Eating healthy goes beyond dieting and trying to achieve fitness goals. It's about living a healthy lifestyle for a healthier you. What we feed our bodies affects our mood, energy levels, focus, and most importantly, it's what makes our bodies work properly to fight off illnesses and diseases. One way to make sure our bodies are getting the nutrients they need to function properly is by following a macro meal plan.
Meal planning can be confusing, overwhelming, and stressful, but it doesn't have to be. Counting macronutrients (carbs, protein, fats), instead of just measuring calorie intake, will ensure nutritional balance to gain muscle, lose body fat, or just maintain a healthy weight. Macro diets have no food off-limits making them flexible and stress-free. Plus, this form of flexible dieting is effective if you have specific fitness goals you want to reach because there are no restrictions and you're not forced to eat bland meals!
Following a meal plan based on your macros helps you prioritize important macronutrients (and micronutrients) and allows you to make space for certain treats you love. But it's all about your food choices and learning how to portion your meals according to your individual nutrition. Fortunately, learning how to plan meals is not rocket science. It just takes a little knowledge and practice to master the skill of meal planning, here's why you should start doing it and how to get started!
Benefits of meal planning
Meal planning, in general, has many benefits but adding counting macros into the mix will ensure that you're getting the nutrients your body needs to stay in tip-top shape. So you can definitely benefit from any type of meal plan, but if you want to take it to the next level then calculate your macros using a macro calculator to see exactly how many nutrients and calories your body needs.
So whether you choose to count macros or not, here are the wonderful benefits of taking some time to meal plan:
Everyone loves to save time, especially during a hectic workweek. Setting aside time once a week, anywhere between 30 minutes to an hour, to plan out your meals for the week ahead of you. In fact, planning your meals can help with meal prep. Knowing what meals you're making for the weeks will help you identify what you need to prep to make your life a little easier. For example, if your mornings are usually rushed you can plan and prep your meal the night before. You don't even have to prep full meals, you can just prep the food itself. Like if you're going to be working late, you can have all the veggies washed and cut and protein seasoned and marinating for you to just get home and get to cooking. You know the menu for the week, so you know what needs to be prepped. Doing this will save you time later in the week, and might even save you from heading to the nearest fast food place for a quick meal!
Another way meal planning can save you time is by reducing the amount of time you wander around the grocery store and it might even save you a trip or two! Having your weekly menu planned will automatically create a grocery list for you. Having a grocery list with everything you need for the week will help you reduce your grocery store trips to just one a week - Unless you still forget something! It also stops you from wandering around and looking at all the tempting yummy foods, you can just get in, shop for the essentials, and leave.
Thinking of what's on the menu for the day is a thought that plagues most people's minds every morning. This is unnecessary constant stress that can be prevented by planning your meals. On top of that, if you have one or all of your meals prepped on busy days you'll automatically reduce stress which in turn reduces your stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol is not a hormone you want more of because having too much of it causes your body to store fat. Plus, you can reuse meal plans and grocery lists on busier weeks when you need to cut down on planning!
In the long run, planning and cooking your own meals can help you save money. It'll help you eat out less since you already have everything planned and prepared for the week, and you can account for any brunch or dinner dates. But probably the best way it can help you save money is that it helps reduce food waste. Think back to all those times you've thrown away bagged salads, vegetables, and fruits because they weren't used and went bad. That usually happens for one of two reasons:
1) You ended up getting take out because you were too busy to think of what to eat and cook.
2) Your meals weren't planned so you bought too much than you thought you needed.
It might be impossible to be completely waste-free, but knowing what you're eating and how much you actually need to buy can dramatically reduce food waste and help you buy only the things you absolutely need. For example, if one of your meals requires bell peppers, you can plan to include it in your breakfast omelet or any other meal. You can even plan your leftovers for the week to reduce food waste! All of this in turn will save you money.
You'll naturally make healthier choices
Planning ahead gives you the opportunity to make better choices related to your personal health and fitness needs. This one is especially true for those who are tracking macros. Knowing how many grams of protein, carbs, and fats to eat will help you to prioritize foods that will help you target macros, thus helping you make healthier choices.
Here is more insight into how meal planning can help you make healthier choices:
- It helps you stay accountable. The last thing you want is for all your hard work planning and prepping to go to waste. Having all your meals planned and prepped will give you more of an incentive to eat the healthy foods you already planned to eat because you don't want it (and your money) to go to waste. Thus helping you make fewer trips to go out and buy less nutrient-dense foods.
- It will help you portion your food better so you eat the right amount. Planning your meals will allow you to know exactly how many servings you're making and how much to put on your plate.
- You'll have more control over your choices. If you have a work lunch outing, a dinner date, or brunch with friends, whatever it is, you can plan around it. You'll know that you can skip a certain meal on a certain day so you don't overbuy and have any leftovers that go to waste. If you're following a macro diet, you can account for your outing. You can plan your choices ahead of time so you stick with those healthy choices you've already made.
How to get started
Since this is about how to meal plan for macros, you must know what your macros are. So the first step is to calculate your own macros, and no you don't have to do any math (unless you want to), just use my macro calculator! Input your information as best you can and it'll give you exactly how much you need to eat for your goals. Once that is done, here's what else you'll need:
- Digital food scale: This will allow you to weigh all your food so you know exactly the amount you're eating and can easily track it.
- Calendar or food journal: You want some type of calendar or food journal to write down your grocery list and all your meals.
- Food tracker: Since you're tracking the amount of macros you're eating, you'll need a food tracker. There are so many useful apps, like MyFitnessPal, that allow you to input what you're eating on a certain day and it will calculate all the nutrients and calories for you. This will make it easier for you to see exactly what you're eating and how much.
Once you have those things, we can get started with the planning. There are four steps to help you plan your meals accordingly: Prepare your eating schedule, categorize the foods you want to buy, make a priority list and lastly plan it all out and input it in your food tracker.
Prepare your eating schedule
Everyone's schedules are different, which means their eating schedules are also different. Some people like to have three meals, some like just two, some like to skip breakfast, others don't, and so on. The point is that only you can determine how your macro targets will fit into your eating schedule.
So here's an example of how to divide your macros based on the number of meals and snacks you typically eat. Let's say person X's main goal is weight loss and likes to eat three meals and two snacks per day. Based on their body composition and goals their macros are - 1,600 calories, 200 grams of carbs, 100 grams of protein, and 44.5 grams of fat daily. The strategy is to divide the total daily targets (calories, carbs, fat, and protein) by four. Then, divide that number by two to get the macros for your two snacks. So here's what person X's macros look like when distributed evenly:
Three meals, each with:
- 400 calories
- 50g carbohydrates
- 11g fat
- 25g protein
Two snacks, each with:
- 200 calories
- 25g carbohydrates
- 5.5g fat
- 12.5g protein
Dividing your own macros based on the number of meals and snacks you eat will help give you a better idea of what to cook and how to portion out your food. Remember, this is just a target to aim for, it's highly unlikely that you'll hit your numbers exactly at every meal. It's okay to go a little bit over or under.
Make a categorized list of foods to buy
The last thing you want to do is go into a grocery store with no list and an abundance of choices... This can lead to some pretty bad food choices. To avoid that, determine and categorize what foods to buy before heading to the store.
Based on your macros, you'll have one macronutrient higher than the rest. Usually, it's protein for weight loss and muscle building or carbs for those who want to put on weight, or it can be fats for those who follow a keto or low carb diet. Whatever it is, make sure to list several options for the macronutrient you need the most.
Now you can work on creating a list of foods you want to buy based on categories. Here's an example:
Primarily protein (in order from lean protein to fattier protein):
- Chicken breast
- Egg whites
- Turkey bacon
- Whitefish like cod or halibut
- Plain low-fat Greek yogurt
- Low-fat cottage cheese
- Lean beef cuts
- Whey protein powder
- Whole eggs
- Chicken thighs w/ skin
- Fatty fish like salmon
- Whole-fat yogurt
- Berries (blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries)
- Melons (watermelons, honeydew, cantaloupe)
- Brussel sprouts
- Bell peppers
- Green beans
- Green peas
- Butternut squash
- Sweet potato
- Nuts (cashews, almonds, walnuts) and nut butter
- Oils like coconut or olive oil
- Chia seeds
This is just an example, there are so many more food options to choose from. Your list might look different depending on your dietary needs (vegan, paleo, keto). So make a list of your favorite foods that fit your lifestyle and goals, then categorize them by what macronutrient they contain the most.
Make a priority list
Now that you have your food category list you can start picking out the foods that you will be using together to hit your macro goals. But before jumping into that, you'll want to make a priority list. When it comes to macro counting, there is a hierarchy of foods that you want to include in your diet plan. This priority list will make sticking to your macros easier and make sure that you prioritize the more filling and nutrient-dense foods first.
1. Fruits + Vegetables - These are the first foods you want to select because they are packed with essential vitamins and minerals, keep you full, and make it easier for you to make better a food choice to go with it. You should also try to aim for 2-6 servings of fruits and veggies a day.
2. Protein - This is the hardest macronutrient to hit, which is why you want to make sure you choose this after your first food group. Also, they pair perfectly with veggies so they are naturally selected after. Protein also keeps you full and satisfied, helps you maintain muscle mass, and helps repair muscles in order to promote muscle growth.
3. Filling/Fibrous Carbs - Aside from fruits and green veggies, aim to eat good carbs or otherwise known as complex carbs (whole grains and starchy vegetables). These foods are satisfying, still healthy, and have essential vitamins and nutrients, and will help you hit your daily fiber intake.
4. Fats - Unless you're following a keto or low-carb diet, your fat intake will be lower than your protein and carbs. This is why fats come after the first three on the list, also they're the easiest to get an adequate amount of... But also the easiest to overdo. If you're not getting enough fat from your protein sources (lean protein opposed to fattier protein) you can evenly space out the remaining fat intake across meals. Stick to healthy fats like avocados, coconut oil, olive oil, nuts, and nut butter.
5. Treats - The last, and probably everyone's favorite 😋Most treats are mostly fats and carbs, which is why they are planned last. To make sure you're getting most, if not all, of your macros from nutrient-dense whole foods. Once you've planned your meals for the day that are filled with fruits, veggies, good protein, carb, and fat sources, you can move on to including a treat (if it fits your macros)! This is what makes flexible dieting like macro counting successful for many. Just remember that treats are highly palpable foods that can trigger even more cravings, so plan treats sparingly.
Having a priority list like this will help slowly ease you into the habit of choosing healthy foods first when planning your meals. You'll also go into the store prepared with a list of only the foods you need, so you avoid any temptations outside of that list.
Plan meals and write it down
Once you know how many calories, protein, carbs, and fats you need to hit for each meal, all you need to do is use those two lists you've created to put together your meals and input it on MyFitnessPal or any other food diary app. Planning out your meals beforehand will help you stress less about what you will be eating for the next few days. It will also help prevent you from getting takeout because your meals are planned and already prepped and ready for you. You can either plan and input your meals a day in advance, or plan them out for the entire week!
Planning meals isn't easy, including your macros can make it even harder, but hopefully, knowing how to get started makes it less intimidating, and more approachable. All it takes is setting aside an hour once a week to plan out your meals. Doing this will save you time, money, stress, help you make healthier choices, and in turn, will help you achieve any fitness goals. Plus, once you start it'll eventually become second nature to you and you'll have the knowledge to know what changes you need to make based on lifestyle or fitness/diet changes.