The Secret Ingredient for Weight Loss: Planning

Writing a meal plan, building a strategic grocery list and preparing food for the week are all helpful.

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Everyone is looking for a magic potion to help shed unwanted pounds. But what if I told you there isn't one food that can do the trick? Rather, the secret ingredient that can make your weight loss dreams come true is planning.

The Power of Planning

Calorie counting and number crunching can become frustrating. Instead of focusing your attention on these tedious and time-consuming tasks, concentrate on building a healthy plate. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's MyPlate is an easy visual reminder on how to build a well-balanced meal. Fill half your plate with fruits and veggies, one-quarter with whole grains and one-quarter with lean protein. By using MyPlate as a visual cue to create meals using wholesome foods, the calorie counts tend to fall into place. Plus, it's a great way to make sure you're taking in important nutrients (like fiber) that might otherwise be overlooked.

Building a healthy plate takes some planning and organizing, but not as much time as you may think. Sarah-Jane Bedwell, a registered dietitian and author of the new book "Schedule Me Skinny: Plan to Lose Weight and Keep in Off in Just 30 Minutes a Week," says "by spending just 30 minutes a week in planning, you set yourself up for a successful week of eating healthy meals and losing weight without having to think twice about it during the busy work week." Bedwell breaks down those 30 minutes into writing out a meal plan (10 minutes), creating a strategic grocery list (five minutes) and preparing food for the week (15 minutes). Although these tasks may take a little extra time at the beginning, practice helps build these skills into ones which, over time, become lifelong habits and second nature.

[Read: U.S. News Best Diets: How We Rated 32 Eating Plans.]

Writing a Meal Plan

• Be visual: Write out your weekly meals on a calendar and hang them on your refrigerator door or somewhere easily accessible.

• Look ahead: See what events you have planned during the week ahead. Some days you may have more time to cook, while other you may only have time to thaw a pre-frozen meal.

• Identify snack time: Getting in tune with your schedule also means honing in on times when you're most hungry. Do you find your stomach grumbling at 3 p.m. – and then run to the nearest vending machine? That's probably a good time to fit in a healthy snack.

• Plan ahead when dining out: Eating out isn't an excuse to overindulge. Calorie counts appear on many menus, and ingredient lists are commonly available. Review menus before you go so you know what to order ahead of time.

[Read: What is the 'Best Diet' for You?]

Building a Strategic Grocery List

• Clip coupons: Eating healthy doesn't have to cost a pretty penny. Collect coupons and circulars throughout the week, and plan meals around foods that are on sale. Check out your favorite brands online – many manufacturers offer printable coupons.

• Take inventory: Check your refrigerator, freezer and pantry for staple ingredients like milk, olive oil, salt and black pepper. Toss out old or expired items, and make room for new foods. Review meal plans and recipes and jot down items you need to buy.

• Go with the flow: Write your shopping list in the order by which you walk through the store. This will help you prevent inefficiently bouncing between aisles, saving you time.

• Eat before you shop: Shopping on an empty stomach is a recipe for disaster. It leads to impulse purchases (which are usually high in calories) and over-spending. Have a light snack like non-fat plain Greek yogurt or an apple with 1 tablespoon of peanut butter before you go.

[Read: Unusual Uses for Greek Yogurt.]

Preparing Food for the Week

• Precook: Take the time over the weekend to precook basic and versatile staples such as chicken, whole-grain pasta and brown rice.

• Prep your produce: Slash prep time by slicing and dicing fruit and vegetables ahead of time. Either prep the night before (for breakfast) or in the morning before work (for dinner).

• Cook now, freeze for later: Muffins, lasagna, stew, meat sauce, soup and many other foods can be cooked and frozen for a later date. Store dishes in pre-portioned containers to hasten thawing time.

What if your day doesn't go as planned? "That's why I keep some staples stocked in my pantry (like whole grains, quinoa, canned beans, canned tuna) and freezer (like frozen veggies, frozen fish)," Bedwell says. "I can throw together what I call a 'Plan B' dinner – a healthy meal that can be made in 30 minutes or less for super busy days."

Below is one of Bedwell's favorite "Plan B" recipes.

Fish Packets

Serves: 4

Total preparation time: 30 minutes

4 (6-ounce) frozen tilapia fillets

2 teaspoons Old Bay seasoning

4 teaspoons white wine, water or broth (1 teaspoon for each fillet)

4 cups frozen mixed vegetables (1 cup per fillet)

2 teaspoons dried thyme (1/2 teaspoon for each fillet)

Salt and pepper to taste

4 lemon slices

8 teaspoons olive oil (2 teaspoons per fillet)

1/2 cup cooked quinoa per person (for serving)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place a 6-ounce frozen tilapia fillet in the center of a large square (1 foot by 1.5 foot) of aluminum foil, and sprinkle each fillet with Old Bay seasoning. Top the fish with 1 cup of frozen mixed vegetables, and sprinkle fish and veggies with salt, pepper and dried thyme. Drizzle with olive oil and wine, and top with a lemon slice. Roll foil up to secure packet and for baking. Bake for 25 minutes or until fish is done and flakes easily with a fork, and when veggies are crisp-tender. Serve with 1/2 cup quinoa per person. Yield: 4 servings.

Nutrition facts per serving: 450 calories, 13 grams fat, 2.5 grams saturated fat, 920 milligrams sodium, 42 grams carbs, 5 grams fiber, 40 grams protein, 45 percent DV vitamin A, 10 percent DV vitamin C, 6 percent DV calcium, 15 percent DV iron.

[Read: Quinoa 101: What It Is and How to Cook It.]

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns and feedback.

Toby Amidor , MS, RD, CDN, is the owner of Toby Amidor Nutrition and author of the forthcoming cookbook "The Greek Yogurt Kitchen" (Grand Central Publishing 2014). She consults and blogs for various organizations including FoodNetwork.com's Healthy Eats Blog and Sears' FitStudio.