If you scroll down you Facebook feed right now, I bet you’ll see at least 1 advertisement for “healthy meal plans” to make eating healthy a cinch.
You might be thinking, “Good! I want a meal plan. I’m sick of trying to figure all this stuff out! I need someone to just make it easy for me and tell me what to eat. I can follow a plan!”
But did you know that most of the time really structured and specific meal plans don’t work?
And if they do at first, it’s probably not going to last long-term?
That’s because meal plans are actually really close to diets!
You’re given essentially a prescription that tells you what to eat and when. Then anything not listed on that plan becomes foods you’re not allowed to eat, foods that are off limits, and foods considered “bad.”
When we try to follow rigid diets or plans like this, lots can (and often does) go wrong.
For example, you’ll often see a rigid meal plan that looks like this:
3 eggs, scrambled
1 cup vegetables
1 piece whole wheat toast
1 glass water
Morning snack (10am):
1 cup grapes
1/2 cup nuts
4 oz chicken
2 cups salad
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 lemon, juiced
1 glass water
Afternoon Snack (3pm):
1 scoop protein powder
1/2 cup frozen fruit
1 tablespoon coconut oil
12 ounces water
4 oz ground turkey
1 cup cooked veggies
1 sweet potato
1 glass water
Usually one of these 3 situations happens:
Situation 1: You don’t stick to your meal plan.
Even for the most enthusiastic person, meal plans can be hard to follow to a T – you know – with life getting in the way.
It’s someone’s birthday at work and you go out to celebrate, your kids get sick, you’re asked to stay late at work, you’re fresh out of eggs when you should be eating them, etc.
It’s easy to blame ourselves for falling off course or not being prepared when an out-of-the-ordinary situation pops up…which can lead to even more struggles like feeling guilt or ashamed, then ending up overeating/emotional eating.
This is normal and nothing to feel bad about of course!
Plus when we’re told what to do, our inner rebel badass can take over. Think back to when you were a kid and you were told not to do or touch something. All you wanted to do was do or touch that thing, right? Same goes if you’re told you HAVE to do or eat something. This can happen in subtle or not-so-subtle ways.
And is also normal and nothing to feel bad about.
Situation 2: You follow your meal plan for a little while but it sucks.
You might not like the meals on your plan. The meals might not taste good to you or might not fill you up and make you feel satisfied, energetic, and focused.
Your plan might not be sustainable for you based on your lifestyle and habits.
Your plan might not make you feel better or achieve your health goals.
Your plan might fall short at helping you develop lasting, real healthy eating habit changes like you might have been hoping for.
All of our bodies are unique and require different food/fuel to look and feel fantastic. What works for you is NOT going to work for someone else. So yeah this one totally makes sense and hits home to lots of people.
Yes maybe you see some short-term results (or not), but you hate living and eating this way. You get sick of measuring out how much 4 ounces of chicken or 1 tablespoon of olive oil is. Eventually, you get so turned off by the process that you regress or quit all together. You conclude that “eating healthy” sucks – classic self sabotage.
Situation 3: You execute your meal plan perfectly.
Now reading this you might be thinking: “Yes! Winning!”
But consider this: Are you too sucked in?
Meal plans tend to do us a disservice because they give us a false sense of control. It’s easy to become addicted to the plan and get caught up. In the end, what it’s doing is keeping us dependent and unable to think for ourselves. Blindly following meal plans means losing touch with our biofeedback sensations — like hunger and cravings — and even if we actually even LIKE the food.
Plus, most meal plans, when they’re as structured and specific as my example above, are meant to be temporary and are designed to help you achieve a specific short-term goal (like weight loss before an important event, manage blood sugar, etc).
If you’re too strict for too long, you could end up with developing dangerous eating habits and health problems (like mental, metabolic, hormonal).
What’s the alternative?
Maybe you’ve tried going the meal plan route in the past and one of those stands out to you?
It turns out most of us don’t need or even want that level of ultra precision when it comes to our eating habits. We don’t want to have to break out a kitchen scale to measure out ounces of specific foods before we eat, or dirty a bunch of measuring spoons. We just want to eat, have it taste good, and look and feel our best. Right?!
And that CAN be do-able. A relationship with food where you don’t have to measure things out, count your almonds, or plan super specifically to reach your goals.
What you eat, how you eat it, and how it works for your specific body will ultimately help you reach your health goals. A great starting point is to think about what you’re already eating, and how you could make it a little bit better or more sustainable/balanced based on your lifestyle.
Think about how you can make small changes and improvements to what you already normally eat and enjoy, one small step at a time, by setting yourself up for success.
The thing that will make it sustainable for you is being able to do it in your everyday life with flexibility. Shooting to be perfect all the time is not realistic or sustainable. Balance is the key 🙂
Healthier food swaps is a GREAT place to start!
For example, instead of ordering a side of white rice with your meal, get the brown rice (it won’t give you a big spike in blood sugar, has more fiber and nutrients, will give you more energy, and keep you feeling fuller longer.
For another example, instead of eating a processed, sugary granola protein bar for a mid-morning snack, make your own instead.
If you want to take it a step further and plan your own meals ahead of time, plan recipes or make ahead healthy snacks.
By focusing small like on amount of ounces or grams or calories in your food, it’s diet-centric. It’s been proven so many times in studies that diets do not work, so why keep trying them!?
Making a big batch of a recipe, you can portion yourself out a healthy serving, practice mindful eating as you eat it, and listen to your body to stop eating when you’re full. Making healthy snacks ahead of time help set yourself up for success by making sure you have something ready to go when hunger strikes. I urge you to not get caught up in how many grapes or almonds you’re eating, but instead focus on making sure you have different types of nutrients – in any amounts.
For example, eating healthy fats and protein help keep us full and our blood sugar balanced. When we get them from real food sources, and eat mindfully, our bodies will tell us when we’re full and to stop eating. We have built-in portion control!
To make cooking more real, whole foods easier on yourself, pre-washing and chopping vegetables can be helpful in whipping up a quick dinner when you get home from a long day out. Pre-cooking protein sources like grilling up a bunch of chicken breasts ahead of time also makes mealtime faster during the week. Making meals in bulk like BIG soups, stews, or chili (you can even freeze some servings).
If you’re really, super busy, using a meal delivery service can be helpful when you want to eat real, whole foods but don’t have time to cook yourself
Mix and match any of these to find what works for you. Experiment to figure out what will work for YOU and YOUR life.
When you have a healthy relationship with food and understand the nutrition basics, you don’t need other people to tell you exactly what to eat each week. Plus you can check this out for motivation and tips to eat healthy long term 🙂
Meal plans DO work for some people, but if you try it out and it’s making you feel overwhelmed, anxious, guilty, regretful, bad, preoccupied with food, missing out on social events, restrictive or obsessive about food, etc…consider trying a new approach!
Want help sorting all this out for yourself?
If you’re looking for help and guidance to learn the nutrition basics, how to get the nutrients you need in a way that doesn’t require measuring or counting, and build a healthy, restriction-free relationship with food, I’m here to help! Click here to set up a free chat with me.