of my dishes on Sunday.
7. Stock your kitchen with the right gadgets and containers.
I'm a big fan of shortcuts. These kitchen gadgets are a must for speeding up the meal-prep process. From cutting boards that include storage for the chopped veg to mini-choppers that do the slicing and dicing for you, make sure you've got the right tools. And the last thing you need is to finish with all that meal prepping and have nowhere to stash your food. When you have matching containers, or at least enough containers that can store everything, it helps keep you motivated. There's no science behind that, but take my word for it.
Creating a meal-prep and meal-planning system you can stick to is a game-changer. Now my week feels out of whack when I don’t make a meal plan. Not only does it keep me focused on my health goals, it also makes prepares me to tackle whatever chaos is thrown at me each week. Adopt a system that's sustainable for you and tailored to your lifestyle, goals, and diet. If that includes some healthy desserts, then that sounds like a good plan to me.
Talia Koren is an influencer marketing specialist who genuinely wants to help people in their 20s get their lives together. She also loves cooking and runs the meal-prep blog Workweek Lunch. Keep up with Talia on Instagram and Twitter @thetalillama.