The Simple Way to Stick to a Meal Plan

Post written by Leo Babauta.

Not long ago, I was against meal plans because I felt they were too restrictive. I generally prefer to stick to simple principles of eating whole foods, staying active, and eating moderate portions.

But I’ve had a change of heart recently as I’ve focused on losing the last of my bellyfat — in the last year I’ve lost about 35 lbs., and in the last 3.5 months of sticking (mostly) to a general meal plan, I’ve lost 18 lbs.

That’s a goodly amount, to be sure, and I don’t think I could have done it (healthily) without sticking to some kind of plan.

Diet is the biggest component to losing fat — you can burn 600 calories (for example) in a workout, but you can easily eat 2-3 times that much in one sitting if you’re eating junk food. As they say, you can’t out-exercise a bad diet. I’d still recommend getting active and burning calories as much as you can (with adequate rest), but if you really want to lose fat, you need to look at your diet.

So if diet is important, how do you stick to a good diet? The meal plan is often the simplest answer — plan out the foods you’re going to eat, measured for your calorie goal, and then just eat those meals (for the most part). You don’t have to track your eating because it’s already planned out.

Sticking to the meal plan is often the hard part, though. Most people aren’t used to it, and they often fail and feel guilty. So I thought I’d share some of what I’ve learned, what’s worked for me, in hopes that it’ll help you.

I’ve gotten pretty good at sticking to my plan, and I actually enjoy it. Go figure.

The Simple Method

So here’s what I’ve done, and what I’d recommend. Keep it simple.

1. Eat real, whole foods you love. Do NOT see this as a sacrifice. If you hate carrots or eggplant but you eat them because they’re somehow “virtuous” or you think that sacrifice is the only way to lose that fat, you’ll fail. You cannot stick to something you hate for very long. Instead, go for healthy foods you actually enjoy eating. For me, this is berries, fruits of all kinds, raw almonds, veggies cooked tastefully in stir-fries or chili or what have you. Your list will be different, and it could take some experimenting with different recipes you find online, in magazines or in cookbooks to find the healthy foods you like best. Main rule of thumb, though: try for real foods, not packaged ones (not even “healthy” convenience foods). In as natural a state as possible — meaning, not processed or extracted, not fried or smothered with cream or sauces.

2. Improve in iterations. Cut back a little at a time. You don’t have to go from Standard American Diet to a diet of Only Raw Carrots in one day (nor should you ever eat only raw carrots, but you know what I mean). Try a meal plan that’s a little better than the diet you’ve been eating for years — perhaps cutting out the liquid calories at first, or adding more fruits or veggies you love. As I said above, cut the calories just a little. This first meal plan doesn’t have to be perfect — just a little better. Then, once you get used to that, make a meal plan that’s a little better yet — maybe a couple hundred calories less, more veggies, less fatty stuff, less snack food, or more real food. With each iteration of your meal plan, get a little better. I’m still getting better at mine.

3. Look ahead for bumps, and plan. We all have those bumps in our routines: an office party, someone’s birthday dinner, going on a date with your honey, taking a trip, being on the road all day and not having access to your usual foods. The key is to think ahead — what’s going on tomorrow? How will I deal with it? Should I pack food, or find out what the menu is at the restaurant so I can pick something healthy, or should I use this as a cheat meal? Thing is, don’t just do cheat meals all the time — then you’re not on a meal plan anymore. More on that below. Again, plan ahead and prepare — as you keep doing this, you’ll get good at packing snacks or meals so you’re covered, no matter what the occasion.

4. Make it public. Use your blog or Twitter/Facebook or a public forum or just email to let people know how your meal plan is going (I use Daytum, but that’s only one way to do it). Or get a partner and report to each other. Making it public or having a partner gives you accountability and motivation, and works like a charm. Don’t skip this step.

5. Cheat, & don’t feel guilty. Guilt often derails people from meal plans — they indulge and then feel like they failed, and so they stop. Don’t fall into this trap. You’re not going to be 100% compliant to any plan — shoot for 90% and be happy if you come close to that. Know that you’ll cheat sometimes, and make this part of your plan. However, learn to control the cheating: only do it a couple times a week, perhaps, and even then don’t just pig out. Eat reasonable portions of things you’d consider cheating, eat them slowly and enjoy them, and then move on. Get back to your plan. Over the long term, a little cheating won’t stall you, but a lot might.

A few warnings

1. Watch out for sneaky calories. Liquid calories are a good example — sodas, teas, coffees, sports drinks, vitamin waters and more, all contain calories that many people don’t account for, and then wonder why they’re not losing weight. Other examples include salad dressings, sauces, little bites of foods that “don’t count”, smoothies, candies or chips you snack on from the break room, meals that are bigger than you realize. There are many others, of course.

2. Do not make it extreme. This should be clear from the above method, but I have to say it explicitly. People will try any diet if they think it’ll work — the Grapefruit Diet, the Cookie Diet, a liquid diet, a “cleanse” or “detox”, an 800-calorie a day diet, the Cabbage Soup diet, the Lemonade detox. Please don’t do these diets — they’re not healthy and you won’t get good nutrition. Remember: you’re in this for the long term.

3. Don’t starve yourself. A little hunger is OK — I’ve learned that it won’t kill me to go slightly hungry for a couple hours. But if you feel like you’re starving, you might be reducing too drastically. Again, it’s best to reduce portions a little at a time, get used to that amount, and then reduce a little more.

My 1800-cal meal plan

For most of the last few months, I created (with the help of my sister and running partner, Kat) a 2,000-calorie meal plan and have been sticking to it, varying it a bit when I get tired of the foods. Recently as I’ve lost a lot of weight I’ve cut the plan down to 1,800 calories, as my lighter body requires fewer calories for maintenance.

Calorie goal: You shouldn’t follow my calorie goal — use an online calculator to calculate your basal metabolic rate (or BMR — the amount of calories you need just to maintain each day), and then subtract perhaps 200-300 for your meal plan’s target. If you exercise, you’ll be adding to the calorie deficit, which is good, but even if you don’t exercise on some days, you’ll still have a 200-300 calorie deficit. My calorie goal is actually closer to a 500-calorie reduction of my BMR, but it’s usually best to start smaller and adjust as you get used to it and as you see results, after maybe 3-4 weeks. Please, don’t drop below 1,200 calories (women) or 1,500 calories (men) — it’s hard to get good nutrition if you go too low on calories. Remember, this is long-term, not a quickie fix.

Basics: For the most part, the meal plan is:

My plan: Here’s my current plan — please note that it changes as needed:

You could use this if you like the foods, but be sure to measure all your foods at first to get the calories you want for each meal. For example, if you want a 1600-cal meal plan, you could cut 100 cals from two of the meals or skip the last snack. However, if these aren’t foods you love, don’t follow this plan — make your own or find one you like. This is provided for illustration only.