Meal Planning

If you’re trying to improve your diet, one of the best ways to do it is to plan your meals ahead of time, then buy that stuff, prepare what you can in advance, then you have foods ready to go.  This strategy is an example of what I call scaffolding. Trying to ‘freestyle’ your meals after a full day of work, looking after kids, and everything else is tough. If you don’t have food ready and in your house, you are going to get hungry, there’s not going to be anything healthy in the house, and you’re going to end up with a pizza guy at your door or sitting in the McDonald’s drive-thru waiting for some McNuggets.

It’s my sincere belief that you can lose weight and fat on a lot of different macronutrient intakes – you can eat everything from Ornish-style super low fat, to vegan, vegetarian, paleo, if-it-fits-your-macros style, low-carb/high-fat, the Zone, Mediterranean, to anything else. They literally all work, the key is figuring out how to stick to them.  Planning ahead can be one of those tricks to help you commit to your diet, like eating before you go grocery shopping, having some soup before you go out to eat, or food journaling.

As usual, I have some common-sense advice. But just because something is simple to understand, that doesn’t make it easy to do. Being consistently good at simple but important things can be incredibly powerful. Here are some things that I think are simple, but important.

  1. Plan your meals ahead of time–it makes it much more likely that you’ll actually eat them.
  2. Mostly stick to a rotation of meals that you like and are easy to cook. This has the added benefit that you get better at preparing the meals you like.
  3. Have a backup plan – “here’s what I eat when I’m travelling” “here’s what I eat when I don’t have time to plan or cook” etc. This is a form of “implementation intention”. This describes where, when, and how you’re going to do what you intend to do. 

It’s easy to sit back and think that you’ll start dieting “tomorrow” and eat another big mac. Then when tomorrow rolls around, you think the same thing and do the same thing you did yesterday and today. The key is to set yourself up for success tomorrow by figuring out what you need to do today. Make doing the right thing easier by preparing the day/week before.

This principle extends beyond food. David Allen (again of GTD fame) talks about this: if you want to remember something tomorrow, like important papers that you need to bring to work, you put them in a briefcase and then put the briefcase in front of the door. That way you literally trip over your briefcase on the way to work, and suddenly you’ve got your stuff together.

In computer science, caching is pre-loading a bunch of data so that you can then use it later on. My habits are to cache weekly with weekly review and meal planning. If this is interesting, check out my post on scaffolding.

I learned some of these tricks from my friend Josh Hillis, who has a great blog – and a quality book called “Fat Loss Happens on Monday”. He literally schedules in a “workout” day to shop for and prepare food – it’s that important. 

This habit works in conjunction with doing weekly reviews – you can plan for difficult situations in advance. If your kids have a basketball tournament they are going to go to and you know you will be on the road, you can look at the menu, see what’s going on and make sure there’s something you can eat there. So when you actually get to the restaurant, you are prepared for it and you have thought through the options beforehand: that’s really what this exercise is about.

If the restaurant solution won’t work, maybe you need to pack some food in advance, or you plan a cheat meal and you feel good about it because you looked at all the options nearly a week in advance and made a conscious decision that would support the sum total of your goals–physically, financially, and emotionally–the best. 

Of course, you shouldn’t feel limited to just pre-planning meals. Planning ahead in general can be useful, even if you don’t use the plan exactly. Making decisions ahead of time is crucial so you don’t make bad decisions later.

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