I have a confession to make.
It’s a biggie. It’s gonna be tough to get this bad boy off my chest.
I’m a meal planner.
A serious, serious meal planner.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not a “large carry-all full of broccoli and chicken for my 8-meals-per-day perfectly timed protein-synthesizing perfect body building diet” kinda meal planner. I eat twice per day. Lunch and dinner. Well, actually, I guess it’s more like lunch, dinner, and “extras” – whatever hits my macros for the day.
But I always know what I’m going to eat the next day. And each day of the week, really.
On Saturdays, my wife and I wake up and create a grocery list.
First, we will get the requirements for our lunches and put them on the list. We both have a specific lunch we prefer on training days and on rest days. We rotate our lunches back and forth – training, rest, training, rest, etc.
After we hit up Kroger, we bake our chicken and prep our lunches every Sunday so they don’t have to be made the night before.
On the weekends, we usually eat some bacon and eggs for lunch. So, we put it on the list and replenish that supply as well.
Told ya. Mine with seasoning, wife’s plain.
After the lunch plans have been settled, we decide what’s for dinner each evening and post it in our kitchen. We then put the necessary items on our list.
I wasn’t lying. Are we crazy? Not sure sometimes.
So, with this rigid structure in our lives and in our diet, we literally always know what we are going to be eating. For lunch and for dinner. Every day.
It just so happens that with our current lifestyle and social status (married with young children – 4 and 2; current bedtime: 9:30), having this sort of a methodical, planned out eating schedule works very well.
We both lift. Mostly RPT-style. Minimalist. Basically………we’re busy people.
My wife’s an engineer and team leader who mainly works on Ford products.
I’m an Algebra teacher and an online consultant with well over a hundred clients currently.
We have two young children and very busy lives.
So, what does this rather unorthodox eating style afford us?
Does it guarantee expedited results in the gym? Of course it does. Diet trumps activity nearly every time.
Does it maximize our time expenditure? Surely. A few hours on the weekend saves us boatloads of headache during the week. If I had to make my lunch every night, it just wouldn’t happen. And if I didn’t know what was on the menu for dinner (or if we had the items in our fridge AT ALL), the pizza guy would be called on the regs.
Is it a money saver? Yep. On a day by day basis, our 4 family members get fed for about $9 per person per day. Which ain’t bad. (And that’s on almost exclusively whole foods for those who say eating healthy is “too expensive”.)
But are those the biggest advantages of meal prepping religiously? Results, time, and money?
Nope. Not even close.
The true advantage of meal planning is the reduction in mental resources it affords you. Especially while dieting.
When dieting, you’re going to need to have some willpower. And willpower, as you may or may not know, is a finite resource.
When we are faced with numerous options, every decision we make taps into this resource. Our willpower decreases *just* a little bit with each choice we make throughout the day.
If you don’t meal plan?
You wake up in the morning and walk downstairs and open your pantry.
Cereal? Granola bar? Protein shake? Smoothie? Eggs? Oreos? (Drain, drain, drain……..)
You get in the car and drive to work. And you head to the break room. And there’s a table full of bagels.
Plain? Everything? Blueberry? Cream cheese? Butter? OJ to wash it down? (Drain, drain, drain………)
It’s lunchtime – and without a plan, you’re looking at getting carryout.
Subway? Chipotle? TGIFriday’s? Potbelly? Thai? (Drain, drain, drain…………)
You choose Friday’s. You look at the menu.
Steak? Chicken? Salad? Soup? Burger? Club sandwich? (Drain, drain, drain…………..)
Work is over. You get home. Time for a snack.
Almonds? Fruit? Veggies? Chips? Skip it? (Drain, drain, drain………………)
Dinner time. You open up the fridge. Since you don’t have a plan, you’re not sure what’s on the menu. Hmmmmmmmmm…….
Do we have any food? What should you do? Call the pizza guy? Chinese? Sushi? (Drain, drain, drain……..)
And guess what? After all of those choices, all of those decisions, all of those constant, annoying options you have over the course of the day……………if you’re trying to make health conscious decisions…………once you get done with that dinner, and the pint of Ben and Jerry’s is calling you…….do you think you’ll have enough willpower left to say no?
Consider a study (which has been popularized by Dan and Chip Heath in their excellent book Switch) involving college students.
Researchers had a large group of college students enter a room.
In the middle of the room was a table, and on that table sat two bowls.
In the other bowl was a large pile of………….radishes.
Half of the students were told to eat as many cookies as they wished……………but zero radishes.
The other half were told to eat as many radishes as they wished…………….but zero cookies.
And then the researchers (cruelly) left the room – to see how the groups fared.
The good news? Everyone showed self control and willpower. The radish group ate no cookies. And of course, the cookie group ate no radishes.
But the point of this study wasn’t to see if grown adults could have enough willpower to withstand the delightful scents of fresh baked cookies. It was to test the students’ willpower afterwards.
As soon as the participants were done with their “snack”, they were given a test. An extremely complicated, geometrical logic test – which was specifically designed to be impossible to correctly complete.
The reason for the test? They were guaranteed to fail. So why give it to them?
To see which group would make the better effort, show more self-control, and exercise more willpower. Especially after what they had been exposed to just minutes prior.
The group who ate the cookies? And merely had to “resist” the radishes?
On average, they gave 34 attempts at a correct answer – they worked on the problem for an average of 19 minutes apiece.
The group who ate the radishes? And had to resist those delicious cookies?
On average, they gave 19 attempts at a correct answer – they worked on the problem for an average of 8 minutes apiece.
The group who ate the cookies worked on the problem for over twice as long – and made nearly twice as many attempts as the group who had to resist the cookies (and eat those nasty radishes).
The group who had to resist the cookies ran out of self-control.
Sure, they were able to resist the cookies. But afterwards? After they were forced to stare at and smell the cookies for an extended period of time, they were unable to put forth a decent effort at the test. They gave up. Quickly and easily.
On average, they only had HALF of the willpower of their cookie-eating counterparts.
And how does this apply to us?
If we have to make decision after decision after decision regarding our diet…………….we are tapping that willpower, baby.
And the act of meal planning? Meal planning helps you to take the power back.
I don’t give one, single thought to a thing I’m going to eat during the work week. Which doesn’t mean I eat crappy food. On the contrary. I eat foods that I love (and that fit my macros, of course).
But if I needed to wake up and decide, decide, decide……….well……...that wouldn’t work.
So, I meal plan. And I make no decisions on my food during the week. All of my decisions for the following week are already made by the time Saturday afternoon rolls around.
And during the week – when my food is done for the day? I have this nice, large supply of willpower to help me resist the Rice Krispie Treats that my daughters demand I keep in stock.
When you’re trying to lose fat, you’re already having to deal with hunger. And perhaps irritability.
And having to deal with the constant decisions which come from having an unstructured meal plan?
I’d be out of willpower by the time dinner was over. And I’d be reaching for the bag of chips after dinner. I’m sure of it.
Ruffles. Cheddar and Sour Cream, of course.
No questions asked.
Like anyone can resist Ruffles on an empty supply of willpower…………..
Can meal planning be annoying? Sure.
Can it be tough at first? Of course.
But does it get easier? Yep.
And once you practice it enough, will it become a habit? Totally.
And once good habits are a daily presence in your life………….you win. Forever.
So, if you’re struggling, give it a shot.
It’s not the “healthy meals” you’re after – it’s the psychological freedom that the absence of choice and active thought provides.
Save that willpower for when you need it the most.
Yours in true health,