There are two main obstacles that trip up meal planning for busy professionals: 1) Time; 2) Decision fatigue. I have a solution for both in this article. If you need a guide to planning meals that won’t be a second full-time job, you are in the right place.
This is the DAO Little Black Dress Method for Meal Planning. ™
Why most meal planning guides fail women who hustle
Most meal planning guides contain fixed recipes for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. Here’s my problem with this for women who hustle:
- We don’t have time for complicated recipes
- We don’t want to eat foods we don’t like
- We don’t want to be on a rigid schedule of a meal plan when our schedules are unpredictable.
In other words, we need flexibility. We may only have 5 minutes to quickly stuff down a meal between Zoom calls. Which makes it sensible to prepare meals in advance. That leads me to the next topic: meal prep.
So what are the obstacles?
There are three main obstacles that trip up meal planning for busy professionals:
1) Time constraints – We have barely enough time to breathlessly wrap up our days and fulfill our work obligations. Weekends fly by in the blink of an eye and cooking, cleaning and planning is too exhausting and time consuming.
2) Decision fatigue – Even if you had all the time, deciding what to eat and when exhausts your mental muscles. We already have to make so many decisions from the minute we wake up related to work, critical family and personal needs, our coffee order, our personal attire. Deciding what to eat for us is like having a closet full of clothes and nothing to wear.
3) A lack of flexibility – Following specific recipes, cookbooks, or build-a-meal delivery services can lessen decision fatigue, but the inflexibility of these plans does not account for your taste or ability to locate specific ingredients. Nor does it allow for last minute schedule interruptions or your unanticipated cravings. Do you ever have something you planned to eat but think about what you really would have rather had instead? We shouldn’t have that problem. We work too hard to not have the things we want.
Without a plan, you are at the whim of your busy schedule and the tap of your smartphone to order delivery food or fast food while you are traveling and on the go. If you don’t make healthy choices convenient to eat, you probably won’t eat them. Most healthy food needs to be washed and chopped. Food that comes in plastic cartons, however, is ready to eat and there is no cleanup when you are done. There is a catch – besides the ridiculous prices and upcharges. Eating takeout on a regular basis can increase your calorie intake by over 900 calories a week– which means roughly gaining a pound per month if you keep going at that rate.
Even without the takeout, vending machines or convenience shops, we can fall into the pantry and fridge surfing trap without a plan. Not only is this a timesuck, but without a structured approach, you may end up nibbling a little bit here, a little bit there, which will result in never being satisfied and feeling like you haven’t eaten all day. But you have! And that is why you need tracking accountability to see how all those little nibbles add up.
So what is the alternative for women who hustle? After considering all of the above and trying many different solutions, I have figured out a method that does not involve crazy meticulous prepping and allows for flexibility based on food you know you like and can chow down on quickly when you have 5 minutes between Zoom calls and need time to check your teeth.
It’s called the “Little Black Dress Meal Planning Method,” ™and it will change the way you see meal planning forever.
If you hate meal prep, you can stop now
There is a big difference between meal planning and meal prep. Meal prep entails what you see on Instagram with the individual containers and meals and snacks all pre-portioned out.
I bought into meal prep for a period of time. I bought all the little glass divided containers that I saw on my Instagram feed, portioned out my meals, and stored them in my fridge. Here was why I couldn’t sustain it: 1) taking a whole Sunday to meal prep was a huge timesuck; 2) by the third day of the same lunch, I was bored out of my mind.
We generally have, if we are lucky, a Sunday (or part of a Sunday) a week to do what we please with our time. Do you want to spend it preparing 14-20 little glass containers and losing your mind? In addition, even if we go through this trouble, it is possible that your body just won’t feel like the particular meal you have prepared for the day. Which leads you to shove that container right back into the fridge “for tomorrow” and march right to the fast-food place across the street.
The Little Black Dress Method has a more flexible approach that does provide for planning and doing some prep ahead, but nothing so meticulous that you lose a chance to binge watch your favorite show or get in a brunch with friends on Sunday. You will not feel as if you are following another step by step project work plan. You will instead feel competent and confident about your ability to adapt and think on your feet, wherever, whenever, and with whomever. Last-minute lunch invitations or travel plans won’t throw you off “a plan” anymore. You will always have a plan.
What’s the Little Black Dress Meal Planning Method?
The Little Black Dress (LBD) method of meal planning is a relatable way to break meals down into their basic building blocks, protein, fat, and carbs, like parts of an outfit. Instead of thinking of a meal as a whole and getting overwhelmed, you start with your LBD and accessorize from there. Think of what you are rushing to get dressed and head out the door. When you have your outfit on, your hair and makeup done, tossing on a pair of shoes does not seem like a big deal, especially if that comes from a choice of 2-3 pairs you usually end up wearing. Which is true, isn’t it? That’s the 80/20 rule. We end up wearing 20 % of our wardrobe and accessories 80% of the time. If we think of meal planning this way, it becomes more logical and also more intuitive.
What problem does the Little Black Dress Solve?
The Little Black Dress method revolves around eliminating two huge issues for professionals: decision fatigue and saving time.
A Little Black Dress is the best thing you can have in your closet to eliminate decision fatigue. From the second we wake up, all we do is make decisions. What to wear. Whether to drink coffee or tea. Whether to get in a workout or check email. So many decisions clutter the brain and actually make us feel exhausted and paralyzed with indecision. This is why Steve Jobs always wore one of the same 100 black turtlenecks he had in his closet. He wasn’t making a fashion statement (intentionally), but he was taking out the decision-making from his wardrobe so he could focus on his creativity and his vision.
The same concept of that one staple followed by accessorizing extends to the Little Black Dress. Take a second and visualize your closet. You probably have at least two or three “little black dresses” that you can just grab off the rack and know that it will go with any kind of shoe or coat, and that it will fit perfectly and be appropriate for almost any occasion. You may even have different versions of a LBD by occasion (work, cocktail party, or church), or by season (short sleeves for summer, long sleeves and thicker fabrics for winter). Or it may be a go-to power suit, jeans that always fit, or a blouse you can always throw on for a last minute zoom meeting with your boss.
The Little Black Dress Meal Planning method saves time by making sure you have a ready-to-go suitcase of solutions to throw a meal together when you don’t have the time to figure it out. If cooking is your hobby, or you enjoy following recipes in your spare time, this is a great asset. Just like many fashionistas, however, there will be times when you simply are rushed, strapped, and flustered. But you have to eat! So this is a way to flip that switch and make it a quick, healthy decision, not a huge wardrobe malfunction. Have you ever grabbed an outfit in a hurry and then only when you are already at your destination realize that there is a giant hole, a big stain, or that you wore clashing colors? You need your LBDs for those times you have to scramble.
Let’s dive in: How to LBD meals for the rest of your life
To summarize: the “Little Black Dress” is a meal planning method. It’s a collection of “black turtlenecks,” “little black dresses,” go-to suits, and jeans that you can grab off of the “rack” for any kind of meal or snack, any time of day. Once you have your LBD on, you can accessorize and be ready to eat in just a few minutes. The guesswork is gone. And yes, this is a permanent solution, that you can do for the rest of the life and take with you ANYWHERE.
Your little black dress is the protein, and carbs and fats are accessories
Just like the biggest part of any outfit is the dress, the baseline to any meal is the protein. Therefore, your little “dress” is where you start – the protein.
What you accessorize the protein with makes the whole outfit, or meal. As we all know it is quite possible to wear the same Little Black Dress in many different ways – formal, casual, businesslike, date night. This is the exact same concept but applied to meals.
All well-balanced meals, as we went over in Chapter X, need a P, F, and C – protein, fat and carb. Once you have your protein, you have the core of your outfit. Then you add your carbs, which are like your hair and makeup, and your fat, which is like your shoes. Jewelry, or condiments, are optional but available and you can identify a few healthy “pieces” you can easily reach for on your dresser.
PFC – Dress, shoes, hair and makeup
All well-balanced meals, as we went over in this post, need a P, F, and C – protein, fat and carb. By combining these for a meal or snack, you will be satisfied and won’t have a blood sugar crash or be hungry an hour later.The PFC approach is a common tool dietitians use to help people see meals as building blocks of nutrients rather than collective dishes. This makes meal planning and grocery shopping easier. It’s also easier to understand the nutrition and calorie metrics when you break food down this way. The PFC approach also ensures you get the most out of each meal and snack nutritionally. For example, without protein, you are unlikely to feel full. Fat is important in order for the body to absorb the vitamins and minerals in those foods. Generally, one should avoid eating carbs alone, including fruit, because this can lead to sugar crashes.
Here are some examples of food combos and how to check whether they meet the PFC formula:
|Snack: Apple and nuts||X||X||X|
|Meal: Chicken, broccoli, brown rice and peanut sauce||X||X||X|
|Meal: Egg-eggwhite scramble with sprouted grain toast||X||X||X|
|Fat Free Yogurt||X||X|
|Full fat Yogurt||X||X||X|
So as you can see, some of these choices are lacking in one part of your outfit. Not completing a PFC profile would be like leaving your house without shoes! It is an easy fix when you have this principled approach. When you look at avocado and toast, what you are missing is the protein (the dress).
That is why it is important to start with the protein, or the dress. Carbs and fats are very important, but they are easier to add on when you can see what “goes” with the protein. For example, if you pick eggs for your protein, then toast or oatmeal makes a lot of sense for a carb.
Often the dress will already have “built in” accessories, or carbs/fats. For example, eggs with yolk already has some fat. Full-fat greek yogurt is the trifecta – protein, carbs and fats. Nuts, nut butter, and seeds already have proteins and fats. (Think of this like a romper). Learning what kinds of foods have these multiple hats will make putting together your LBD ensemble that much smoother!
How the DAOFitLife Little Black Dress (LBD) Meal Planning Method™ works, step by step
One thing that has always disappointed me about diet guides is that they tell you the what, but not the how. You need a blueprint on how to implement this in your real life, not just a bunch of static meal plans.
Here is an outline of the method, step by step:
Step 1 : Survey your week ahead
- Pick days you will be ordering or eating out
- Plan meals for other days using Little Black Dress Template
- Grocery shop using DAOFitLife Grocery Shopping Template to decide what you need.
- Decide what you need to make ahead (i.e., chicken filets, large mixed vegetable medley)
Step 2: Pick your LBD proteins and 2-3 accessories for each. Map out the combos in the Little Black Dress Template. Keep it simple. Protein, Fat and Carb – PFC.
(To start. You can always add more later).
Step 3: Make a list of snacks for different cravings, including ones that are portable for travel. Organize the type of snack by the type of craving you may be having – when you want something salty, sweet, or sour.
The reason to do it this way is so that your snack serves its purpose and you don’t end up pantry or store-shelf surfing. Whenever we want a snack, it’s usually not a specific thing but more like a category of sweet, salty, or sour. If you box yourself in with planning too far ahead, you may get to a meal or a snack and not feel like having that particular category—for example, with a meal, you may want something hot instead of cold, or crunchy instead of soft. LBD gives you the options to quickly “switch” out your wardrobe. If you are in doubt about the healthiness of snacks, then go back to Chapters 5 and 6. Snacks should generally be 100-200 calories a serving
You should also have a pre-planned list of travel-friendly snacks that you can have packed in your suitcase or handbag so you are never left stranded without a plan.
Building out LBD outfits based on PFCs
For each meal and snack of the day, pick 1-3 “dresses” for each meal of the week to keep it simple, and then the accessories for each one. You can keep the protein or “dress” constant, and then switch out the accessories. For example, for breakfast, you can have yogurt with fruit one day, and then with granola the next day. For lunch, you can have chicken with broccoli and brown rice one day, and chicken with salad and quinoa the next day. You can apply this method whether you are making it yourself or ordering from a “fast health food” place like CAVA or Sweet Greens. That is usually the format for their menu – pick your protein, then the rest. For dinner, you can have shrimp stir-fried with vegetables one night, and shrimp tacos the next night.
The LBD Meal Planning Template
For illustration purposes, a sample of the LBD method could look like this (all links to the templates are at the end of the post)
How to put together a shopping list
The easiest approach for me is to organize my list by the way I would organize a meal, into the different building blocks, as follows:
- Leafy Greens
- Condiments and spices
Here is a sample of what that list may look like:
When you have your groceries, pre-chop vegetables you use for cooking, put them in one big pyrex container. Then place any protein—like chicken or fish—you will want to eat during the week in a second container (if you want chicken AND fish, three containers). The same applies if you are planning on having beans, tofu or tempeh. Once everything is cooked, you can portion out whatever is for dinner that night and store the rest in your fridge. That way you have dinner ready to throw together. And you can mix it up—like for example, if you have chicken breast and vegetables, one night you can make tacos, another you can make a salad, another night you can make a stir fry with brown rice.
For snacks, position those in the front of the pantry or the fridge, and wash everything that needs to be taken out of the containers. For example, if you open the fridge and see a bowl of nice juicy blueberries, you are more likely to eat that than if you see it in the original container knowing that they need to be washed and dried and put into a bowl.
A failproof fallback: The Kitchen Sink Option
One of my favorite examples of a “kitchen sink” meal is chili. This can be made with almost any protein you have lying around, including vegan options. Most people usually have canned beans and tomato paste in their pantry. You can take whatever protein like chicken, steak, turkey or even fish you may have left over and add some vegetables and grains, or eat with some toast on the side. Throw that all in a slow cooker or an Instant Pot, and season with some nice spices you probably already have (cayenne pepper, onion powder, and himalayan sea salt). There you have your kitchen sink meal! You can even make it a family affair by seeing who can come up with the most creative or tasty kitchen sink option that week – everyone loves a competition.
Another key ally: shortcuts and sheetpans
Your time is more valuable than any extra money you may spend. You can save time by purchasing pre-frozen fruits and vegetables, or ones that are pre-chopped and pre-washed. Yes, they are more expensive, but the time you can save is more valuable.
You also want to make sure you have one or two quick prep frozen meals on hand, like a cauliflower pizza or a few frozen entrées. It’s not just lean cuisine anymore; there are a lot of healthy options, like from Saffron Road and Kashi. These can also be frozen whole grain waffles or pre-made chia pudding.
A shortcut that I rely on often when I prep meals is the sheet pan meal method. This is a way of cooking where you can lay out a tray of frozen vegetables and then let the oven do the work. You do not (and you should not) defrost the vegetables first). Then when the vegetables are reasonably cooked after about 15 minutes at 350 degres, sprinkle some olive or coconut oil and add some salt, then add the dress/protein – if you follow my advice you will have already cooked it. Leave for 5-10 minutes and then you are good to go for dinner!
Here are some great recipe examples from the girl on the bloor.
One thing I have not addressed is meal delivery services. This is certainly an option for several nights a week. I personally don’t use them because I hate being at the mercy of a delivery service that may or may not be timely, but I know other people that do and enjoy it.
Planning meals by the week
Clearly, most of what you eat, you shop for. I would look at this from a weekly view, because generally, you have an idea of your schedule Monday through Sunday of a given week. From the calendar, work backward from the nights you don’t have to cook (that’s an easy place to start).
Where to start
The easiest place to start is with the days or nights where you don’t have to figure out a meal. For example, if you have a scheduled lunch or dinner out, or you usually order in on Friday nights, you can cross off those days.
Map this out on a template that is a Monday through Sunday format with categories for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. My templates (available in excel, PDF, and google) for meal planning and grocery lists are available in my blog post here:
Then, for the rest of the meals and snacks, spread out your LBD choices. You can always make a last minute change if in the moment you want something else or something you wanted is not available.
You can find my meal planning and shopping list at these links:
- Customizable DAOFitlife Meal Plan and Grocery List Template Google Sheet
- Downloadable DAOFitlife Meal Plan and Grocery List Template Excel Document
- Printable DAOFitlife Meal Plan and Grocery List Template PDF
- For ordering in, please see my post on the DAO of ordering in for recommendations.
- For eating on the go, see my post on the DAO of eating on the go.
- More specific LBD options are in my DAO of Eating like a boss.
In the next post, we will review easy meals for fit professionals, including what to buy and how to put it together.