July 12, 2017

Why Meal Plans aren’t the Answer

Why meal plans aren't the answer. An in-depth look from a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist on why meal plans DON'T work and what does. | www.delishknowledge.com

I get it. I totally get it.

In theory, it sounds nice. Have someone (a nutrition professional!) tell you exactly what to eat, how much food to eat and when to eat it. Since most of my clients initially believe that if they just knew what to eat, they’d be able to reach their goals, this meal plan premise sounds pretty good.

Sadly, it’s not. In my almost ten years of being a dietitian, I’ve given out only a handful of meal plans. Way back in the beginning of my private practice, I started doing this for clients. It seemed like the perfect win-win. They wanted to lose weight, I wanted to be a good dietitian, so I gave them exactly what they wanted.

Spoiler alert. It didn’t work. They still came back to me week after week with the same issues surrounding food that was band-aided by following a meal plan. Is it because my meal plans were terrible? Probably not. I spent hours crafting those bad boys and used a variety of software programs to tailor the plans specifically to their needs. Is it because they didn’t have enough will-power to stick to a meal-plan? Absolutely not.

The meal plan failed them, they didn’t fail the meal plan.

The only time I’ve actually seen meal plans work is when they were followed by elite athletes training for a specific event. In my previous life as a sports dietitian and exercise physiologist, I worked with athletes who needed very specific breakdowns of macro (and micro) nutrients for their training goals. They didn’t come to me with issues surrounding food, they came to me with a laser focus on a specific training goal that proper nutrition could fix. It wasn’t about the food, it was about ensuring that their nutrient needs were met. Even then, these meal plans weren’t long-term. They were designed with a specific time-frame in mind.

For everyone else- you don’t need a meal plan to eat. I don’t know why or how this became such a thing, but you are better than a specific plan of food. You are smarter, more intuitive than any detailed plan of what you can and cannot eat. You have needs that change day by day, week by week and sometimes even hour by hour.

(Before I continue, I want to clarify that when I use the word ‘meal plan’, I’m talking about a specific plan of foods that is followed with some sort of goal in mind. I’m not talking about planning out your meals in advance for batch cooking and prep-work. That kind of meal plan isn’t specific to weight loss, or a diet, it’s just a smart way of planning meals for budget, time and perhaps health purposes. And, there isn’t any moral consequence if you don’t eat said meal that you planned for, like there tends to be in rigorous meal plans. That’s a big difference.

The meal plans that are discussed here are not the same meal plans that I would use with my Eating Disorder/Restricted Eating clients. Those plans are often necessary and need to be followed with utmost compliance.) 

Why Meal Plans Don’t Work

“I know what to do but I have a hard time following this on my own. Can you just give me a meal plan? I just need to know exactly when and what I should be eating!” 

If you’ve spoken (or thought) those words before, let me assure you again that a specific meal plan is likely the opposite of what you truly need. Sometimes, when I have a client who insists that this is what they want, I will give them such meal plan. 99% of the time, when we meet again, they’ve stopped following the plan.

It’s not you, it’s the process. 

Why?

Meal plans don’t address the real reason behind why you aren’t at your goal- whatever that may be. Whether that’s finding your happy weight, making peace with food or something else, meal plans aren’t the answer. They are a seemingly quick fix that cannot address the emotional connection behind food- aka, the reason why most of us eat what we do and how much of it.

Meal plans are too rigid

Meal plans are a rigid set of guidelines, telling you to eat this much of this exact thing at this exact time. You might be able to follow that for a short period of time, but then life usually comes in. Stressors come roaring back and you forgo said meal plan for a relaxing night out with friends. Or, you don’t have time to fix said meal and end up ordering take-out that definitely wasn’t part of your plan.

All of this is OK, none of these decisions should feel like failure. However, in a typical meal plan set-up, they do. Meal plans don’t teach you how to eat or expose why you choose the things that you do. Instead, they give you parameters to follow and when you stop following them, you feel like a failure (hey! sounds a lot like dieting. Read: the problem with diets)

Meal plans don’t teach anything

So, to recap. Meal plans don’t teach anything but how to follow a meal plan. That’s not what I want for my clients (or for you!) If you are paying to see a nutrition professional, you should learn sustainable ways to eat for life. You should be given the opportunity to really identify the whys behind your eating patterns and be given the tools to feel empowered around your eating choices going forward.

This is the biggest step towards not only reaching whatever goal you have in mind, but feeling freedom from traditional diets and programs. A meal plan only traps you further in this mindset, without a path out.

Meal plans make healthy eating feel like a punishment

Additionally, meal plans make eating ‘healthy’ feel like a punishment. If you’ve ever spent some time googling ‘weight loss meal plans’, then you know they typically feature a rotating list of egg whites, spinach, brown rice, chicken, tuna, salad and maybe a piece of fruit. And rinse and repeat for however long said meal plan is good for.

Sounds boring (and flavorless) to me. I know I don’t want to be eating those foods day after day, do you? If you’ve ever followed a similar plan and then quit, my guess is that your next meal was something completely opposite in both nutritional value and taste- pizza, pasta, dessert, or fried food usually being first choices.

This type of following vs. cheating frames foods into ‘good’ foods and ‘cheat’ foods; making the seemingly healthy foods feel like punishment to follow and the cheat foods feel like naughty failures. They are neither. As I discussed in my labeling food post, moralizing food choices can do a lot of damage in how you approach your diet.

Eventually, you get so turned off by the process of following vs. cheating that you quit altogether. You decide that ‘eating healthy’ is miserable and go back to your previous habits. Then, you miss out on the opportunity to evaluate your current relationship with food and work towards a a more enjoyable, lasting, peaceful place. 

This is exactly why I hate meal plans. They make my clients turn their nose up at ‘healthy food’, feel worse about themselves (because they think they’ve ‘failed’) and stress so much about never being able to reach their goals. 

What does work

So if meal plans aren’t the answer, what is? The answer to that is… it depends. I know this is the most frustrating answer to most things, but it’s the truth. Everyone is different when it comes to their path to health and what works for them and their lifestyle.

Bringing awareness to your current food choices and habits is the first big step in discovering your path. As I often tell my clients you are your best coach, trainer, dietitian, etc. All the tools you need are within you, you just might require a bit of guidance and education to bring them out.

 

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Meet Alex Caspero

Alex Caspero is a Registered Dietitian, Plant-Based Chef and Yoga Instructor. She aims to cut through the nutrition noise by providing real-life, nourishing tips for body and mind. Learn more about Alex.

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  1. Love this post and how helpful it actually is. I feel like I’ve always struggled to know what to do as far as eating correctly, but meal plans always scared me and I thought I had to do that in order to meet my goals.

  2. I love your comment about how meal plans don’t teach anything! If someone is coming up with your meals for you, then you aren’t learning how to feed yourself and listen to your body for what it wants/needs.

    Great post!

  3. This is a great post. I have friends who keep trying meal plans and diets with no results and it’s really disheartening for them.

  4. I wholeheartedly agree with this! A meal plan is just another word for a diet and is therefore only good for the short term.

    I do, however, feel like this post needs a disclaimer that for people recovering from restrictive eating disorders meal plans are not only acceptable but necessary. As a recovered person, I now eat intuitively and stay far away from counting calories, macros, etc. But I know that this post would have spoken to my ED brain and convinced me that I didn’t need to follow the plan I was given in order to get my body out of crisis.

    • Ah, you are completely right Amy- going to add that now. And, I should have added that I sometimes DO use meal plans/exchange plans with my ED patients- though, I don’t consider those traditional “meal plans” and discuss them differently with my clients. You bring up such a great point- thank you!