A Comprehensive 4-Day Meal Plan
The definition of a calorie is a unit of energy. All too often this word has a negative connotation, however, if you’re looking for an energy boost, you’ll want to be sure to load up on the right calories. “This energy helps to run all the normal bodily processes that keep us alive, along with the energy we need to be alert and active during the day,” explains dietitian Alisha Virani, MS, RD, CDCES. “Providing the body with nutrients it needs to run these daily functions is vital for optimal health and sustained energy.”
Unfortunately, when individuals are trying to ‘eat healthier,’ they may not eat enough food or enough food from specific groups, resulting in fatigue. “We can’t run on an empty tank,” says dietitian Catherine Karnatz, MPH, RD. “Not eating enough food and nutrients on a regular basis can sabotage our energy levels and leave us feeling fatigued.”
Here are three general nutrition tips for adequate and stable energy:
- Eat often. Eating every few hours supports stable blood sugar levels, energy, and focus. “It takes us roughly 4-5 hours to digest a full meal so eating on a regular schedule is a good way to sustain energy levels throughout the day,” says dietitian Letal Yerganjiev, MS, RDN, CDCES, RYT.
- Strike a balance of food groups. “Proteins, fats, and carbohydrates that come from our foods are broken down into their smaller components in order to be used by our cells for energy,” explains Virani. As dietitian Heidi Schauster states in her book, Nourish: Carbs (like bread, fruit, and pasta) energize, fats (like avocados, nuts, and butter) satisfy, and proteins (like beef, chicken, and eggs) sustain. “Consider the framework of having all three macronutrients as well as some color on your plate from brightly pigmented produce,” suggests Yerganjiev.
- Eat according to your body’s cues. “Listen to your body when it’s signaling that it’s hungry,” encourages Karnatz. If you’re connected to your body’s cues, intuitively eating and honoring your body’s communication can ensure good energy levels.
All foods can fit into an energizing meal and snack pattern. As you learn which combinations of foods and eating pattern works best for your energy levels, take the 4-day meal plan as a gentle, flexible guide. Since individual nutrition needs vary greatly, it’s only intended to be an example of four days’ worth of regular, balanced meals and snacks in a 3-meal, 2-snack structure.
4-Day Meal Plan for Energy
- Breakfast: Peanut butter toast or bagel – 2 slices of whole grain bread or a whole wheat bagel topped with a hearty spoonful of peanut butter, 1 sliced banana, a small handful of chia seeds, cinnamon, and a drizzle of honey.
· Lunch: Turkey wrap and side/s – 1 large tortilla, 2-3 slices of turkey, a slice of cheese, a spoonful of mayo, veggies of choice (lettuce, tomato, etc.), and choice of side (i.e., a snack bag of pretzels and/or pear).
· Snack: Large handful of your favorite trail mix
· Dinner: Mediterranean platter – ¼ to 1/3 of a (regular, 10-inch) plate of Greek salad (with feta cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers, and dressing), 1/3 to ½ of pita bread, and ¼ to 1/3 of spreads like hummus and tzatziki.
· Snack: 1 cup plain full-fat Greek yogurt topped with some sliced banana and cinnamon
· Breakfast: Pancakes and eggs – 2-3 Kodiak Cakes pancakes with a handful of blueberries, a drizzle of maple syrup, and one to two eggs (prepared to your liking)
· Lunch: Power bowl – one roasted and cubed sweet or white potato, about a cup of cooked and seasoned veggies (like broccoli, onion, and/or kale), a handful of sauteed and seasoned chickpeas, a half an avocado sliced, and a good drizzle of your choice of creamy dressing (Here’s a recipe for example).
· Snack: 1 cup* of Greek yogurt topped with a handful of granola and/or berries
· Dinner: Salmon curry — ¼ to 1/3 of a (regular, 10-inch) plate of veggies (like carrots and cauliflower), 1/3 to ½ of a plate of rice, and ¼ to 1/3 of salmon in homemade or store-bought curry sauce.
· Snack: a few squares of dark chocolate
- Breakfast: Avocado toast – 2 slices of whole-grain toast topped with half an avocado, 2 fried or sunny-side-up eggs, and Everything but the Bagel seasoning
· Lunch: Salad & grain bowl — A few handfuls of lettuce topped with one chopped apple, about a cup of grains (such as cous cous or farro), and ½-1 cup of cooked and seasoned chicken, a handful each of crumbled goat or blue cheese and chopped walnuts, and your favorite balsamic dressing.
· Snack: Hearty granola bar (i.e., Clif bar)
· Dinner: Beef & Bean Quesadilla – 2 medium or large tortillas, filled with about a cup of cooked and seasoned (50/50) bean and beef mixture and a hearty handful of shredded mozzarellas, topped with a spoonful of salsa and guacamole with a side of sauteed peppers and onions.
· Snack: 1-2 handfuls of crackers with a few spoonfuls of hummus or your favorite dip
· Breakfast: Egg Burrito — 1 large tortilla, 2-3 eggs (scrambled in a bit of oil or butter), a large handful of spinach (sauteed in a bit of oil or butter), a small handful of crumbled feta, and a spoonful of salsa
· Lunch: Sandwich and side — 2 slices of whole grain bread with around ½ cup tuna salad, a slice of cheese, optional lettuce and tomato, and a side of choice (i.e. apple slices and/or pretzels)
· Snack: 2-4 dried dates stuffed with peanut butter and chocolate chips
· Dinner: Bowl of nutrient-dense and flavorful chili (like butternut squash turkey chili), topped with a handful of shredded cheese and ¼ to half a sliced avocado.
· Snack: A few holiday cookies and a glass of milk
*When initially building your plate, instead of using measuring utensils, try eyeballing amounts using rough plate fractions and objects for reference:
- For carbohydrate sources like rice, shoot for around 1/3 to ½ of the plate or about a baseball-sized serving.
- For a serving of plant-based proteins like beans, fruit like berries, or veggies like peppers, shoot for a ½ cup serving about half the size of a baseball, or about ¼ to 1/3 of the plate.
- For protein sources like salmon, shoot for around ¼ to 1/3 of the plate or a serving at least the size of a deck of cards.
- For fat sources like peanut butter, shoot for around the size of a Ping-Pong ball.
- For a cup of dairy, like yogurt, shoot for about a baseball-sized serving.
Remember: This meal plan is simply an example of an eating pattern to support stable energy levels within a 3-meal, 2-snack structure including carbs, fats, proteins, and produce. If you don’t like certain foods or have intolerances or allergies, sub in what you like or what you can eat. For example, if you don’t like salmon for the curry, go for a fish you like or another protein source like chicken or chickpeas. If your body asks for more food, honor that hunger by adding more snacks and/or having more at meals. If a morning snack feels better than an evening snack, practice flexibility. If you’re not hungry for multiple snacks some days, honor that, too.
Other Ways to Maximize Energy Throughout the Day
Along with consistent and adequate nourishment, energy levels are impacted by hydration, exercise, sleep, and stress.
Research shows an association between mild dehydration and consistently worsening mood, including sleepiness and a significant decline in well-being. When we are dehydrated, “it is more challenging for oxygen to flow to our cells making it more difficult for the body to produce energy on a cellular level,” says Virani. This holiday season, Virani recommends incorporating festive foods and beverages that provide hydration. “For example, flavoring sparkling water with cranberries and orange, snacking on cucumbers and tomatoes when prepping holiday meals, or simply adding lemon and honey to hot water to keep warm when it’s cold outside.”
You may also want to purchase a fun, reusable water bottle and or set alarms for reminders. If you’re exercising regularly at moderate to high intensity or for more than an hour at a time, investigate electrolyte beverages and supplements to keep you properly hydrated.
Move Your Body Regularly
Staying active can help boost energy and alertness. “This is likely due to the increase in blood flow that allows greater circulation of oxygen throughout the body, especially to the brain,” Virani explains. “Regular activity can help you keep up your muscle strength, improve mood, and help with sleep – all of which can give you more energy.” On the flip side, too much exercise can be an energy drain.
If you don’t already have a movement routine and you are medically healthy to do so, start small with something you enjoy or think you might enjoy. Every form and any amount of movement counts. “To stay active during the darker, shorter months of winter, try out a fun seasonal activity, like ice skating or building a snowman,” Karnatz suggests. “There’s also a ton of free workout videos online that you can dance along to for a fun way to get your heart pumping without leaving the comfort of your home.”
Do Your Best With Sleep
Obviously, getting adequate and high-quality sleep promotes good energy. Particularly, deep sleep or slow-wave sleep is what’s needed for body renewal and repair, and without it, you likely won’t wake up feeling refreshed. “Insufficient sleep has been linked to increased hunger levels, impairment in cognition and memory, and not surprisingly, low energy levels the following day,” says Yerganjiev. If you struggle with getting to sleep or staying asleep, developing a sleep hygiene routine helps signal to your body and brain it’s time to press the off button until tomorrow. Some excellent sleep hygiene practices include ensuring a comfortable and quiet bedroom, taking a shower or bath, sipping warm tea, doing a bedtime yoga practice or meditation, journaling, and reading.
Address Your Stress
Research shows prolonged stress can cause low energy and fatigue, and it can lead to sleep issues—negatively impacting energy levels. Virani points out that being in a state of chronic stress does a number on your nervous system, by keeping you in your sympathetic (fight-or-flight) state, which is meant to help you get out of dangerous situations. “Even when we are stressed in ways that are not life-threatening, the same physiologic responses occur causing us to feel extremely tired,” she adds. “Managing stress can help keep our stress hormones at bay so we are not undergoing these physiologic responses that cause us to feel drained or tired.”
Some examples of stress management tools include going to therapy, practicing yoga or other joyful movement, doing breathing exercises, spending time in nature, cuddling with your loved one or pet, and taking time for a fun hobby.
Refining and Customizing Your Meal Plan
Finding a sweet spot with your energy levels requires eating enough and eating a relative balance of food groups. “I always recommend pairing at least two or three food groups for snacks and 3 to 5 food groups for meals,” says Karnatz. “Including different food groups ensures that you’re getting a variety of important nutrients like carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals.” If you’re wondering why carbs are included as a significant part of the 4-day meal plan, it’s because you need roughly half of your energy to come from carbs. “Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy, so restricting them from your diet could be causing you to feel tired all of the time,” adds Karnatz.
If you try the 4-day meal plan, gently observe how you feel mentally and physically, and use it as information to inform your longer-term eating pattern. Remember, food and nutrition are just one piece of the bigger energy puzzle—sleep, stress, hydration, and exercise are all significant pieces, and all pieces impact each other.
Meal plans (including this 4-day meal plan) are not one-size-fits-all and, unless provided to you by a registered dietitian and tailored to your specific needs, should be taken with a grain of salt. If you are in disordered eating or eating disorder recovery and find meal plans triggering or unhelpful for your relationship to food, work with a non-diet registered dietitian (if not already) to learn more about how to nourish your unique body.
The information contained in this article is not intended to be a substitute for individualized nutrition advice from a nutrition provider. Always seek professional nutrition advice from a registered dietitian for your specific needs and circumstances.