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Meal planning may not seem as important as designing the perfect training program. But whereas you only need one program for the year (if written correctly) your meal plan has to be re-written every week.
Another difference is that whilst a training program is catering for the individual, for most people a meal plan has to cater for everyone who shares a dinner table with you.
Too many gym goers have let themselves down when it comes to the nutrition side of bodybuilding, believing that working hard enough can make up for any diet short falls. Whilst this can be the case, having a poor diet will prevent you from being the best you can be. It will also make things needlessly difficult.
This article is going to try and simplify the process of meal planning for you, so that you have no excuse to be eating badly.
Step One. Set Goals
What is it you want to achieve? Are you looking to lose body fat and get as lean as possible? Or do you need to pack on muscle?
Don't try and achieve both, it's unlikely (verging on impossible) to get the best of both worlds. Muscle needs a calorie surplus to grow, whilst you need to be in a calorie deficit to oxidise fat and become lean.
If you're undecided (because you feel that you need to lose fat but you also want to build muscle) then the best thing to do would be to start tracking calories and concentrate on regular training. Then after 3 months you can see what changes you've made.
Even the act of tracking calories (without lowering them) can lead to positive changes, as you end up with less binge eating/drinking.
Once you have a goal in mind you can progress to the next step.
Step Two. Work out your Calories and Macros
There are two ways to work out your calorie goals, there is the very simple way (your weight in lbs multiplied by 14 for maintenance) or a more accurate but also more complicated method. This method is known as the Mifflin MD St Jeor Formula .
You can use this formula to work out your Total Daily Energy Expenditure, which you can then use to gain/lose weight.
- Male: 10 x Body Weight (kg) + 6.25 x height (cm) – 5 x age (Y) + 5 = REE
- Female: 10 x Body weight (kg) + 6.25 x height (cm) – 5 x age (Y) -161 = REE
Once you have completed this equation you will have your Resting Energy Expenditure, this is the total amount of calories that you burn when completely sedentary. Now you need to decide just how active a lifestyle you lead.
- Sedentary (REE x 1.2)
- Light Activity (REE x 1.375)
- Moderate Activity (REE x 1.55)
- Very Active (REE x 1.725)
So if you lead a mostly sedentary lifestyle you only need to multiply the REE by 1.2 whereas if you lead a very active life you would multiply it by 1.725. This will give you an estimate of your total calories per day.
Consume this total every day and you will maintain your current weight.
As it is an estimate you should experiment with the total slightly depending on whether you find you are gaining weight or losing weight too quickly/slowly.
Step Three. Macro Ratios
As you are training for bodybuilding, you'll want macro ratios that are specific to the sport.
A 2013 study by Helms, Aragon, & Fitschen found that between 2.3-3.1g/kg of protein was optimal, between 15 and 30% of your calories should come from fat, and the rest should come from carbohydrates.
You can probably see that there is quite a lot of wiggle room here, 2.3g per kg and 3.1g per kg can lead to almost 100g difference in protein for some people. Whilst 15% and 30% fat are also very different.
Find out which works for you, and don't be afraid to experiment with different approaches.
Step Four. Have a few Banker Foods
One excellent trick for hitting your macro targets is to have foods which you are certain of, for example you could have a base-food such as Fat-Free Greek Yoghurt. You know that if you have 150g of it plain it will be 86 calories, with 6g carbs, 0g fat, and 15g of protein.
So if at the end of the day you need another 40g of protein you can have this with whey protein (25g protein) mixed in. Or if you need to add some carbs you can add 50g of rolled oats (30g carbs, 4g fat, and 6g protein). Or you can have it plain with some fruit.
In other words you have a meal that is very adaptable but with a base (the yoghurt) that doesn't change.
Foods like this are excellent for people who want to hit their macro targets every day as they give you some control.
Step Five. Buy the Best Equipment
You are going to need a big freezer (or two small ones), you are going to need a lot of tupperware, and you are going to need some big cooking pans.
Long term all of this equipment will help you to lower your weekly food bills, so think of this as an investment.
Step Six. Buy in Bulk
When you get into bodybuilding there's no way to avoid the fact that you are going to be eating a lot of the same meals, which means that you're going to need a lot of the same ingredients.
One way to keep costs down is to buy these ingredients in bulk when they are on offer, hence the need for a lot of freezing space.
Rice, pasta, meat, eggs, frozen veg, are all excellent examples of foods that you can buy in bulk to save you money in the future.
Step Seven. Cook in Bulk
Cooking in bulk is such a great idea when you're bodybuilding, because the time it takes to prepare 1 meals worth of chilli, and 10 meals worth of chilli is very similar.
Cooking in bulk also means that you can use a lot of the bulk ingredients you bought earlier.
Meals that work well are: Bolognaise, Chilli, Curry, Casseroles, Cooked meats that you can separate into many meals.
Step Seven. Roll with the Punches
A lot of the more successful bodybuilders follow a very unchangeable routine, they are creatures of habit. Same breakfast and lunch every day, with 4 or 5 meals in rotation for the evening.
This is a sensible decision to make, and will definitely help you hit your calorie and macro targets. However, life will always get in the way occasionally.
How you react to spontaneous meals out with friends, getting sick, or holidays such as Xmas is the true test of how well you're doing.
Be flexible, enjoy life, but try to maintain some discipline, you have a big goal and don't want to ruin your chances of accomplishing it.
 Mifflin, M., St Jeor, S., Hill, L., Scott, B., Daugherty, S., Koh, Y. 1990. A new predictive equation for resting energy expenditure in healthy individuals. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 51(2): 241-247
 Helms, E., Aragon, A., Fitschen, P. 2013. Evidence-based recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: nutrition and supplementation. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 11(20)