I’m often asked if I provide meal plans.

The answer is an emphatic, most definite “no.”

Personal trainers – even ones with nutrition specializations like me – are not qualified (or legally allowed) to create meal plans for clients.

But what I can assist you with is helping you create your own meal plan, which fits your actual lifestyle and helps you hit certain nutritional goals (like eating more protein or stabilizing calories more effectively).

With that in mind, several years ago I created my 28-Day Meal Prep Guide, which you can download here for free. This recipe book contains easy 5-ingredient meals, most of which make 4-8 servings so that healthy eating is more convenient.

Even if you don’t follow the recipes exactly (in fact, I hardly ever do!), they can be a launching point for inspiration.

In today’s blog post, I’m going to use recipes from the 28-Day Meal Prep Guide as an example, and I’m going to demonstrate how to make your own meal plan to help you achieve your goals.

Base Calories

For pretty much all women, I consider base calories to be somewhere between 1200 and 1400. This is the caloric level that, in my opinion, you absolutely should not drop below, and it’s too low for most women. If you have to cut calories lower than what is probably your BMR (basal metabolic rate) in order to lose weight, it begs the question, “is it worth it?” Sustainability and health are both issues here.

It’s smart to plan out your day so that your base needs are at least met. So let’s start with three meals:

  • Breakfast: we’re looking for about 400-500 cal
  • Lunch: 400-500 cal
  • Dinner: 400-500 cal

Let’s use three meals from the 28-Day Meal Prep Guide as an example:

  • Breakfast: Avocado Toast
  • Lunch: Thai Chicken Satay with Broccoli
  • Dinner: Burrito Bowl, add 1/4 cup rice cooked

With these three meals, we’re already off to a good start. We’re at about 1350 calories with 90 grams of protein.

Once you have some ideas for your base meals (breakfast, lunch, and dinner), you can practice using variables to add calories on any given day, based on your needs.

How to Add Protein

First of all, I always like my clients to consume at least 100 grams of protein per day. You can calculate your protein needs based on your estimated lean body mass (and I do this with my private clients), but the shortcut is to simply have a protein goal range that’s between 100 grams and your bodyweight in grams.

I like for protein to be a “high” macro regardless of the day, whether you work out or not, because it has so many other benefits, like appetite regulation. The research on protein is clear – active people need more protein.

In the example from before, we were at 90 grams of protein with the three meals. So a good goal would be to have 1-2 protein-rich snacks, like Greek/Skyr yogurt, or even a protein bar, to bring it up even higher.

So now we have:

  • Breakfast: Avocado Toast
  • Post-workout snack: Protein bar (let’s say Quest)
  • Lunch: Thai Chicken Satay with Broccoli
  • Afternoon snack: Siggi’s yogurt
  • Dinner: Burrito Bowl, add 1/4 cup rice cooked

Now, we’re at about 1650 calories and 130 grams of protein.

So what positives does this self-styled meal plan strike? Regular meals? Check. High-protein? Check. Enough calories to cover basal metabolic rate and then some? Check. Whole grains, vegetables, and beans? Check. Gut-friendly probiotics from the yogurt? Check. Enough fat to not feel deprived? Check.

But it’s not enough to cover all the needs you might have. Let’s talk about even more personalization.

How to Add or Subtract Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are a major variable in people’s diets, largely based on activity levels. Basically, the more you exercise and move, the more carbohydrates you need to feel good. Carbs are not the bad guys!

For women in particular, certain benchmarks of carbohydrates are needed in order to thrive. “Thriving,” in my book, means having healthy sex hormone levels (appropriate to stage of life), a libido, a period (again, stage-of-life specific), and the energy to exercise and perform well. That number varies from person to person, but it often comes down to about 1.13 grams of carbohydrates per pound per day (for light/short workouts or a rest day), all the way up to more than 3 grams of carbohydrates per pound per day (think running a marathon). Of course needs are individual, but these tend to be the broad ranges.

Simply put, most women who exercise about an hour a day can use a multiplier of about 1.6-1.8.

(Credit goes to Dr. Stacy Sims and her book Roar for these multipliers)

I often find women locked in a love-hate relationship with carbohydrates and exercise. Carbohydrates get slashed way too low, and then energy to exercise is also low (and often cravings are high). Then there’s a huge amount of compensation on weekends.

To short-circuit this negative cycle, I highly recommend getting your exercise lifestyle locked in first. Get more active. Start training harder and more regularly. This doesn’t mean you need to be knocking yourself out every day, but certainly 3-4 days per week of vigorous training can be a really, really good for most people. Walk a lot. Do something you enjoy.

Then, let your exercise lifestyle dictate your carbohydrate intake, instead of deciding how much weight you want to lose and then throwing both exercise and caloric restriction at your goal. Don’t put the cart before the horse, and don’t get chained to a low-carb diet.

Let’s go back to our example day…

  • Breakfast: Avocado Toast
  • Post-workout snack: Protein bar (let’s say Quest)
  • Lunch: Thai Chicken Satay with Broccoli
  • Afternoon snack: Siggi’s yogurt
  • Dinner: Burrito Bowl, add 1/4 cup rice cooked

Now, we’re at about 1650 calories and 130 grams of protein, but also 130 grams of carbohydrates. In other words, not enough carbohydrates for a really active woman! But make enough carbohydrates for someone who’s on the more sedentary side. But you can easily add carbohydrates (especially around workouts), by doing things like having an extra slice of toast, eating fruit with your morning snack, putting cereal on your yogurt, having double beans with dinner, and/or having a grain with your lunch. So let’s revisit the example day, but with more carbohydrates:

  • Breakfast: Avocado Toast
  • Post-workout snack: Protein bar (let’s say Quest) with an apple
  • Lunch: Thai Chicken Satay with Broccoli, add 1/4 cup rice cooked
  • Afternoon snack: Siggi’s yogurt, add 1/2 cup simple cereal (like crisp rice)
  • Dinner: Burrito Bowl, add 1/4 cup rice cooked, add 1/2 cup cooked beans

Now we’re at about 2000 calories, 140 grams of protein, and 220 grams of carbohydrates.

But if someone has a fat loss goal, are those calories low enough to support fat loss? Possibly. Also, maybe not. Let’s talk about that.

How to Create a Sensible Deficit

Now we have a lot of building blocks!

When it comes to building a sensible meal plan structure for fat loss, in my book, it’s all about the minimums.

  • Protein: minimum 100 grams, preferably closer to bodyweight in grams
  • Carbohydrates: minimum 1.13 times bodyweight in grams, probably needs to be higher on exercise days
  • Fat: minimum 0.45 times bodyweight in grams (can be lower, but not a long-term strategy)

Then, you have to take this math into account (this is the hard part):

  • 1 gram of protein equals 4 calories
  • 1 gram of carbohydrate equals 4 calories (don’t worry about fiber and net carbs here)
  • 1 gram of fat equals 9 calories

So how does this relate back to the meal plan?

It’s all about knowing what is going on during any particular day, and making wise adjustments to help you stick within your ranges. This isn’t about rigidly adhering to a meal plan that doesn’t fit your lifestyle. It’s about experimenting, being curious, and making edits based on what works best for you.

So let’s go back to that initial meal plan and tinker!

  • Breakfast: Avocado Toast
  • Post-workout snack: Protein bar (let’s say Quest) with an apple
  • Lunch: Thai Chicken Satay with Broccoli, add 1/4 cup rice cooked
  • Afternoon snack: Siggi’s yogurt, add 1/2 cup simple cereal (like crisp rice)
  • Dinner: Burrito Bowl, add 1/4 cup rice cooked, add 1/2 extra cup cooked beans

This was the 2000-calorie day.

So what are some things someone could try?

Here are some suggestions for more personalization.

Keep carbohydrates high around workouts, but reduce them at other times.

For example, maybe you keep your carbohydrates lower overall (by keeping them at or above the 1.13 “rest day” multiplier), but clustering 60-100 grams of carbohydrates around your vigorous workouts. So for a morning workout, maybe you keep the toast at breakfast and the apple with the protein bar, and maybe even the rice at lunch, but maybe you don’t add the extra rice and beans at dinner, or the cereal to your yogurt.

Reduce fat slightly.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans allows for an absolute minimum of 0.23 grams per pound of bodyweight as part of a weight loss plan (this limit helps to prevent a deficiency in essential fatty acids). Please note that I’m not saying to plunge down to this level. What I’m saying is that there is some flexibility between the 0.23 and the 0.45 multiplier.

(The Dietary Guidelines for Americans use kilograms in their equation)

The nice thing is that reducing fat slightly allows for more flexibility with carbohydrates (in terms of staying within a calorie budget) when you create your own meal plan. So maybe you could skip the feta with breakfast and reduce the cheese you use with the Burrito Bowl at dinner. That could help bring calories lower, especially on days when carbohydrates might need to be higher for hard, long workouts.

Pay attention to hungry times and cravings.

When you’re losing weight, it is absolutely normal to feel hungrier. However, there’s hungry, and then there’s hungry. If you feel like you’re going to lose your mind and this only happens at specific times of day, adjust what you’re doing to insert a snack into that time slot.

Similarly, if you notice that you have strong food cravings at certain times of day, do the same thing – see if you can wiggle things around to put a snack in that space.

This often happens for people in the late afternoon and late evening.

For some people, it’s helpful to keep meals at 400 instead of 500 calories, for example, so that they have the calorie budget to have 3 snacks a day. Typically, you can wiggle things around to make it work.

Again, if you can’t wiggle things around because you’re in the red zone for calories and every macronutrient (i.e., it would cause your meals to be 200 calories to free up room for snacks), it would cause me to question if you’re on the right track with your weight loss goals.

Meal prep flexible choices that are “modular” and can be adjusted based on what you need.

In other words, don’t combine all the ingredients into one bowl. Keep the carbs, fat, and protein separate so that you can create an ideal meal on the fly.

Some people don’t like cooking like this – I just spoke with a client the other day who prefers one-pot meals. That’s okay! You may just need to cook one-pot meals that pair up with something like toast or a wrap, so that you can leave out the toast if needed. Just one example.

Be observant about your lifestyle and needs.

Finally, this is perhaps the most important part of designing a meal plan for yourself.

Ask yourself questions like these:

  • How many days a week do I plan to follow this structure?
  • How many times a week do I eat out?
  • How many times a week do I drink alcohol? (and how much?)
  • Do I have any special health needs, like addressing high cholesterol or high blood sugar?
  • What are the obstacles that most often get in the way of sticking to plans like these?

This is incredibly individual. However, to circle back around to why I don’t give meal plans (beyond the fact that I’m not legally entitled to do so), one of the main reasons I wouldn’t even if I could is that people tend not to follow overly-rigid plans that don’t fit their lifestyle. You have to make it your own!

So if you are interested in using a guide like my 28-Day Meal Prep Guide, I would start by printing out one of the weekly meal planning sheets towards the end of the book, and actually writing down all your anticipated meals. Which meals are at work? Which meals are at restaurants? What days will throw you off the most?

And be gracious with yourself about your preferences. Don’t like to cook? Make sure some of your meals are literally just sandwiches or wraps with all pre-made/pre-chopped foods. Or get a meal delivery service for some of your meals, or buy frozen meals, or compose lunches out of convenience foods.

Not only will being practical will save you a lot of angst down the road – writing down your plans in advance will do something psychologically powerful for you. You will see restaurant meals as part of the plan, instead of as exceptions. When you re-frame it this way, you take the charge out of the “on-track/off-track” concept and see yourself as “on” all the time, which is a stronger mental base from which to make new habits.

The Ultimate Goal

What we want in the end is that someone can achieve and maintain a healthy body composition for them (this will vary from person to person), and adjust their meal structure to re-establish the importance of carbohydrates for workouts. It probably just means increasing carbohydrates slightly through snacks, rice or bread with meals, etc.

So once you’re done with a fat loss phase, you can readjust your meal plan to increase calories, especially from carbohydrates.

Final Notes

Keep in mind that these are not rules about how much someone should eat.

For yourself, use calculations as a starting point to determine that you are meeting your needs. And then, because I can’t say it enough in this blog post, tinker! Experiment. Edit. Try on behaviors. Be flexible. Check in with yourself and your results.

If you want to set up a consultation to let me do this math for you (because, admittedly, the math is not easy), get in touch. I can help you create your own meal plan.

Rachel Trotta

I am a Certified Personal Trainer, Fitness Nutrition Specialist, Physique and Bodybuilding Specialist, and Women's Fitness Specialist. I live in New Jersey in the NYC metro area, and I coach clients online all over the world. As a trainer and health writer, my mission is to make healthy living sustainable for the average person. I’m also a wife, mom, nature lover, runner, avid cook, weightlifting aficionado, history nerd, travel addict, and obsessive podcast listener. Get in touch!

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