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Diet and meal planning that actually works

5th August 19 - 7 minute read

Headshot of James Hudson

Performance Nutritionist at Nutrition in Sport

Our expert:

James Hudson, Performance Nutritionist at Nutrition in Sport. James played Premiership Rugby for Gloucester, as well as lining up for London Irish, Newcastle Falcons and England Saxons. He has a degree and masters in biochemistry from the University of Bath and has completed the International Olympic Committee’s Diploma in Sports Nutrition. He is currently working towards a PhD at Liverpool John Moores University.

What’s in this article …

  • Is a diet plan different from a meal plan?
  • How to start a meal plan
  • Top tips for meal planning

Whether you’re trying to build muscle, lose fat or just feel healthier, setting a solid meal plan can be a great way to put your health goals on the right track.

“I’m a big advocate of meal planning because it provides a visualisation of diet and food,” says James Hudson, a trained nutritionist who’s helped many athletes plan their meals.

“It’s hard to know what 5g of fat or 10g of sugar actually looks like – a meal plan can provide this. People get a better idea of what portion size is suitable for them,” he adds.

So what’s the secret to creating a meal plan that you’ll stick to? We dive into the do’s, don’ts and top tips with expert advice.

 

At a glance

  • Weight loss and physical fitness are two reasons to plan meals
  • Setting health goals helps to create the right plan
  • Sustainability is key - so plan in treat days and special occasions.

 

Is a diet plan different from a meal plan?

Yes, there is a slight difference between the two:

  • Meal plan – a schedule of what you’re going to eat in the coming days, whether for organisation, saving money or keeping tabs on how much you’re eating
  • Diet plan – a type of meal plan that focuses on eating healthier meals to help you lose weight or to hit the targets of a specific diet regime

Why do people use meal plans?

Simply put, it’s a good way to control your eating and to help you avoid those foods you might love but aren’t helping hit your workout goals.

Weight loss

Knocking off a few kilos is one of the more popular motivation for creating a meal plan. For some, it’s a great way to help you stick to your nutritional goals and manage your calorie intake. To help you shift weight – and stay healthy – try planning in:

  • Low-calorie meals – aim for 500 calories at each meal as a start
  • High levels of protein – protein makes you feel less hungry so you’re less likely to raid the biscuit tin
  • Smaller portion sizes – include measurements on your plan to keep you on the straight and narrow
  • Healthy snacks – we all need a treat, especially if you’re hitting the gym – just make sure they’re healthy

Physical training

Getting a helping hand to hit your personal fitness goals is another good reason to embrace meal planning. Everyone has their own goals, so make sure your plan is structured to help you reach them.

For example, if you want to bulk up create a plan high in calories and protein. But if you’re hitting the streets for a marathon, cut out the fat and slowly load up on carbs in the lead up to the big day to make sure you have enough fuel in the tank.

Need to know: Weight loss and physical training are two popular reasons for meal planning, although the nutrition you need for each is very different.

How to start a meal plan

Don’t delay – you can quickly plan your week’s meals in just a few minutes. Once you’ve got a basic plan down on paper you’re halfway there – next feel free to spend a bit of time fine tuning it to meet your personals tastes with our step-by-step guide.

  1. Set a timescale.
    Five or seven days are the usual time frames. This gives means you can easily switch up your plans to keep your taste buds happy. It also fits in well with a weekly trip to the supermarket too, ensuring you always have a freshly stocked fridge of ingredients.

  2. Keep a record
    Create a list on paper and stick it to the front of the fridge with a magnet. Of course, you can switch around your dinner plans if you fancy a specific meal one day – but to keep everything organised, you need a record.

  3. Set your health goals
    This is going to shape your meal plan, so nail down the specifics. Do you want to lose weight or build muscle? Do you want to eat more healthily or reduce your calorie intake? When you’ve decided, move on to step four.

  4. Balance your nutrition
    Diet and exercise are the big forces that will help you smash your health goals. When you’ve got your aims clear in your mind, work out the right nutritional balance to help you get there.

    Calories: As part of a balanced weight loss diet, the NHS recommends reducing calories to 1900kcal per day for men, and women 1400kcal¹. This could lead to you shift around 0.5-1kg (1-2lbs) a week.

    Vitamins: Make sure you get your five-a-day of fruits and vegetables, with only one portion as juice. You wouldn’t want to fall sick in the middle of training.  

    Protein: The recommended daily intake of protein is 45g for women and 55g for men.² But if you want to build muscle mass, your meal plan needs to include 1.2 – 1.7g of protein per kilogram a day.³

    Carbohydrates: For weight-loss diet plans, make sure you eat carbs like pasta, rice and potatoes earlier in the day to give your body chance to burn them off.

  5. Create a delicious meal plan
    Now it’s the fun part – pulling the plan together. To create something delicious, healthy and interesting, try:

    Adding in healthy versions of your favourites – wholemeal pasta, lean mince for lasagne or low fat yogurt

    Research new recipes on the internet – try creating something new once a week to keep your plan varied

    Check our tips for creating low-calorie meals that taste good.

 

Meal plans online

You’ll find thousands of meal plans online with bold claims attached.

“Get instant abs”, “shed a stone without trying” – or even “drop a dress size overnight”.

While it might seem tempting to believe the headlines, these one-size-fits-all plans often aren’t the most successful. 

"The best way is to get people to plan their own meals,” says James.

“They understand where they want to get to, so by doing their own meal plan and thinking about what they’re going to make during the week, it helps them action this.”

Need to know: Creating your own personalised meal plan is often the best route to success, so you can ensure you’re getting the right balance of protein, carbohydrates and vitamins.

 

Top meal plan tips

The key to successful meal planning is sustainability. A meal plan that lasts just one week won’t have much impact - but if you can keep it going for a couple of months you’ll really start to notice the difference.

Here are our top tips for making it work:

  • Strike a balance between new, exciting meals and manageable meal prep
  • “Create a shopping list to stop you from giving into temptation,” says James.
  • Don’t forget to plan in healthy snacks, to help you stay on track between meals
  • Make sure it matches your workout schedule - training days need high-protein meals, whereas low calorie days are better matched to lighter exercise or rest days
  • Plan in treat days - find ways to indulge without scuppering your progress with our guide to healthy Chinese takeaway food 
  • Include social occasions in your plan, like weddings and parties. “You can plan your weekly meals around these indulgences,” says James.

 

In Summary:

If you’re thinking about meal planning, jump in and give it a go. Plan around with it so that you’re providing variety, taste and a healthy fuel source for your workouts. Enjoy delicious meals that are bursting with the nutrition you need and get the results you want.


[1] https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/healthy-weight/start-the-nhs-weight-loss-plan/
[2] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/618167/government_dietary_recommendations.pdf
[3] https://health.usnews.com/health-news/health-wellness/articles/2015/12/11/how-much-protein-do-you-really-need
[4] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-42705852

Headshot of James Hudson

Performance Nutritionist at Nutrition in Sport

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