A guide to non-terrible meal planning


Weekly meal prepping is a great way to make sure you’re getting the right foods, but it also can be an ordeal—who wants to spend their entire Sunday making recipe spreadsheets, then shopping, then cooking and packing tupperware, only to end up with a fridge that looks like it belongs to an insane person?

Similarly, counting calories (and micronutrients, and macronutrients) all day every day works incredibly well for nearly every diet-related goal, but it’s also mind-numbingly boring and very easy to mess up unless you like keeping a small scale in your backpack.

Instead, here’s a simple system that I use that allows me to eat well without going crazy. It allows me to do meal planning, macronutrient math, and grocery shopping, with no prior planning in less than half an hour a week. That half hour doesn’t include actually cooking, which adds another hour or two throughout the week, but even with that included, this system can dramatically cut the amount of time I spend thinking about what I’m going to eat in a given week.

How I Shop

Like I said, this all happens in the grocery store. I do this once a week because I prefer fresh protein and vegetables, but you could easily do it once a month if you have a big freezer.

I almost never go to the grocery store with a real list, unless I’m planning a fancier meal because I’ll have company or I’m on a more restrictive or complicated diet plan (I do experiments from time-to-time). All I need is a sense of what’s in my kitchen and what I need to replenish to have a little over a week’s worth of food.

To manage that, I’ve had to figure out how to figure out the mental math on what a week of food looks like. It’s actually pretty simple: 150-200 grams of protein a day, or about 75-100 grams of protein per meal (I only eat breakfast if I work out in the morning, and it’s always a protein shake because I’m lazy; so two meals a day), and 2-3x that much by volume of vegetables, plus assorted fat sources and other tasty things.

I eat a lot of vegetables of every kind, almost no grains, and I get a majority of my protein from animal sources. I normally go for fairly lean but not the very leanest cuts of meat, but not always. Depending on how fatty the protein was and how starchy the vegetables are, I make up the balance of my daily calories with other fat sources, mostly eggs and nuts or nut butter.

With that knowledge, a week’s worth of food is pretty easy to determine: protein and vegetables for 14 meals, plus replenishing my always-on hand fat sources and preferred condiments and spices.

I normally buy some greek yogurt, some tinned seafood, eggs, some basic salad ingredients (red onion, spinach or baby kale, tomato, cucumber), and from there I go for what’s fresh and/or in-season, what’s on sale, what looks good, or what tickles my fancy.

I don’t like to actually do cooking cooking more than about two times a week, mostly just for time’s sake, and so I batch cook 2-3 servings of 1-2 different meals at once, plus have a few standard quick-prep or no-prep meals at the ready — eggs and/or tinned smoked oysters and/or smoked sardines on top of a simple salad, leftover meat from a different meal plus a bag of frozen vegetables, greek yogurt+protein powder+cocoa powder+peanut butter mixed together alongside fistful of spinach or bag of frozen broccoli.

Side note: I do at least ballpark calories most days. I spent years weighing and measuring things and have a good mental model of this stuff, so I rarely weigh and measure every meal, but I do get the scale out every once and a while just to make sure I’m still estimating correctly, or to evenly portion stuff when I’m batch cooking.

What I keep in my kitchen

On a day where I must grocery shop, my fridge has almost nothing in it —condiments, sparkling water, maybe a few beers.

On a more normal day where I should grocery shop, It’ll have some eggs, some greek yogurt, and maybe the ingredients for a salad or two.

The pantry will have a few different kinds of cooking fat (olive oil, ghee, coconut oil, grapeseed oil) lots of spices, a jar of peanut butter, a jar of a more exotic nut butter (cashew, almond), some tins of sardines or oysters, coffee, a few different types of protein powder, and a few smallish packages of rice, quinoa, or similar—I don’t buy these in large packages because I don’t go through them fast enough.

My freezer normally has 8-10 packages of frozen peas, green beans, and broccoli, plus sometimes some steaks or chops that I bought when they were on sale.

That’s really about it. Everything else I buy as part of my weekly stock-up, and there’s some logic behind that: I have to eat fresh food, and I have no real ability to snack, because there’s nothing to snack on. I can eat lunch or dinner early, I can prepare something quick like eggs, or I have to go to the corner bodega to buy something.

That is, if I want something that’s not part of my standard grocery shop, if I want some chips, or have a craving for ice cream, or whatever, that’s fine. I will guiltlessly have a treat. BUT, I have to want it enough to go to the inconvenience of leaving my house and purchasing it at corner store prices.

I end up doing this about twice a week. I’m not a robot. I try and buy small packages (single-serving chips, walking to a real ice cream place and getting a cone instead of getting a pint), and throw or give away any leftovers, for the same reason that I don’t have them in the house to begin with.

How you might shop

You don’t have to use my plan exactly (maybe you eat higher-carb than I do, maybe you eat breakfast, maybe you don’t like sardines, there are many ways to eat well), but should develop your own strategy based on the core ideas here.

You need to build a basic shopping list that:

  1. Categorically accounts for the amount and content of meals you cook at home on a given week in terms of servings of protein, servings of vegetables, servings of starch/grains, and enough fat to get adequate calories.
  2. Is entirely or almost entirely fresh, unprepared, whole foods (that is, buy ingredients, not meals or partially-prepared dishes).
  3. Includes a consistent core of must-buy and can-ideally-last-a-few-weeks items that can be combined to make “staple” low- or no-prep meals for busy or lazy days (mine are frozen vegetables, quick salad ingredients, eggs, tinned seafood, nuts and/or nut butter, and greek yogurt). These account for 4-6 of my 14 meals in a week, normally lunches.
  4. Includes no snack food or junk food at all.

And then you just create variations on that base based on what looks good, what’s fresh, what’s in season, and what’s on sale.

Sample shopping trips

When I went shopping on Sunday, I bought (again, this is for someone who exercises 4-5 times a week, weighs almost 200 pounds on purpose and only eats two large meals a day, so scale as appropriate, especially the proteins):

  • Two dozen eggs
  • Two tubs of greek yogurt
  • Four pounds of center-cut pork chops
  • Three pounds of boneless skinless chicken breasts
  • Four tins of smoked sardines packed in olive oil
  • A half pound of bacon
  • A 16oz bag of spinach
  • Two 16oz containers of on-the-vine tomatoes
  • One dry pint of blackberries (for salad)
  • Four avocados
  • A few limes
  • Four 10oz bags of frozen peas
  • Three pounds of brussels sprouts
  • A pound of fresh green beans
  • A couple of large red onions
  • A few bunches of cilantro
  • Two bunches of asparagus
  • Any spices I need more of
  • Olive oil (almost out)
  • 12 pack of sparking water (grapefruit, duh)

Which will become, roughly

  • Four servings of pork chops + mixed salad (spinach, avocado, tomato, cilantro, onion, blackberries, lime juice and zest, olive oil)
  • Four servings of chicken breast + brussels sprouts and asparagus roasted with bacon (offsetting the very lean chicken with the fatty bacon)
  • Three servings of greek yogurt/PB/cocoa powder combo plus salad or frozen vegetables or raw green beans
  • Three servings of six eggs (scrambled) plus one tin of sardines (not together) plus salad or frozen vegetables or raw green beans, for days where I had a protein shake with breakfast

For a total of 14 meals with some eggs and salad stuff left over.

I’ll probably eat out a couple of times during the week, so planning for 14 balances out to actually having a day or so of slack, which works out because I won’t necessarily go to the grocery store exactly one week after I went the previous time.

Another week might look like:

  • 18 eggs
  • Two tubs of greek yogurt
  • One large (~6lb) roasting chicken (birds are about ⅓ usable meat, so it works out to 4ish lbs of meat on it)
  • Two 1.5lb whole pork tenderloins
  • Four tins of smoked sardines packed in olive oil
  • An 8oz clamshell package of baby kale
  • A 8oz clamshell package of arugula
  • One 16oz container of on-the-vine tomatoes
  • Two english cucumbers
  • A big fennel
  • Some radishes
  • Four 10oz bags of frozen green beans
  • 1-2 pounds of broccoli
  • 1-2 pounds of cauliflower
  • 1-2 pounds of carrots
  • A pound of snap peas
  • A couple of large red onions
  • A few bunches of parsley
  • A jar of almond butter
  • Any spices I need more of

Which could become, roughly:

  • Four servings of pork tenderloin + mixed salad (arugula, baby kale, tomato, cucumber, fennel, radish, parsley, onion, cider vinegar, olive oil)
  • Four roast quarter-chickens + cauliflower and carrots roasted under the drippings
  • Three servings of greek yogurt/PB/cocoa powder combo plus salad or frozen vegetables or raw snap peas
  • Three servings of six eggs (scrambled) plus one tin of sardines (not together, gross) plus salad or frozen vegetables or raw snap peas, for days where I had a protein shake with breakfast

For a total of 14 meals. I eventually get bored of the “staple” meals and rotate them in and out from a larger selection, but often not for a long while. Spices help with this.

And that’s all there is to it.