How to Translate Meal Prep Into Calories

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… Without Spending Hours with a Calculator or Spreadsheet

A client was struggling with sticking to her calorie goal this week – she was frustrated by long days at work that often made cooking too hard at night.

She said, “In the end I make really poor choices because I’m just so overwhelmed with work already. Once I make one bad choice, the rest of the day and likely the next few days are down the drain. I flat out do not know what or how to be eating. Pinterest and other resources that I’ve been able to find online aren’t very helpful because the recipes still feel pretty involved.  I still feel overwhelmed when it comes to food. I just really don’t know where to start. I can make scrambled eggs, and a stir fry and that’s about it.”

When someone feels this way, we all know that the answer isn’t “Try harder.” If you’re overwhelmed, it’s just not helpful to lean more on willpower. Instead, it’s smarter to transfer the use of willpower to a time when you’re not in the moment and feeling overwhelmed. Pre-make decisions at at time when you’re not under pressure, and you’ll be amazed at how much easier it is to stick with your goals!

Therefore, long-time readers will not be at all surprised that I asked her in my reply e-mail, “What about meal prepping on weekends?”

But I also know that meal prepping can be confusing and tortuous if you’re not sure how to translate meal prep into calories, don’t pick the right meals, or aren’t sure how to use MyFitnessPal as a tool. The math can be very complicated if you don’t approach it in a systematic way.

So I wrote her a very specific (and long) reply e-mail, which I decided would make a good blog post because of its breakdown of the mechanics of meal prep and tracking the meals. I have made a few changes to make the information more general to any reader, but here is how I responded to client!

When it comes to meal prep, the key is to think easy. As in, “What can I do this weekend to make my life easier all week long?” 

This starts with shopping. Make time this weekend to go to the grocery store and buy for the whole week (including snacks). If you have a busy job, this will make your life much simpler anyway. 

Want access to my “Ultimate Meal Prep Cookbook,” which contains breakfast and snack ideas as well as prepped meals with suggested modifications? Get it delivered directly to your inbox by clicking here!

First of all, all of the meals in my cookbook are meant to be split six ways. I highly, highly recommend immediately splitting up the food as soon as you cook – i.e., storing in individual containers. This simplifies calorie counting, because you start with the full components of the meal (i.e. 1.5 pounds chicken breast), and then work the math from there. In fact, MyFitnessPal does the math for you if you add it as a recipe.

You can add a recipe to MFP one time and then use it every time. Let’s use the chicken adobo from my “Ultimate Meal Prep Cookbook” as an example. 

You add a recipe by doing the following: 

  • “Add Food” for a meal 
  • Choose “Recipes” at the top of your menu
  • Click the “+” sign at the top right
  • Click “Create a Recipe” 
  • Click “Enter Ingredients Manually” (unless you’re pulling a recipe from the web, so you can use the URL)
  • Give your recipe a title, and 6 servings
  • Then add the ingredients! Add the ingredients for the WHOLE recipe – i.e. exactly how it’s listed in the recipe. It will divide by six for you, because you’ve already indicated that it’s in six servings. 

I will also add that, to save time, I don’t add in the components that are negligibly low calorie and low nutritional value, like garlic or herbs or green onion. I do add vegetables like spinach or broccoli so that I can keep an eye on my fiber intake, but I leave out the lightweights if they’re not ALSO high in fiber. Make sense? 

Then once you save the recipe, it “remembers” the right serving size and can be tracked in seconds when you need it! 

The chicken adobo, for example, ends up being 438 calories per serving, but is relatively high in carbohydrates at about 70 g carbs. This means that this would be a good lunch, when you still need energy for the day. If you’re not very active, you might want a lower carb meal.

For dinner, it would be ideal to choose something lower in carbohydrates, like the red turkey chili! 

You would just go through the same steps with adding the ingredients, and you would see that the chili is indeed much lower in calories and carbohydrates (272 calories and only about 35 g carbs), which is a great idea for dinner. Unless clients are set on intermittent fasting, I recommend lightening up calorie intake as the day goes on. Doesn’t mean you need to stop eating at 5 or anything like that, but I do recommend just tapering off as you go. You just don’t need as much energy as the day goes. 

While I do include breakfast options in the cookbook, if your breakfast is working for you, I would keep doing it. I have a strong “If it ain’t broke” mindset when it comes to routine.

When it comes to snacks, try not to eat more often than every three hours, and keep snacks 300 calories or less. 

Here is an example day: 

  • Breakfast: Oatmeal and almonds – 360 calories
  • Morning snack: Apple – 80 calories
  • Lunch: Chicken Adobo with 1 cup broccoli – 469 calories
    • Special note – I literally just put frozen vegetables in the meal prep containers with the entrees… they thaw as they’re refrigerated, and then they steam nicely when you microwave them. No cooking required. Just a little salt usually. 
  • Afternoon snack: RX peanut butter bar – 210 calories
  • Dinner: Red Turkey Chili – 272 calories
  • Evening snack: Brownie – 169 calories 

This day is 1560 calories, 93 grams of protein, 229 g carbohydrates (which could be just right for some people but too high for others), and has lots of fiber.

(Special note: this breakdown is for a client who is working on weight loss and 1500-1700 is an ideal range for her caloric deficit – you may be different!)

The way meal prep is set up, all you have to do is heat a meal when you want to eat. It’s like making your own freezer meals, except they’re just refrigerated. Pre-made meals last for about five days, so if you do it on Sunday, you’ll be totally good to be wrapping up on Friday. 

Another note: if it’s just you and a spouse, your partner will eat these meals, too. I have recommended the same structure that I use for me and my husband. 6 x 3 = 18 meals… it’s enough for most lunches and dinners (especially on weekdays) to be prepped meals for both people, with some flexibility for a date night out and weekend restaurant meals. 

Interested in trying meal prep? Here is your assignment for this weekend: 

  • Pick three meals from the Ultimate Meal Prep Cookbook. 
  • Put the three recipes in MFP. 
  • Buy groceries (don’t forget snacks) and cook this weekend. I will add here: I cook everything simultaneously. I have all four burners and a rice cooker going, generally, and it can all be done (including startup and shutdown/cleaning) in 2-3 hours max. Often less. For me, this is a time that I often plug in a podcast or audiobook or even put a movie or documentary on Netflix and enjoy while I’m puttering around. 
  • Start eating them on Monday and track them. 

Let’s also talk about reverse engineering your day (like I did with your “example day” above) – also called “reverse tracking.” 

At the beginning of the day, plan your whole day. If you are meal prepping, it is very easy because you know exactly what you are going to eat, and you are bringing your snacks, too. You can dial in all the components in a matter of seconds and see where your pitfalls for the day are going to be, and make adjustments before they happen. 

I also highly recommend counting on eating at night. If you like to eat after dinner (a sweet treat, etc.) don’t pretend to yourself that you are going to be a model of perfection, put down your fork at 5:00, brush your teeth, and ignore food for the rest of the day. For me, knowing that I am going to have a Greek yogurt with chocolate chip granola at 8 PM causes me to pass on the pastry, the heavy coffee creation, and the random snacks earlier in the day because I’m not lying to myself that I’ll balance it out by eating less later. I am going to eat the nighttime snack, so I know to balance it out earlier in the day instead of later, if that makes sense. 

I have been meal prepping for about 9 years through school, jobs, and now self-employment, and in all honesty, I found it the most helpful when I was working full-time. It just simplified things so much and cut down on time. 

Final reminder: as I just told another client this week, exercise is the secret sauce for continued motivation – even if you are feeling like you need to focus exclusively on nutrition because you’re not losing weight, don’t fall for that lie. Exercise is very, very, very important, because it changes your body on a chemical level. Regular high levels of activity will help all of these components fit together and WORK. 

Does this help meal prep make sense to you? Share this post if it resonates with you!

2 Comments

  1. Michelle

    Thank you Rachel! This was just what I needed

    1. Rachel Trotta

      Michelle, I’m glad to hear it!

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