how to build a calorie-counted menu
Variety may be the spice of life, but it'll also be the spice that drives you crazy when you're trying to build a low-calorie menu!
The fact is, counting calories is the simplest, plainest, most straightforward way to diet. There are no strings attached, hidden agendas, or proprietary purchases required. But figuring out how many calories is in each piece of food that gets into your mouth is a lot of work - especially in the beginning. (Check out my post titled 6 tips for counting calories if you want ideas for putting a successful plan into place.)
Here's the fastest and easiest way to build a calorie-counted menu:
1.) Divide your day.
Figure out how many eating opportunities you're going to have throughout the day, and divide your calories accordingly. I eat 5 or 6 times on a normal day:
- Mid-morning snack
- Mid-afternoon snack
- Dessert (I'll skip this if I over-ate during the day or if I'm going to workout at night.)
2.) Look up Every Bite.
It doesn't matter whether you're snacking on a handful of almonds or gorging on a double-double from In n Out, it's critical to know exactly how many calories you're eating.
My favorite site lately has been LoseIt, a website which syncs perfectly with my android phone. I can research calories by prepared meals, raw ingredients, and by dishes served at popular restaurants.
CalorieKing is another site with an extensive database, recommended by reader success story Dan B.
3.) Track Everything!
I don't care where or how you track it, but you have to track it. Word or Excel, Google docs, Evernote, paper and pen - whatever. If you're not writing down every calorie you eat, you're much less likely to be successful.
LoseIt, the app I mentioned above, is another option for tracking your foods. Once you look something up, you can add it as a "meal", and LoseIt not only tracks the calories you've eaten, but also which foods you've added as meals. Then, the next time you eat that same food, you can look up and/or track its calories with just a click or two.
4.) Build Variety Slowly.
Look at my meal plan above - 6 different snacks/meals every day. If I wanted to eat something new and different for every meal, I would need to research the calorie content of every ingredient 6 different times each day! Yuck. You're signing up for losing weight, not a full-time job as a research analyst, right?
Here's a way to build a decent menu fairly quickly:
- Day 1 - all six meals are new. This day is the hardest day on the plan, and will require lots of research.
- Day 2 - repeat snacks from Day 1, but build new meals.
- Day 3 - repeat breakfast from Day 1 and dinner from Day 2; add new meals for everything else.
- Now, after 3 days, you have 2 breakfasts, 2 snacks, 3 lunches, and 2 dinners to choose from.
- Begin adding 1 new meal per day, while repeating something you've already researched for the others.
- Most people settle into about 3 different breakfast options and focus their energy on building variety for lunches and dinners.
- Within a couple weeks you'll have rounded out a decent menu, which means you won't have to spend any more time researching calories. Of course, you're welcome to continue to add new meals to your rotation.
Don't worry too much about what types of foods you eat, or about getting a perfect mix of protein, carbohydrates, and fat. The truth is, there is no perfect mix; your body is designed to consume, convert, store, recall, and use whatever energy you give it. This normal body functioning is good enough to do or achieve 99% of whatever it is you want to do. (high-level athletes, body builders, and ultra-marathoners need special modifications that the rest of us don't..)
That being said, processed foods with synthetic ingredients - packaged foods made in a lab rather than a kitchen - have two downside risks to be careful of:
- Long-term health. Your body was designed to store and burn calories. Your body was not designed to process chemicals and additives like benzoic acid, sodium benzoate, monosodium glutamate (msg), partially-hydrogenated oils, etc. etc. Different chemicals and additives affect different people differently, but they have been linked in various forms with weight gain, headaches, upset stomach, and even cancer.
- Tricking your body. Remember the old Pringles ad - "Betcha can't eat just one"? Snack manufacturers "build" foods which are designed to make you crave more and feel less full. This causes you to eat more. (and therefore to purchase more, which increases profits.) However, even though you feel less full, you're still consuming calories, and a calorie is a calorie. If you can eat 100 calories of Cheetos for a snack, and then be done - great. But most people can't.
6.) Be Patient, and Be Dedicated!
Building a low-calorie menu isn't easy. Looking everything up can be difficult, confusing, and frustrating. Keep in mind that you're working towards a long-term goal, and that each week gets easier.
The first week sucks - you're hungry, stressed out, and spend the whole week thinking about and looking up foods. The second week isn't much better. But it doesn't take long before you've built out a nice variety of foods you can eat without thinking or researching. And about that same time you'll probably notice your clothes fit a little looser.
Don't give up - put your goal up on a pedestal and work everything else towards achieving that goal, and you will.