Lots of people looking to improve their eating try following a meal plan.
The problem is meal plans are usually unrealistic and not a long-term strategy.
So, instead of prescribing yet another unrealistic eating regimen, check out these 6 ways to transform your nutrition in a sustainable way.
“Do I get a meal plan?”
This is a common question I get from prospective clients who are considering my training.
My answer: No, I don’t do 'meal plans' per se.
It is true that meal plans have long been a staple of the fitness and nutrition industry.
Coaches are taught to create them. Clients are taught to expect them.
Most of the time, meal plans don’t work.
You see, traditional meal plans are explicit prescriptions.
Eat this exact thing, in this exact amount, at this exact time.
Breakfast – 7:30am
Morning snack – 10:00am
Lunch – 12:30pm
After exercise – 4:30pm
Dinner – 7:00pm
A lot of people might want a plan (or they think they do).
"I’m sick of trying to figure all this stuff out! Just tell me what to eat!”
Unfortunately, when we try to follow rigid prescriptions like this, lots can (and often does) go wrong.
Scenario 1: You just don’t stick to the plan.
No matter how enthusiastic you are, meal plans can be tough to follow unless you can work your whole life around them, which most people can't.
This is normal. Life can get in the way.
• People get busy,
• You're not always prepared,
• Your children require attention,
• You have to work late sometimes,
• it’s always someone’s birthday (or a special occasion), and
• sometimes you just don’t feel like having a green drink at 7am.
Even if you’ve actually paid to have someone make your plan, you might find yourself rebelling against it in subtle (or not-so subtle) ways. This is also to be expected.
Unfortunately, it means you might not get the results you hope for.
For instance, a meal plan you hoped would help you lose weight could actually encourage you to gain weight instead.
Scenario 2: You follow the plan perfectly.
In fact, you follow it too well and for too long.
Most meal plans are meant to be temporary.
They’re designed to help a person get to a specific short-term goal, like dropping a few extra pounds before a wedding, learning to manage blood sugar, or cutting weight for a sporting competition.
Our bodies can usually adapt to a rigid way of eating for a short period of time.
But if you’re too strict for too long, you could end up with disordered eating habits and lasting health (mental, metabolic, hormonal, etc) problems.
Scenario 3: You follow the plan for a short period but it's horrible.
It isn’t sustainable. It doesn’t make you feel better. It doesn’t keep you sane.
Maybe you see some short-term results (or not). But you hate living and eating this way. You never want to see another cabbage or chicken breast again!
Eventually, you get so turned off by the process that you regress or quit altogether (The 'F**k it stage) You're done with this “eating healthy” lark.
And you miss your big chance to learn how to make healthier, more enjoyable, more lasting and real changes.
Another reason meal plans fail
One of the biggest (yet generally unacknowledged) problems with traditional meal plans is their focus on “nutrients”.
Real people don’t eat “nutrients”. We eat food.
We eat meals, often with other people.
We eat meals that match our cultural background and social interests.
And we rarely measure things precisely.
Sure, sometimes an explicit prescription is necessary.
For instance, professional athletes or bodybuilders (in other words, people who make money off their bodies and athletic skills) use meal plans to prepare for training and competition.
But most of us don’t need that level of precision.
We don’t normally eat “ounces” or "grams" of things, or refer to food by their nutrients (like “omega-3 fatty acids”).
Instead, we eat foods like:
• Tacos and burritos
• Pasta and noodles
• Sandwiches, wraps, pitas
• Stews and curries
• Cereal and granola
Bottom line: If you want to eat better, you don’t have to complicate things. You don’t need to weigh and measure everything, or count out your almonds - At least not every time!
Ask yourself: “Is someone paying me to do this?” If the answer is no, you likely don’t need this kind of approach.
You just need to think about what you’re already eating, and how you could make it a little bit better.
This means experimenting and adjusting.
Making small changes and improvements to what you already normally eat and enjoy, one small step at a time.
Think about a spectrum of food quality rather than “bad” or “good” foods.
When you play with the idea of a food spectrum or food continuum, you get to experiment with variables like:
• what you eat; and
• how you eat it.
Think of it as an experiment.
How can you “make this meal just a little bit better” in every situation?
In which situations is that easier or harder?
When your choices are limited (for instance, when you’re traveling, or eating at a workplace cafe), how can you aim for “a little bit better” while still being realistic, and without trying to be “perfect”?
Let’s transform breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Here’s how that “food spectrum” might look in daily life, with a sample day of eating.
Let’s say that your go-to breakfast is a whipped-cream coffee drink and a chocolate croissant.
You pick it up in a cafe, and scoff it down on your way to work.
This is your starting point. It’s not “great”. It’s not working for you.
You’re getting indigestion from rushing, the croissant doesn’t fill you up, and you spill the coffee whilst trying to drive at the same time.
Now, improve your breakfast just a little bit, starting with what you already have or do.
Your first steps in taking breakfast to the next level:
• You might replace the croissant with a whole grain muffin.
• Instead of a “dessert in a cup”, you get a regular coffee with a single cream and sugar.
• You grab a yoghurt on your way out of the house for a bit of protein.
Naturally, you’re still rushed and busy… so you eat your breakfast with some distractions, while scrolling through emails at work.
But it's still a solid start.
• You switch the muffin to granola with Greek yoghurt.
• You switch the cream in your coffee for 2% milk. (Or even stick with just black coffee)
• You add some fruit.
• You’re now eating out of dishes on a table, instead of a take-away packages sat in your car.
You're still checking out the news or going through work emails while you eat…
No problem. It's realistic.
Now you are seriously good.
• You’ve changed 'rushing and panicked' to set aside extra time to enjoy a leisurely breakfast.
• You cleverly prepped an egg frittata with veggies in advance on your food prep day.
• The coffee’s become green tea, since you noticed that too much coffee was keeping you on edge.
• The protein plus colourful fruit and veg have become the focal point of the meal.
• You’ve discovered you really like water.
• You eat mindfully, feeling relaxed, while watching the sun rise.
At this point, starting out, the idea of a sit-down lunch feels ridiculous.
“Eat slowly? Who has time for that during a busy workday? Grab a burger and go!”
Another “car dashboard” meal. Another stomach ache and regret.
You decide you might want to play with this meal too.
To improve this meal a little bit:
• You go to a higher-end burger place where you’re pretty sure they use real meat.
• You get a side salad with that burger, and maybe just a few chips.
• You choose a diet drink instead of regular.
• You don’t eat in your car, but you do eat by your computer.
That’s OK. You’re progressing.
At this stage, you’re doing a little prep work.
• You whipped up some burgers in advance so they are handy and ready to take to work.
• You also grabbed some nice cheese and whole grain buns from the local market on shopping day.
For lunch, all you have to do is take your homemade burger and its fixings to work.
You still grab a diet cola from the vending machine to wash it down.
You move from your desk to the lunchroom, where you socialise with colleagues. This slows you down a bit and helps you digest and relax.
You’re having the burger without the bun, alongside a nice pre-prepped salad.
Instead of staying at your desk or in the office, you take a break.
You sit outside and get some fresh air while you enjoy your meal.
For a drink, water’s all you need.
It’s 8pm. You’ve just got home after an insane day at work.
All you want to do is put food into your face and relax out in front of the TV.
You can’t even imagine making anything more complicated than boxed macaroni ‘n’ cheese right now.
Ketchup and microwave hot dogs are as far as you'll go.
Same concept, but:
• You’re adding some extra protein with the help of a chicken leg that you grabbed at the supermarket on the way home.
• You’ve added a side salad, just grabbing a few handfuls of pre-washed greens out of a bag.
• You’ve whipped up your own pasta.
Work is still on your mind, and a couple drinks take the edge off.
Things are getting better.
• You’re upping the protein with a little more chicken.
• You’re having a little less pasta.
• You’ve also added a nice big salad to the mix.
• You’ve cut the alcohol to 1 drink.
Plus, you’re sitting at the dinner table, instead of flopping down on your sofa or standing over the sink.
This is your ideal.
With your meal planning and prep strategies, even a weeknight dinner looks good.
• You can whip up a delicious salad in 3 minutes flat and you have some pre-cooked quinoa on hand.
• That chicken is still a fast, convenient option, but now it’s got some healthy additions.
• You’re indulging in a single glass of good wine occassionally but most days water and you take time to savour it.
Meal transformation is not about reaching perfection.
If you’re at level 1, all you have to do is aim for level 2. Or somewhere in between...
If you’re at level 2, experiment with getting to level 3.
And if you’re level 3, well, you can stay where you are.
You may never get to level 4. Or it might only happen at times when you’re relaxed and have a little extra time.
Level 4 might only happen on Sunday night, whereas the rest of your week is a mix of level 1, 2, and occasionally 3.
And that’s OK.
How far you progress along the continuum all depends on what YOU want, what YOU need, and what YOU can reasonably do, right now.
Over time, things can change.
Play YOUR game.
Success secret: Have a food prep ritual.
You might look at these photos and think, “How can people possibly do all that?”
One success secret: Having a food prep ritual.
The concept is simple:
Practice planning and preparing healthy food in advance.
This makes healthy eating convenient and easy.
It also makes decisions easier: You don’t have to make a choice when you’re rushed and hungry.
Your food prep ritual can include:
• Shopping (or arranging to have food delivered)
• Menu and meal planning
• Washing and chopping vegetables
• Cooking/preparing protein (e.g. cooking up some chicken breasts)
• Cooking meals in bulk (e.g. casseroles, soups, stews, chili)
• Preparing the dry ingredients for things like smoothies or healthy flapjacks or granola.
• Soaking grains/beans beforehand so that they’ll be ready to cook later
• Sorting foods into individually portioned containers and bags.
• Freezing and refrigerating food for later
• Planning healthy meals that someone else cooks (e.g. using a meal delivery service, deciding in advance what to order at a restaurant, etc.)
• Looking ahead to ensure healthy eating strategies during the next few days, especially during difficult times (e.g. a busy week, travelling, dealing with a family crisis, etc.)
Mix and match any of these to find what works for you.
Experiment with systems, skills and strategies that work for YOU and YOUR life.
The real goal of a meal plan is to stop using a meal plan.
Fit, healthy people who have a good relationship with food don’t need other people to tell them exactly what to eat at all times.
Living a fit and healthy life doesn’t require perfection, either.
If you are using a meal plan:
Some people like prescription, especially if they are working towards a specific short-term goal, like cutting weight to compete in boxing, making sure they get enough nutrients to support a healthy pregnancy, or fuelling their triathlon performance.
Keep it short-lived.
Meal plans are supposed to be temporary, working towards a short-term goal.
Keep it realistic.
As much as possible, try to make the meal plan fit your real life, not the other way around.
If you’re a parent, a worker, a student, or anyone else living in the real world, most of your meals will fall somewhere in the level 1 to 3 spectrum. That’s perfectly OK. Just experiment with being a little bit better, wherever you can.
Remember all goals require trade-offs.
If you want to achieve a high level of performance or exceptional body composition, understand what you are prioritising and sacrificing.
Getting very lean, for instance, comes with costs.
Make sure it’s working for you.
If your meal plan is making you feel:
• anxious and fretful
• overly rigid and/or preoccupied with food…
…or any other negative, unproductive emotion…
…and if you find that meal plans result in you:
• “falling off the wagon”, hard
• getting obsessive and compulsive about food
• restricting foods and food groups…
• doing “all or nothing”, usually ending with “nothing”
…then consider trying another approach.
What to do next
1. Consider where you sit on the spectrum of meal “levels”.
What is your eating level?
What level would you like to get to?
Given your goals and your current situation, what is realistic?
For example, if you currently eat at level 1, your goal might be to eat at level 2 for most meals.
Or, if you eat at level 3 most of the time but find yourself dipping into level 1 or 2 meals more often than you’d like, aim to stay at level 3 a little more consistently.
2. Start small. One step at a time.
Pick one meal to transform and focus on that.
For instance, you might leave all your other meals at level 1, and focus on getting lunch to level 2.
Concentrate on improving that one meal each day.
Using the examples above, you might think about things like:
• adding protein
• adding veggies or fruits
• eating less processed food
• eating more nutrient-dense, whole foods
• drinking less alcohol or fewer sweet drinks
• drinking more water
• eating in a calmer, more relaxed setting
• eating more slowly and mindfully
Of course, don’t try to do all these at once.
Try just fiddling with one or two, and see which ones work best for you.
3. Add things slowly.
Once you’ve improved one meal a day, try another.
If you feel like lunch is a solid level 2 or 3, play with moving breakfast, dinner, or snacks along the spectrum.
Or, once you’ve improved one factor in a meal (e.g. adding more protein), try another.
For instance, if you’re getting more protein, now try switching out your sugary drinks for some sparkling water. Or adding a little more veggies.
4. Set yourself up for success.
Notice what makes it easier and simpler for you to eat better.
Then figure out how to do or get more of that.
• Is planning helping you? How could you do more of that?
• Is online shopping delivery making it easy? Could you set aside a little more cash to get more food that you can potentially prep and freeze for a whole week rather than a few days worth?
• Is setting aside time on Sunday afternoon to cook some protein a good idea? Great, keep on doing that. Book it in your calendar.
There’s no “right” way to do this. Do what works for YOU.
5. Enjoy your meals.
Meal plans don’t usually address how you eat.
Before you change what you eat, you can also try changing how you eat.
For example, you could:
• slow down
• breathe between bites
• savour your food
• sit at a table if you can
• use real dishes if you can.
Give yourself some time and space to appreciate those tasty concoctions you put together.
Meal time is YOUR time.
6. Work towards being your own manager.
Sometimes you might just want someone to tell you what to do.
That’s fine, and helpful, especially if you’re juggling a lot. But only for a while.
Over time, look for ways to help yourself intuitively and wisely make better choices, rather than just following the rules.
Think long-term. What do you want to happen over the next few months? Year? 5 years? Do you want to be on a meal plan for the next few decades?
Today, if you were to take one small step towards the “better” end of the meal spectrum, what might that look like?