With all the nutritional resources we have today—diet books, Pinterest, Michael Pollan—you’d think that creating healthy, easy meal plans would be downright simple. Often, the overload of information can backfire, leaving you with more questions than when you started.
Start by getting back to basics. The best diet for you is the one you’ll actually stick with, says Lauren Simmons, R.D., C.S.C.S. That’s where simple, easy meal plans come in handy—like these six common approaches below. Check them out, determine which one fits with your lifestyle, and try it for yourself.
The Approach: “If It Fits Your Macros” (IIFYM)
Known by its trendy acronym and flexible approach to dieting, these easy meal plans establish a percentage of macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, and fats) that you need to eat every day. Learn these, and you can focus on fulfilling your protein quota instead of making a list of off-limits foods.
One note of caution: Dieters are free to choose the foods they want to eat, but the diet gets a bad rap since unhealthy treats could fall within the macro guidelines, Simmons says. If you’re interested in IIFYM, load up on lean meats, whole grains, and fruits and veggies rather than less nutritious foods, she says.
How to Get Started:
Once you establish how many calories you should be consuming, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommends allocating 45 to 65 percent of them to carbs, 10 to 35 percent to protein, and 20 to 35 percent to fats. But Simmons cautions that these ranges can fluctuate from person-to-person. For instance, endurance runners might need to up their carb intake to fuel them through long runs, she says.
The Approach: Eyeball Portions
When it comes to healthy foods, sometimes you can have too much a good thing. To avoid overloading your plate—and calorie intake—at meals, it can help to learn proper portion sizes. But since eyeballing isn’t an exact science, even small inaccuracies could slow down your weight-loss progress, Simmons says. Weighing food on a scale will always be more accurate, though, good luck bringing it to your next family barbecue.
How to Get Started: Use visual connections between portion sizes and common household items, Simmons suggests. Your 3-ounce serving of protein should be about the size of a deck of cards, fruit should be the size of a baseball, and a serving of peanut butter should be the size of a golf ball. Sound too confusing? Try our 21 Day Fix. It helps you master portion control with seven color-coded containers designated for certain food groups, such as green for veggies and red for protein. Basically, if it fits in the container, it’s fair game to eat.
The Approach: Regiment Your Diets
“We’re creatures of habit,” says Simmons, “so it’s natural for us to like regimented diets.” But this only works if we’re eating regular healthy meals—i.e. not fried chicken and French fries. The idea here is that you eat the right amounts of lean protein and leafy greens on a regular basis, she says.
How to Get Started: Make a weekly food log, suggests the National Institutes of Health. This way, you can see what you eat on a daily basis and gain insight into why you’re eating certain foods. “The best way to get rid of an old habit is to replace it with a new one,” Simmons says. For example, if you start to notice that you visit the vending machine every day at 4:00 pm, you could try packing more nutritious snacks that help you bypass afternoon hunger pangs.
The Approach: Take a “Cheat Day”
According to the “cheat day” philosophy, you eat healthy most of the time. But rather than keeping mom’s blueberry pie off limits forever, you allow yourself to indulge on certain days—for example, once a week or on special occasions. “Being on a structured diet can sometimes make an individual feel deprived,” Simmons says. That’s one reason why cheat days are good for your sanity—and why Simmons calls them “mental health days”.
How to Get Started:
Schedule your cheat days in advance, Simmons says. Plus, it’s smart to ward off a binge by planning how much of a food you’ll eat, Simmons suggests.
The Approach: Intermittent Fasting (IF)
Intermittent fasting has gotten a lot of buzz in recent years. Devotees cycle between periods of regular eating and periods of fasting, which can last up to 24 hours. “It isn’t a diet, but rather a scheduled eating plan,” Simmons says. “The focus is on when to eat, not what to eat.”
How to Get Started: If you don’t think you can fast for a half a day or longer, try starting with alternate-day calorie restriction. This strategy allows dieters to consume low amounts of calories on one day, followed by normal amounts the next.
The Approach: Follow a Template
A little bit of planning can go a long way. The idea: You’ll be less tempted to order Chinese food if there’s a spaghetti squash casserole in the fridge. A study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine found that people who planned their meals ahead of time were more likely to lose weight than those who didn’t. The catch? You’ll need to schedule some prep time, and you may have to bring your own food to your friend’s pool party.
How to Get Started: Browse Pinterest for hundreds of downloadable templates, and get pumped up for #SundayMealPrep.