How to Meal Plan for Weight Loss — A Detailed Guide
Meal planning can be a helpful tool if you’re trying to lose weight.
When done right, it can help you create the calorie deficit required for weight loss while providing your body the nutritious foods it needs to function and remain healthy.
Planning your meals ahead can also simplify the meal prep process and save you time.
This article explores the most important aspects of meal planning for weight loss, including a few easy recipes and extra tips to help you reach your goals.
How to meal plan for weight loss
When it comes to weight loss meal plans, the magnitude of options can be overwhelming. Here are a few things to keep in mind when you search for the most suitable plan.
Creating a calorie deficit in a nutrient-dense way
All weight loss plans have one thing in common — they get you to eat fewer calories than you burn (1Trusted Source, 2Trusted Source, 3Trusted Source, 4Trusted Source, 5Trusted Source).
However, though a calorie deficit will help you lose weight regardless of how it’s created, what you eat is just as important as how much you eat. That’s because the food choices you make are instrumental in helping you meet your nutrient needs.
A good weight loss meal plan should follow some universal criteria:
Includes plenty of protein and fiber. Protein- and fiber-rich foods help keep you fuller for longer, reducing cravings and helping you feel satisfied with smaller portions (6Trusted Source, 7Trusted Source, 8Trusted Source).
Limits processed foods and added sugar. Rich in calories yet low in nutrients, these foods fail to stimulate fullness centers in your brain and make it difficult to lose weight or meet your nutrient needs (9Trusted Source, 10Trusted Source).
Includes a variety of fruits and vegetables. Both are rich in water and fiber, contributing to feelings of fullness. These nutrient-rich foods also make it easier to meet your daily nutrient requirements.
Building nutrient-dense meals
To incorporate these tips into your weight loss meal plan, start by filling one-third to one-half of your plate with non-starchy vegetables. These are low in calories and provide water, fiber, and many of the vitamins and minerals you need.
Then, fill one-quarter to one-third of your plate with protein-rich foods, such as meat, fish, tofu, seitan, or legumes, and the remainder with whole grains, fruit, or starchy vegetables. These add protein, vitamins, minerals, and more fiber.
You can boost the flavor of your meal with a dash of healthy fats from foods like avocados, olives, nuts, and seeds.
Some people may benefit from having a snack to tide their hunger over between meals. Protein- and fiber-rich snacks seem the most effective for weight loss (11Trusted Source, 12Trusted Source).
Good examples include apple slices with peanut butter, vegetables and hummus, roasted chickpeas, or Greek yogurt with fruit and nuts.
A successful weight loss meal plan should create a calorie deficit while meeting your nutrient needs.
Helpful tips to make meal planning work for you
An important aspect of a successful weight loss meal plan is its ability to help you keep the lost weight off.
Here are some tips to help increase your meal plan’s long-term sustainability.
Pick a meal planning method that fits your routine
There are various ways to meal plan, so be sure to pick the method that best fits your routine.
You may decide to batch cook all of your meals over the weekend, so you can easily grab individual portions throughout the week. Alternatively, you may prefer to cook daily, in which case, opting to prep all of your ingredients ahead of time might work best for you.
If you don’t like following recipes or prefer a little more flexibility, you may opt for a method that requires you to fill your refrigerator and pantry with specific portions of foods each week while allowing you to improvise when putting them together for meals.
Batch-shopping for groceries is another great strategy that helps save time while keeping your refrigerator and pantry filled with nutrient-dense foods.
Consider trying an app
Apps can be a helpful tool in your meal planning arsenal.
Some apps offer meal plan templates that you can alter based on your food preferences or allergies. They can also be a handy way to keep track of your favorite recipes and save all of your data in one place.
What’s more, many apps provide customized grocery lists based on your selected recipes or what’s left over in your fridge, helping you save time and reduce food waste.
Pick enough recipes
Picking an adequate number of recipes ensures that you have enough variety without requiring you to spend all of your free time in the kitchen.
When selecting how many meals to make, look at your calendar to determine the number of times you’re likely to eat out — whether for a date, client dinner, or brunch with friends.
Divide the remaining number of breakfasts, lunches, and dinners by the number of meals that you can realistically cook or prepare for that week. This helps you determine the portions of each meal you’ll need to prep.
Then, simply sift through your cookbooks or online food blogs to pick your recipes.
Allowing yourself to get overly hungry between meals may push you to overeat at your next meal, making it more difficult to reach your weight loss goals.
Snacks can help lower hunger, promote feelings of fullness, and reduce the overall number of calories you eat per day.
Protein- and fiber-rich combinations, such as nuts, roasted chickpeas, or veggies and hummus, appear best suited to promote weight loss (13Trusted Source, 14Trusted Source, 15Trusted Source).
However, keep in mind that some people tend to gain weight when adding snacks to their menu. So make sure you monitor your results when applying this strategy (11Trusted Source, 12Trusted Source).
Eating a variety of foods is instrumental in providing your body with the nutrients it needs.
That’s why it’s best to avoid meal plans that suggest batch cooking 1–2 recipes for the whole week. This lack of variety can make it difficult to meet your daily nutrient needs and lead to boredom over time, reducing your meal plan’s sustainability.
Instead, ensure that your menu includes a variety of foods each day.
Speed up your meal prep time
Meal prepping doesn't have to mean long hours in the kitchen. Here are a few ways to speed up your meal prep time.
Stick to a routine. Picking specific times to plan the week’s meals, grocery shop, and cook can simplify your decision-making process and make your meal prepping process more efficient.
Grocery shop with a list. Detailed grocery lists can reduce your shopping time. Try organizing your list by supermarket departments to prevent doubling back to a previously visited section.
Pick compatible recipes. When batch cooking, select recipes that use different appliances. For instance, one recipe may require the oven, no more than two burners on the stovetop, and no heating at all.
Schedule your cook times. Organize your workflow by starting with the recipe requiring the longest cooking time, then focus on the rest. Electric pressure cookers or slow cookers can further reduce cooking times.
Inexperienced cooks or those simply wanting to reduce the time spent in the kitchen may want to pick recipes that can be prepared in 15–20 minutes from start to finish.
Store and reheat your meals safely
Storing and reheating your meals safely can help preserve their flavor and minimize your risk of food poisoning.
Here are some government-approved food safety guidelines to keep in mind (16, 17):
Cook food thoroughly. Most meats should reach an internal temperature of at least 165°F (75°C) while cooking, as this kills most bacteria.
Thaw food in the refrigerator. Thawing frozen foods or meals on your countertop can encourage bacteria to multiply. If you’re short on time, submerge foods in cold water, changing the water every 30 minutes.
Reheat food safely. Make sure to reheat your meals to at least 165°F (75°C) before eating. Frozen meals should be eaten within 24 hours of defrosting.
Dispose of old food. Refrigerated meals should be eaten within 3–4 days of being made, and frozen meals should be consumed within 3–6 months.
Picking a meal-planning method that works for you, along with an adequate number and variety of meals and snacks that can be cooked or reheated quickly and safely, increases your likelihood of sustainable weight loss.
Easy recipe ideas
Weight loss recipes don’t have to be overly complicated. Here are a few easy-to-prepare ideas that require a minimal number of ingredients.
Soups. Soups can be batch-cooked and frozen in individual portions. Be sure to include a lot of vegetables, as well as meat, seafood, beans, peas, or lentils. Add brown rice, quinoa, or potatoes if desired.
Homemade pizza. Start your pizza with a veggie- or whole-grain based crust, thin layer of sauce, source of protein, such as tempeh or turkey breast, and veggies. Top with a little cheese and fresh leafy greens.
Salads. Salads are quick and versatile. Start with leafy greens, a few colorful vegetables, and a source of protein. Top with olive oil and vinegar and add nuts, seeds, whole grains, or starchy vegetables.
Pasta. Start with a whole-grain pasta of your choice and source of protein, such as chicken, fish, or tofu. Then mix in a tomato-based pasta sauce or pesto and some vegetables like broccoli or spinach.
Slow cooker or electric pressure cooker recipes. These are great for making chili, enchiladas, spaghetti sauce, and stew. Simply place your ingredients in your device, start it, and let it do all the work for you.
Grain bowls. Batch cook grains like quinoa or brown rice then top with your choice of protein, such as chicken or hard-boiled eggs, non-starchy veggies, and a healthy dressing of your liking.
The recipe ideas above are simple and require very little time to make. They can also be prepared in a variety of ways, making them incredibly versatile.
This sample menu includes a variety of nutrient-, fiber-, and protein-rich meals to help you reach your weight loss goals.
Portions should be adjusted to your individual needs. Snack examples are included in this plan but remain completely optional.
Breakfast: overnight oats made with rolled oats, chia seeds, and milk, topped with fresh berries and pumpkin seeds
Lunch: premade egg-and-veggie muffins with a fresh basil-and-tomato salad and some avocado
Snack: mango-spinach smoothie
Dinner: homemade cauliflower-crust pizza topped with pesto, mushrooms, peppers, a handful of spinach, and marinated chicken or tempeh
Breakfast: breakfast smoothie made with kale, frozen cherries, banana, protein powder, flax seeds, and milk
Lunch: mixed green salad with cucumber, bell pepper, tomato, corn, sweet potato, olives, and grilled salmon or roasted chickpeas
Snack: sliced apple with peanut butter
Dinner: red lentil dahl served on a bed of baby spinach and brown rice
Breakfast: Spanish omelet made with eggs, potatoes, onions, and peppers, served with a side of salsa
Lunch: leftover red lentil dahl and fresh spinach over brown rice
Snack: homemade trail mix using your favorite unsalted, unroasted nuts and unsweetened dried fruit
Dinner: chicken or tofu meatballs in a marinara sauce served with spaghetti squash on a bed of mixed baby greens and topped with Parmesan cheese or nutritional yeast
Breakfast: yogurt topped with fresh fruit and chopped walnuts
Lunch: kale salad topped with a poached egg or marinated seitan, as well as dried cranberries, cherry tomatoes, whole-grain pita chips, and an avocado-mango dressing
Snack: carrots, radishes, and cherry tomatoes dipped in hummus
Dinner: beef or black-bean burger topped with lettuce, tomato, roasted peppers, caramelized onions, and pickles, served on a small whole-wheat bun and peppers and onions on the side
Breakfast: breakfast salad made with spinach, homemade granola, walnuts, blueberries, coconut flakes, and a raspberry vinaigrette, as well as 1–2 hard-boiled eggs for extra protein if you like
Lunch: homemade veggie spring rolls, dipped in peanut butter sauce and served with a side of raw veggies
Snack: whole-wheat crackers with cheese or a spicy mashed black bean spread
Dinner: chili served on a bed of greens and wild rice
Breakfast: pumpkin pancakes topped with Greek or plant-based yogurt, chopped nuts, and fresh strawberries
Lunch: leftover chili served on a bed of greens and wild rice
Snack: nut-and-dried-fruit trail mix
Dinner: shrimp or bean fajitas with grilled onions, bell peppers, and guacamole, served on a corn tortilla
Breakfast: overnight oats topped with chopped pecans, mango, and coconut flakes
Lunch: tuna or chickpea salad, served atop mixed greens with sliced avocado, sliced apple, and walnuts
Snack: yogurt with fruit
Dinner: grilled salmon or tempeh, potatoes, and sautéed kale
Ideas for dietary restrictions
Generally speaking, meat, fish, eggs, and dairy can be replaced by plant-based alternatives, such as tofu, tempeh, seitan, beans, flax or chia seeds, as well as plant-based milk and yogurts.
Gluten-containing grains and flours can be substituted for quinoa, millet, oats, buckwheat, amaranth, teff, corn, and sorghum.
Carb-rich grains and starchy vegetables can be replaced by lower-carb alternatives.
For instance, try spiralized noodles or spaghetti squash instead of pasta, cauliflower rice instead of couscous or rice, lettuce leaves instead of taco shells, and seaweed or rice paper instead of tortilla wraps.
Just keep in mind that completely excluding a food group may require you to take supplements to meet your daily nutrient needs.
Weight loss meals should be nutrient-dense and rich in protein and fiber. This meal plan can be adapted for a variety of dietary restrictions but may require you to take supplements if completely excluding a food category.
The bottom line
A good weight loss meal plan creates a calorie deficit while providing all the nutrients you need.
Done right, it can be incredibly simple and save you a lot of time.
Picking a method that works for you can also reduce your likelihood of regaining weight.
All-in-all, meal planning is an incredibly useful weight loss strategy.
Written by Alina Petre, MS, RD (CA) on July 22, 2019