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How to Stick to a Meal Plan that Works

Eat less, move more.

Anyone who has been successful in achieving their body composition (or physique) goals will have followed this type of strategy. However, they would also be quick to point out that it’s not that simple.

If you’re serious about changing your body composition, it’s important to realize that you have to go beyond restricting food intake and exercising frequently. While both are helpful for transforming body composition, making a plan that is way too broad and lacking in actionable elements will make it more difficult to achieve sustainable outcomes. Sure, you might get the results you’re after, but they’re likely going to be temporary or much more difficult to reach.

To accomplish long-term success in improving body composition, it makes sense to take steps that are specific and actionable. If you want to eat less and change the way you eat, meal planning is a healthy habit that plays an important role in helping you achieve sustainable outcomes in your weight loss or body recomposition efforts.

In this article, we’ll take a look at how meal planning can play a crucial role in achieving your body composition goals. Plus, you’ll learn how to stick to a meal plan for the long haul. After all, it all boils down to consistency.

Why Meal Planning Can Be Beneficial In Changing Your Body Composition

When people think about fat loss or leaning out, diet and exercise are both important. Yet if you have to choose one over the other, study after study has shown that being mindful of your diet— both in quality and quantity— outweighs exercise when it comes to achieving or even maintaining body composition changes.

For instance, a meta-analysis evaluating the effects of diet, exercise, or a combination of both revealed that although long-term success was greatest in the combined programs, diet-only interventions, as opposed to exercise-only interventions, achieved similar results in the short-term.  Another systematic review showed  that diet is moderately superior to exercise for creating changes in body composition.

In a nutshell, you can exercise like crazy, but if your poor eating habits haven’t changed or if your diet has zero consistency, you are only setting up yourself for failure.

Coming up with a workable meal planning system deserves the same (or even more) amount of time and attention that you devote to planning your exercise routine. The problem is many underestimate the effects of their eating habits on their overall results. Having the mindset of  “I’ll burn these three pizza slices off at the gym tomorrow” is way too common. What if you can do better by not eating pizza in the first place and planning ahead for your meals?

The point is not to disregard exercise altogether (as it has other body composition and health benefits), but to take meal planning seriously, too. 

Finally, it’s also worth noting that meal planners tend to be healthier. When you plan for your meals, you are more likely to prep and cook them yourself. In a 2014 study on home cooking frequency and diet quality,  the researchers concluded that people who frequently cooked their meals at home eat healthier and consume fewer calories than those who cook less, regardless of whether they are trying to lose weight.

Now that we’ve talked about some of the benefits of meal planning, let’s take a look at creating a meal plan that’s right for you.

How to Stick to Your Meal Plan For the Long Haul

Of course, meal plans will vary from one individual to another.

First, people have different body composition goals. Second, some folks will have a different approach as you in managing their health goals.  For instance, you might want to go low-carb and choose the ketogenic route, but not everyone can do this diet. Some folks are comfortable planning a week in advance and freezing neatly-labeled plastic containers every Sunday night. Others wing it every two or three days by shopping for produce in the middle of the week beside their weekend market trips.

Regardless of goals and dietary or fitness preferences in improving body composition, a workable meal plan should be in order. The ultimate goal is to avoid feeling frazzled the next time you have to think about your next meal and having to resort to a goal-busting junk meal (here’s looking at you, whole pizza).

To help you steer clear from unhealthy food choices and achieve body composition goals, let’s get the ball rolling with these actionable, real-world tips in creating and sticking to a meal plan for the long haul.

1. IDENTIFY WHAT DRIVES YOU TO STICK TO A MEAL PLAN BESIDES IMPROVING YOUR BODY COMPOSITION.

It’s easy to give up prematurely on your meal plans if you’re not seeing any progress. Cutting a few pounds of fat doesn’t happen overnight and progress may not be noticeable early on.

Besides positive changes in your body composition, in order to keep motivation high, you need to identify other tangible reasons behind your goal. How about saving extra dollars from your weekly food budget? Or not having to think about what to make (or buy) for dinner that night?? These are just examples of reasons that can motivate you in an instant when signs of body composition progress are not yet evident.

2. HAVE A WELL-STOCKED PANTRY.

Sticking to a meal plan for the long haul can be made effortless with a well-stocked pantry.

Running out of lemon to whip out a quick dressing? Got no spices to boost flavors? All of these will likely lead to frustration. The more frustrated you become, the more likely you will give up planning for your meals.

In addition, stocking up on staples such as eggs, bacon, butter, leafy greens, and a can of black beans means you can quickly whip up a simple well-balanced meal when you’re short on time.

3. PICK A DAY TO COOK UP A BATCH OR PREP CERTAIN MEAL COMPONENTS.

For many meal planners, the weekend is when the action happens. Mornings are for grocery shopping while afternoons are dedicated to prepping and/or batch cooking.

When it comes to batch cooking, you can prep and batch cook some components.  For example, your roasted chicken on Sunday will go well with sandwiches on Monday and pasta on Tuesday. As you cook up batches (or double batches if you like), the freezer will be your new best friend. There’s no use calling it a meal plan if you have to start from scratch every night.

4. BE REALISTIC AND MAKE ROOM FOR WILDCARD DAYS.

There are seven days in a week but you don’t have to come up with a seven-day weekly meal plan. Nor should you  shop for ingredients for 21 meals. There might be days or certain meals that you can skip. Perhaps you’re supposed to go out with coworkers for lunch on Wednesdays. How about that Friday date night with your partner?

Before you plan and prep for a week’s worth of meals, double-check your social calendar. If nothing’s set in stone, give yourself some slack (say one or two lunches or dinners in a week) just in case something comes up at the last minute. If you’re into batch cooking, you can even schedule days for leftovers for that little extra bit of flexibility.

5. EMBRACE MEAL FORMULAS RATHER THAN RECIPES.

Recipes are undoubtedly rad. However, finding new recipes every time you have to make a meal plan can wear you out and eventually turn you into a non-believer of meal plans.

Starch+protein+fat+vegetables is a good example of a meal plan formula (Feel free to cross out a component depending on your dietary needs and preferences, but remember not to cut out those fats). By embracing meal formulas instead of sticking stubbornly to pre-made recipes, you don’t have to scroll through Pinterest for hours if you’re feeling uninspired when creating a meal plan.

Once you’ve figured out the number of meals you’re prepping for, coming up with meals will be effortless. It also makes for smooth-sailing ingredient shopping because you’re shopping by food group and not by food item.

6. REASSESS AND TWEAK YOUR MEAL PLAN AS NEEDED.

It’s common for nutritional needs or dietary preferences to change. Also, your local grocery might run out of your favorite ingredients as some produce are highly seasonal. That said, your meal planning system should be a dynamic process. Stop feeling disappointed if not everything is going as planned. Refocus instead by making changes as needed.

7. STOP OBSESSING ABOUT THE PERFECT MEAL PLAN SYSTEM.

There’s no such thing as the perfect method in creating meal plans. Some prefer the old-fashioned way with their trusty Moleskine journal while others swear by their favorite meal plan app. Meanwhile, there are individuals who enjoy DIY meal plans, but there are also folks who would rather have someone else do it for them. 

Spending too much time jumping from one system to another and going back to square one every single week will only stall your body recomposition progress. Before you get burned out with your constant shuffle between meal planning systems, pick one and stick to it for a least a month or two and tweak as you go.

Wrap Up

If you find yourself stuck in your eat less, move more philosophy but don’t see the results you want, sticking to a sustainable meal plan may be what’s missing. Apart from helping you accomplish your body composition goals more quickly, it can help you tackle other priorities in your life by not having to constantly worry about what to eat.

At the end of the day, there’s nothing worse than coming home late from work and ordering pizza for the fourth time in a week. You know you should be eating something more nutrient-dense, but you console yourself by saying that you didn’t have a choice. The truth is you do have a choice if you intentionally take time to create a meal plan that truly works for you. Once you make this change - who knows? - you just might be pleasantly surprised the next time you check your body composition progress.

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