We've probably all sat in a GAA team meeting where the big midfielder who needed to lose a few stone was handed the same meal plan as the 18 year-old corner forward who could eat pizza every night and still not gain weight.
The problem is that these two have completely different starting points and goals, and that's one of the problems with meal plans that are often given out. They aren't individualised.
There are more issues. Meal plans are often very restrictive and don't allow for the variance that occurs in daily life. They also don't teach the principles of nutrition, so if they're given without any education, they can lead to an "on" or "off" mentality, which isn't a good recipe for long-term success.
On the other side, if someone knows the principles behind using nutrition to get to their intended goals, a meal plan can be useful as a guide to getting there.
For some people, as long as they have a target for calorie and macronutrient intake, they can go about their day, tracking their food and making progress in doing so, with a degree of freedom around their choice of foods. However, some people prefer to have a meal plan to roughly follow, in order to help them with hitting those targets. In this article, I've outlined of creating your own meal plan, when you've calculated your calorie and macronutrient targets. This can take away the bother some people feel with having to track their intake every day.
Creating Your Own Meal Plan
I mentioned that the technique of creating and following your own meal plan allows you to avoid tracking a lot of numbers on a consistent basis.
However, it does require you to do a bit of work beforehand.
These are the questions you should ask yourself when creating your meal plan:
What is your recommended macronutrient intake?
What is your eating schedule?
How will your macronutrients be split between the meals and snacks?
What foods will you generally eat for each meal?
How much of each food will make up each meal?
Construct this into a daily plan.
Here is an example of how to put these steps into place and create a meal plan:
1. What is your recommended macronutrient intake?
Let’s use an example that would be in the ballpark of the recommended intake of a young, active GAA Athlete.
Protein — 160g
Carbohydrate — 400g
Fat — 85g
Again, you can use the process outlined in previous articles, to calculate your own!
2. What is your eating schedule?
This step involves assessing your current eating schedule, and looking at whether you want to keep that schedule, or create one that would be better suited to your lifestyle.
For example, If you are working in an office during the day and training at night, Maybe you’re currently skipping breakfast, snacking around 10am, having lunch at 1pm, having a small snack before training and a big dinner after training. That might work well for you, but it may not, in which case you might want to consider changing to breakfast, lunch, snack before training, dinner after training, or some other variation. It’s really about what’s going to fit your lifestyle and allow you to stick to the plan long-term.
In our example, this individual prefers to eat a big breakfast, have another meal around 4pm, and then have a big dinner after training in the evening.
3. How will your macronutrients be split between the meals and snacks?
This is based mostly on individual preference. However, there are a few rough guidelines to follow. For example, it would be a good idea to spread your protein intake throughout the day, as well as having a protein feeding after training. It can also be advantageous to have some carbohydrates in the pre-training meal.
Some people find that they experience better energy levels having lower carbs in the morning, and higher towards the end of the day. Others feel better with the macronutrients spread out.
In our example, the individual prefers to keep his carbohydrates relatively low in the morning while having a slightly higher fat intake, have some carbohydrates and fat in his pre-training meal, and then have a larger amount of carbohydrates after training, while keeping fat lower in this evening meal. He will spread his protein intake evenly between the three meals. (Of course, you could simply eat the same macros in each meal, for the sake of consistency.)
With that in mind, here’s what his intake will be for each meal:
(Total for the day: 160g Protein, 400g carbohydrates, 85g fat)
Breakfast: 50g protein, 80g carbohydrates, 45g fat
Meal 2: 50g protein, 140g carbohydrates, 25g fat
Meal 3: 60g protein, 180g carbohydrates, 15g fat
4. What foods will you generally eat for each meal?
Again, this step will involve looking at what foods you are currently eating at certain times in the day, and asking yourself if they need changed. Maybe they’re ok, in which case you then have a good idea of the types of foods you like eating at each time of day. You should write these down along with the time of day you eat them. So that might be porridge and eggs for breakfast, chicken and sweet potato for lunch, salmon and rice for dinner, fruit and nuts for sacks, or something like that.
The individual in our example will usually have some greek yogurt with toppings, and eggs, in the morning.
Usually, he then has salmon with vegetables and potatoes for his second meal.
His third meal usually contains chicken and rice with vegetables, and some chopped fruit with granola.
5. How much of each food will make up each meal in order to reach the recommended macronutrient levels for that meal?
This step will take a bit of trail and error, as well as some simple maths.
Basically what you want to do is look at the foods you’d usually have for each meal, and work out what combination of these foods you would need to eat in order to reach the recommended macronutrients for that meal.
Let’s look at our example. We want to get roughly 50g of protein, 80g of carbohydrates and 45g of fat from a combination of greek yogurt, some toppings (usually from fruit and nuts), and eggs. We can use google and a pen and paper, or a phone app like MyFitnessPal, to try to work out the correct combination of these foods that will get us close to the correct amount of each macronutrients.
His usual portion for breakfast is:
200g of greek yoghurt (18P, 10C, 10F)
1 banana (1P, 23C, 0F)
30g of cashews (5P, 9C, 13F)
and 3 eggs (18P, 2C, 15F).
When we add that up, we get 42P, 44C, 38F.
However, we know he planned to get 50P, 80C, and 45F.
So he clearly needs to add 8P, 36C and 7F.
There are a few combinations that will get him there, and one possibility would be to add another piece of fruit, a squeeze of honey and another egg, which would leave him at around 48P, 80C, 45F. It’s not exact, but its as close as we should expect to be. Trying to get any closer will probably lead to us giving up and not even bothering with the exercise at all, for fear of it being too complicated! From now on, his meal plan will include this increased intake.
When this has been done for the other two meals of the day, you can then also plan out a few other meals that contain the same macronutrient profile, so that you aren’t eating the same thing everyday, if that’s a tough thing for you to do.
Note: Although a lot of vegetables do not contain many calories, and therefore don't contribute much to the macronutrient content for a meal, it's still important to get them in!
6. Construct this into a daily plan.
All thats left to do is to write down, or type out your meal plan. Having this visual template of what you should be eating will give you something to consistently refer to. You won’t need to track your macronutrients and calories every day, but instead, you’ve put in the ground-work and you can now just follow the plan to get you towards your goals!
Life isn’t always straightforward and simple. Sometimes, you simply are thrown off your plan and need to be able to adapt.
Say, for example, the guy from the example above sleeps in for work one day and only has a short amount of time to prepare food. Instead of his usual yoghurt and eggs, he decides that he will just have his eggs, and will take the yogurt, nuts and banana with him to have later. He will then be able to continue the rest of his eating schedule, as long as he also gets the yoghurt and toppings eaten at some point.
Another example might be that you get to meal time, and you realise you haven’t prepped or bought your planned food. This is a time when its useful to have some meal ideas that are similar in macronutrient profile to your selected ones. It’s also good to be able to have a replacement for certain ingredients. For example, maybe you usually have rice in one of your meals. It’s useful to know what you can replace this with in order to get the same amount of carbohydrates. Maybe you decide to have sweet potato instead. You don’t really need to have this worked out before the event, as you can simply google it “sweet potato nutrition”, and you’ll be able to adapt the meal to have the amount sweet potatoes that will give you the same amount of carbohydrates as the rice would have.
It’s also worth remembering that this meal plan you’ve created is a guideline, and not necessarily what you need to stick to in order to progress. It’s simply a good way to give you an idea of what amounts of food you should be eating. If it becomes a burden, then it might be worth loosening up a bit, or even trying the tracking method for a while.
Conor O'Neill, Know Yourself Nutrition
If you want to get your nutrition and gym-work on point for GAA, check out the Gaelic Athlete Programs here: knowyourselfnutrition.com/programs (or click on one of the programs below) or our online coaching program here: knowyourselfnutrition.com/gaaleanathlete.