Weight loss is not about being skinny. The number on the scale is just that: a number. No more, no less. The meaning we associate with it can vary based on your own health, stature, medical condition, and health and fitness goals.
That said, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute says that maintaining a healthy weight can protect you from a host of ailments, add years to your life, and simply help you feel your best.
As much as exercise should be a part of anyone’s health and fitness plan, the real key to maintaining a healthy weight is that dreaded word: diet.
Don’t worry. This article is a safe space for weight loss. “Diet” does not mean starvation, deprivation, or restriction here. Instead, “diet” is a conscious choice to eat nutrition-rich foods that fuel your body and taste good.
Sounds pretty terrific, right?
Whether you are in a position to maintain or lose weight, making simple, easy, tasty food choices will get you most of the way there
While I will offer some specific suggestions for how to craft a nutritious diet that will help you meet your weight loss goals, here is the big picture:
- Eat less, move more.
- Start with protein.
- Don’t forget whole grains.
- Enjoy some fruit.
- Be conscious of using fats and oils. These can be good for you in many ways, but are a fast way to take in more calories than you may realize.
- Don’t drink your calories.
- Eat whole foods whenever possible. They are so full of flavor, you might be surprised by how little you need to do to prepare tasty, healthy meals.
- Your weight will not change overnight. A healthy eating plan is about taking the long view, one baby step at a time.
Keep in mind, I am not a nutritionist or a medical doctor. I am a private citizen who has gone on a particular food journey to make healthy choices for myself. I found what works for me, and I tweak it constantly. You will find what works for you.
When in doubt, check with your doctor before making any changes to your diet.
Rather than thinking in terms of specific meal plans, a good strategy is to think in terms of foods as building blocks for a healthy diet.
15 key concepts to help set you up for success
1. Don’t skip breakfast.
That breakfast is the most important meal of the day is no joke. If you get ahead of your hunger early in the day, you are less likely to want to binge eat later. Setting the tone early on jump-starts your metabolism and keeps your body working towards burning calories and using your nutrition effectively from the get go.
2. Make sure lunch is meaningful.
Lunch is a time when many people want to skimp on calories, but that sets you up to be too hungry for dinner, which can lead to overeating. Be sure to enjoy a healthy, balanced lunch.
3. Salads can be tricky.
Just because you’re eating a salad doesn’t mean you are eating a healthy, balanced, calorie-appropriate meal. Salad dressings and oils make those calories multiply fast, and a lot of add-ons, such as croutons, add calories without nutritional value. Salads can be nutrition-rich meal options, but beware of the empty calories that can derail your hard work.
4. Don’t let yourself get too hungry.
Let’s face it: none of us make good decisions when we’re hungry. It may sound counter-intuitive to eat as a way of losing weight, but when you eat the right things and don’t allow yourself to get overly hungry, you stay in control of your food choices. This alone might be the biggest key to staying on track with your diet.
5. Stick to whole foods as much as possible.
Always read the labels of your foods before buying them to ensure you recognize each ingredient. Better yet, don’t buy foods with labels. Whole foods (foods that are in their natural state with little to no processing) are the closest to nature and the most nutritionally rich.
6. Balance your meals with vegetables, lean meat, and whole grains.
With each meal, the basic plan is to eat one serving of lean meat or protein (chicken, fish, pork, tofu, beans, etc.), one serving of whole grains, and two servings of vegetables. Once you get into the habit of this, it’s really quite simple. See below for some sample meal plans.
7. It’s okay to have a sweet tooth.
Depriving yourself of foods that you enjoy is no way to go through life, and will end up hurting your efforts at maintaining a healthy weight over time. Instead, identify some foods that you really enjoy and find ways to portion them out.
Enjoy ice cream? Give mochia try.
Like gummy candies? Enjoy a snack pack size of fruit snacks.
Once you give yourself permission to eat the things you enjoy, you will find it much more difficult to overindulge.
8. No one is perfect. This is okay.
We all have days when we find our feelings in the bottom of a bag of corn chips. Do not stress over this.
There is no such thing as “perfect” eating. Eat the foods you enjoy.
Once you make healthy food choices and proper portions a part of your routine, those healthy habits will pull you back on the path to healthy eating.
9. Have go-to basics and then add in variations.
Smoothies are a versatile base meal, as are soups and stir-fries. These are the easiest, tastiest ways to create a food routine for yourself with meals you will look forward to eating. See below for some suggestions on how to change these up.
10. Schedule grocery shopping, and consider taking advantage of pick-up or delivery services to curb impulse purchases.
Check your local grocery stores, and see what services they offer. You may be able to enter your order online and have it ready for pick up curbside on your way home from work. There are a number of services that also offer home delivery for a small fee.
Consider it an investment in yourself. Having groceries pre-bagged prevents a lot of the impulse purchasing that can derail your wallet and waistline.
11. Have a back up plan.
Keep some meals in the freezer. Have a few quick cooking items in the house at all times.
12. Snacks can be your friend. Choose wisely.
There are different schools of thought in terms of how frequently one should eat. As a non-nutritionist, I won’t try to sell you on my personal preference. What I will tell you is that the more you set yourself up for success, the more successful you will be.
When you are hungry, eat. If, after you eat a healthy portion of something you like, you’re still hungry, then eat more.
The key is recognizing what will give you energy rather than sap it, while curbing hunger quickly.
13. Frozen vegetables are just fine.
Frozen vegetables are tasty and nutritious and are a terrific way to keep healthy food options on hand at all times.
Simply pour a cup or so into a large ramekin or small bowl, add some water (a tablespoon or two, no need to think too hard about measuring), cover with plastic wrap, punch a few holes in the wrap, and microwave for two minutes. Add lemon juice, seasoned salt, maybe a sprinkle of balsamic vinegar.
14. Freeze individual meals.
Any time you prepare a meal, make it a habit to portion out the items into individual-size meal containers. This way, simply pull a container out of the freezer the night before you’ll need it and pop it in the fridge.
A complete meal will be defrosted and ready for reheating in time for lunch the next day. This is very helpful on those busy nights when you don’t have the time or energy to prepare a full meal.
15. Adjust your idea of a go-to snack.
Rather than walking out the door with a bag of pretzels or a bagel, grab an apple or banana and 100 calorie pack of almonds for a healthy snack.
Make your go-to options full of natural foods packed with protein and you’ll collect far fewer calories without being hungry.
Ready for some sample meal plans to get you on track?
Simply choose one each from Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner, and add in snacks as needed to satisfy cravings and curb hunger. The possibilities are endless.
It’s easy to substitute like items for like items (don’t like Brussels sprouts? Go for broccoli instead), and the key is not to count calories so much as to focus on protein, whole grains, healthy fats, and stopping when you are no longer hungry. Remember: breakfast items work for lunch and dinner, too.
Here are some easy, quick, tasty, healthy, nutrition-rich and protein-rich food choices to help you start your day. Choose any one of the following and pair with coffee and a splash of any kind of milk, or hot water with lemon:
- Cottage cheese with fresh berries.
- Whole grain English muffin with nut butter.
- Whole grain English muffin or 1 slice whole grain toast with one egg, cooked to your preference.*
- 1-2 services of a whole grain, high protein cereal such as Kellogg’s Special K Protein plus a glass of milk
- Protein shake: 1 tablespoon of any protein powder + 1 tablespoon chia seeds (for fiber) + 1 cup fruit (frozen works great) + 1 cup liquid (milk of any kind, water, coconut water, etc.). Optional add-ins: a small handful of fresh or frozen spinach or kale, half an avocado.
- Oatmeal with a tablespoon of nut butter or half cup of fruit stirred in.
* There are people who advocate only poached or hard-boiled eggs to avoid added fats. The small bit of oil or butter you will use to cook an egg to your preference is negligible in the grand scheme of things. Cook the eggs how you like, and enjoy.
Lunch does not have to be complicated. A healthy lunch can simply be a portion of last night’s dinner. Here are a few ways to change up your lunch if you don’t want to repeat meals.
- Salad: Choose any greens as a base, add a protein (chicken, fish, black beans, tofu, etc.), + half a cup each of three types of raw, chopped vegetables. Sprinkle with olive oil, lemon juice or vinegar, salt, pepper.
- Quinoa + raw veggies + goat cheese
- 2-3 items from the “Snacks” column
- Hummus, whole wheat crackers, one portion of cheese, mixed vegetables
Dinner does not have to be time-consuming to be tasty and nutritious. The best part about these options is that they are all easily made in larger quantities to you can easily portion them out into individual containers to put in the freezer and/or take for lunch throughout the week.
11. Rice and beans: Cook on the stove in one pot, and add cumin, garlic, or adobo seasoning for added flavor. Throw in some frozen corn or chopped vegetables. Keeping a few cans of beans on hand is easy and inexpensive.
12. Stir-fry: Sauté 1 cup protein + 1 cup vegetables (fresh or frozen) in hot oil. Add salt and pepper to taste, and mix in a quarter cup of stir-fry sauce (you can make your own or buy premade in the Asian foods section of your local grocery store). Serve over a half-cup of rice (white, brown, that’s up to you. The key is to measure this out, because it’s easy to go overboard on rice and add in calories when you’re not looking).
13. Classic balanced dinner: Put chopped vegetables of your choice on a baking sheet, brush with olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and put in the oven alongside the protein of your choice. Bake for about 20-30 minutes on 400 degrees or until done, stirring once halfway through. Add in a half-cup of the whole grain of your choice (rice, quinoa, couscous, etc.) cooked on the stove.
14. Soup: Sauté a chopped onion, carrot, and a stick of celery, in a deep pot with garlic and/or Italian seasoning. Add a carton of chicken or vegetable broth to boiling. Add protein (cut up the chicken or slice the pork, or add a can of beans or some tofu) and some vegetables such as kale or spinach, corn, peppers, chopped potatoes, green beans, lima beans, etc., and simmer on low for about half an hour or until your kitchen smells divine.
15. Apple and cheese stick
16. 100-calorie pack of almonds with a banana
17. One banana and a tablespoon of nut butter (eat with a spoon!)
18. Greek or full-fat yogurt. Add fresh berries or honey to plain yogurt for sweetness.
19. Plain yogurt with chopped apple and cinnamon.
20. Rice cakes with nut butter.
21. Protein bar, but watch the calories. Some of them have enough calories to replace a meal.
22. Protein shake
23. 1-2 hard-boiled eggs
24. Hand full of mixed nuts
25. Sliced jicama, dressed with lemon or lime
27. A hand full of pretzels and 1-2 tablespoons of nut butter
28. 2-3 mandarin oranges and a cheese stick or handful of nuts
You can achieve amazing flavor without loading up on calories from heavy sauces and dressings. Consider the options below to add a blast of flavor virtually calorie-free.
- Olive oil and balsamic vinegar
- Seasoned salt
- Seasoning blends – many spice companies make blends to go with various dishes. Explore your seasoning aisle.
- Lemon juice – keep a container of all natural lemon juice in your fridge to add to hot water as a refreshing beverage, or to sprinkle onto salads and vegetables.
- Only three ingredients: corn, oil, salt. (Not a health food, necessarily, so watch those portions, but no processed ingredients help make this a good cheat food when you’re craving salt
- Fruit snacks. Watch the portions and the sugar, or these become no better than candy. But when you are craving something sweet, these can do the trick.
- Dark chocolate. Keep a bar of good quality dark chocolate on hand and enjoy a square or two when the sweet tooth strikes.
By being mindful of whole foods and portion sizes, and by adding protein to every meal, you might be surprised at how easily you can take control of your personal weight loss program. Mix and match the meal ideas above to enjoy endless options for crafting the perfect weight loss and weight management plan for you.
What weight loss meal plans have worked best for you?