Building a Base Meal Plan

The Problem

“I’m going to be in the best shape ever this summer, I’m running an 8-week elimination Paleo, gluten-free diet that has me fasting until 8 pm every day. Doing my fasted cardio in the fat burning zone on Tues and Thurs while doing my HIIT work on Mon and Wed and then rock climbing and yoga on the weekends. My online coach also has me smashing and flossing my tissues every night to maximize my recovery. Gonna get jacked”! – Everyone

The world of food sure has changed a lot in the past 75 years. Sometimes butter is the devil and other times we should have it in our coffee. Fasting is cool in industrialized nations … everywhere else it’s called starvation. Of course carbs are the problem except that they aren’t. And EVERYONE can agree on the inherent dangers of gluten. That shit will kill you except that it won’t unless you’re allergic and then it is bad. And sometimes you should measure, weigh, and track everything to “lose the fat” and other times you should just love the body you live in. While all this is laughable, a larger problem does exist. With the explosion of various social media platforms, “expert advice” is readily thrown around without any context. In an effort to be heard, it’s commonplace to find “coaches” recommending “treatments” or fixes to problems they are not formally educated to asses, diagnose, treat, or manage. Let’s be clear, advice without context is not useful, potentially harmful, and most surely does not constitute coaching. And the problem isn’t limited to strength, rehabilitation, or fitness either. Somewhere a “health coach” is recommending an herbal detox to all her clients while they sit at the smoothie bar all day and suck down cups of colored sugar talking about how much better they feel and how colorful their poops are since “eliminating all the toxins from their body”.

The Novice

When a new athletes starts at the gym with us we feel like client education is as important as the training itself. An informed client will make better decisions and ultimately be a better athlete. If we can help them avoid silly non-contextual bullshit recommendations about supplements, stretching, foam rolling, muscle confusion, and “pre-hab” exercises then we have done them a valuable service and saved them some time and money in the process. Winning! One of our broader aims is to positively impact the greater fitness community by inserting more informed athletes into it and we see education as the best way to do that.

Most of the time a new athlete at our gym will have limited previous strength training experience. Consequently, they have many questions:

  • I only need to do these 3 lifts today, am I doing enough
  • I”m not even that sweaty, should I be more sweaty
  • How much weight do I add for the next session
  • I listed the RPE of that last set at a 9, is that correct
  • Do I have to do burpees
  • I never wrote down anything at my other gym, why do I have to keep a log book
  • The gym down the street made me take a “movement screen”, why didn’t you guys

We love these types of questions as they present us with an opportunity to educate an actively participating client. While there are plenty of things to discuss over the next 6 months, a few items jump out right away:

  • Gym and equipment safety
  • Barbell technique (for performance, NOT injury prevention)
  • Rationale and implementation of lifting equipment (shoes and belts)
  • Novice program details (schedule, goals, how much weight to add, etc.)
  • How to fuel their training

That last one is a mouthful and cannot be covered between work sets. Additionally, we don’t feel like telling the client to “eat like a caveman” or to “avoid carbs and sugar” get’s the job done so we wanted to put together an article to serve as a resource for our novice athletes. If you’re not (1) training with us, (2) barbell strength training, or (3) aiming to get stronger … your’e not the intended audience. I make this point because somewhere “postural exercises” are being recommended to an elderly athlete that really just needs to get her dead lift up to 135.

The Base Nutrition Plan

The first point we like to make with novice athlete is that nutrition isn’t just something you worry about 8 weeks out from a wedding or your HS reunion. Positive nutrition habits are about fueling your life and pursuits. You should always have some idea of where you stand with your nutrition. You don’t need to carry a food scale to the mall on Friday night but you should have an idea of how to asses how much you’re eating, how to manipulate the quantity of food you’re eating to gain or lose weight, and how to eat to become a stronger person. It shouldn’t require a PhD or a “health coach” to learn how to eat to fuel your pursuits.

Our base nutrition plan will have several specific aims:

  • Create a general framework from which to operate
  • Provide support for our training
  • Promote recovery from training
  • Help mitigate over / under eating

Step 1 – Meal Frequency

You’re going to pick the number of meals you’d like to have per day. Typically, 3 or 4 will suffice and this will depend on how often you were previously eating. If you were fasting all day because … abs then you won’t like eating 4 meals per day so don’t do that. Set yourself up for success by selecting a number of meals per day that is actually doable … not what the latest article in Abs Weekly suggested.

Step 2 – Meal Template

Once you’ve decided how many meals you want to eat per day then you’ll begin to breakdown what you want each meal to look like. On our base plan, most meals will consist of:

  • Protein
  • Carbohydrate
  • Fat
  • Veggie

Not all meals have to have all of these but it’s a good template to work from. We’ve included a quick list below to get your wheels turning. You do NOT need to limit yourself to these items below. None of them are “super foods” or hold any unique, magical “health properties”, it’s just a list of foods. Add to the list, please. There are no bad foods except sauerkraut … that’s bad.

Proteins Veggies Carbohydrates Fats
Any fish or seafood Broccoli Brown Rice Avocado
Chicken Breast Spinach Oatmeal Olive Oil
Turkey Breast Lettuce Sweet Potato Coconut Oil
90% Lean Beef Onion Quinoa Any Raw Nut
90% Lean Beef Tomatoes Any Fruit Any Nut Butter
90% Lean Turkey Bell Peppers WW Bread  
Whey Protein Asparagus WW Pasta  
Eggs Zucchini    
Egg Whites Cabbage    
  Green Bean    
  Yellow Squash    
  Portabella Mushroom    

Now that we know what we want each meal to look like, we need to make some notes about our week. These notes are to help us navigate potential trouble spots as well as locate some points of stability.

Step 3 – Important Notes

  • Mon-Sun (3 meals x day)
  • Protein EVERY meal
  • Tues – book club (will have wine)
  • Fri – movie and pizza night w/ family
  • Sat – dinner out w/ husband
  • Breakfast needs to be fast (getting kids to school and to gym or work)
  • Gym (MWF @ 9 am)

This is a very rough (but effective) outline of an athlete’s week. We’ve already committed to follow our 3 meals x day “most days of the week” as well as get to the gym on MWF. In this case, we’re going off the plan 3 x per week (Tues, Fri, and Sat evening). This is actually pretty consistent and not where I would recommend most people start but it serves to illustrate as an example. Simply having protein can be a big deal for some athletes and if that’s where you need to start then that’s fantastic. We’ve also highlighted a some potential areas for inconsistencies (mornings where time is short). At this level we aren’t trying to be too specific, we’re simply looking at our week critically to develop a broad plan. The important part is we are planning in advance, we’re getting prepared. You can give yourself as much flexibility as you want, all that’s required is to get a little better over time. It’s your plan, you’re working toward your goals.

Step 4 – Category Options

Now that we have a weekly framework, we can begin digging into the daily tasks. For this example we’re going to keep it simple. We’re going to select 4 options from each category and stick to those options for the next month. At the end of the month we can rotate items in or out and when you’re ready you can expand the list to include as many options as you’d like.

  • Proteins (90% beef, chicken breast, whey protein, eggs)
  • Carbs (oats, sweet potatoes, white rice, fruit)
  • Fats (cheese, olive oil, nuts)
  • Veggies (lettuce, bell pepper, tomatoes, broccoli)

Step 5 – Create Meals

Let’s use our categories and options we’ve selected to actually create some “go to” meals for the upcoming week.

  • meal 1 (whey protein, apple, cashews, water)
  • meal 2 (chicken breast, salad lettuce, tomato, olive oil)
  • meal 3 (lean ground beef patty, cheese, broccoli)

As you can see, it’s not very exciting or groundbreaking … the basics never are. The magic here is not in any “super food” or “weird nutrition hack”, it’s just trying to plan ahead and execute a plan you can live with. The magic is doing it most days!

Nutrition Tracking

Once you’ve created a plan and have been consistently following it, you’ll soon need to begin making adjustments. It’s quite common for someone to follow a plan consistently for a short period of time, say two weeks, and become discouraged because they didn’t see the progress they wanted. It was two weeks … you’re going to need to put in a lot more effort than that. The plan you start with is only where you started. You’ll need to consistently monitor and make adjustments to your plan.

Let’s take a look at the Precision Nutrition recommendations below. They have a fantastic base plan along with tons of resources for athletes and coaches. Much of the Precision Nutrition approach seems to be related to finding the right strategies for the athlete at the right time while keeping the focus simple, straight forward, and effective. At Brentwood Barbell we believe if simple works, simple should be the method employed for as long as it works.

A whole lot more info on this available @

As you can see from the PDF above, your hand is the perfect measuring tool for getting started. It’s relative to your body size and I’m pretty sure you’ll never leave it at home. As the PDF points out, the quantity of “servings” that you have each meal can be adjusted to meet your needs. If you’re hungry, have an additional serving, if you’re aiming to lose 5 lbs over the next block of training then remove a serving (not protein) from a meal or meals. Additionally, you’ll notice the above recommendations are for women. A single serving of each category would constitute a full meal. The recommendations for men would be 2 servings of each category per meal.

Our updated meal template now looks like this:

  • 1-2 palm sized protein servings
  • 1-2 fist sized veggie servings
  • 1-2 cupped hand sized servings of carbohydrate
  • 1-2 thumb sized servings of fat

Adjustments to the Base Plan

As we’ve already stated, where to start depends on what you were doing. If you were grazing all day and then coming home to 1 meal (dinner) and 2 glasses of wine then trying to eat 4 meals, each containing a protein, veggie, carb, and fat will be quite a daunting task. You’ve got to slowly make adjustments in the right direction. If you’re under eating then you’ve got to slowly increase your food intake, if you’re over eating then you have to slowly reduce your food intake.

Typical Scenario

John has recently started strength training. He is 45 years old, works 40-50 hours per week, is married, and has 2 kids. John meets with clients during the day so he often finds himself grazing on snacks around the office. He weighs 225 lbs and has never barbell trained. His kids have obligations on Tues and Saturday evenings, he likes to have dinner out with his wife a few times per month. John would like to:

  • get stronger
  • be able to run around and play with his kids
  • lose some weight

The Plan

We already know that John has no previous experience strength training so he will fit nicely into our novice category. He will be squatting, pressing, and pulling 3 times per week (MWF). After a few weeks his technique will improve and his weights will start getting heavy so we’ll make some adjustments then … not before. John will be doing enough work by simply squatting, pressing, and pulling 3 x per week as he is UNTRAINED. John is concerned that he is not doing cardio yet and we instruct him to take that energy and go home and meal prep (batch cook food on Sunday afternoon).

We would also like to start John off with some basic nutrition advice. We will ask John to eat 3 meals per day as outlined by the Precision Nutrition PDF above. We begin his plan with one serving of each category per meal … this is very a very low calorie for John, however, he wasn’t eating much prior and this structure (3 meals per day) will present a significant challenge for John. But, we think it’s doable and something he can build from. Eventually he will need quite a lot more food but we’re on shaky ground right now. We’re not running his ass all over the gym, we haven’t discussed cardio, and we’re asking him to eat more often. These recommendations are probably a stretch for John so we’ll be patient.

John sticks with the plan, develops some basic positive habits (eating and training consistently) and now we’ve changed his plan a bit. Wednesday training is now a light day as he’s grown stronger. Additionally, we’ve added some cardio into his plan, he has began pushing the prowler on Saturday mornings. John does 10 x 100′ intervals pushing a weighted sled, resting about 1 min between each bout. He’s also started incorporating 30 min walks around his neighborhood in the am before going to work a few days a week. He enjoys being outside and the weather is nice. Finally, he’s upped his protein intake to 2 servings per meal. Later, we will make more changes as John is ready for them. He has done his part … he has shown up consistently and made an obvious effort to follow the plan. We need more Johns.

Your Action Items

If you’re just getting started with barbell training, we think these are some solid strategies to address your immediate needs (fuel and recover from training). The plan is simple plan, flexible, and effective if followed with intention.

To Do List:

  • Set some goals (be specific and give them a timeline)
  • Write up a weekly outline (include schedule conflicts, trouble spots, gym time, etc.)
  • Write up a meal template you can live with (we recommend 3-4 meals of 1-2 servings from each category depending on sex and goals)
  • Write up some sample meals you can have ready ahead of time or put together quickly
  • Follow your plan consistently for at least a month before adjusting anything, then assess and make adjustments if necessary.

Final Thoughts

We put this article together to serve as a resource for those of you that have decided to start your barbell training journey with us. We think barbell training kicks ass and makes people better at life. We also know that when athletes engage with their nutrition they reap even more benefits from their strength and conditioning. Hopefully this plan is simple enough to serve as at least a starting point or conversation starter with the coaches. We look forward to your questions and input.

Let’s ditch the “get fit quick”, 6-week skinny jean, and “new you in 22” bullshit programs out there. Stop giving you hard-earned money to those vultures. Let’s stop worrying about what you weigh and start worrying about fueling your dead lift … if you do, things will work out.

*** Thanks to Coach Lori for her contributions to this article as it was her that put together the action items, food lists, and actual content.