Looking for a meal plan to help you lose weight? Not all meal plans are created equal. Does it tell you exactly what food to eat and when? Or does it give you some flexibility so you can choose the foods you enjoy and allow you to time your meals according to your hunger or lifestyle?
This sounds counterintuitive to many but a meal plan is only successful if it forces the user to make decisions and put some work in rather than the maker of the meal plan prescribing every detail. Meal plans should be thought of as a learning tool that will make it easier to understand what, how much, and when to eat if you are not following the meal plan. The goal should never be to rely on the plan forever.
A more useful type of meal plan is a template. It states which types of foods (protein, strach, vegetable, etc.) to include with each meal and the respective portion sizes. However, the user of the meal plan chooses the foods they like to fit into the template. Instead of me telling you to eat a 4oz apple, 1 piece of toast, and 2 eggs at breakfast each day, it might look like: breakfast should include 1 serving fruit, 2 servings of protein, and 1 serving of starch. Then YOU choose the foods that you enjoy. Maybe today you want an apple for your fruit but tomorrow you want strawberries. Maybe you enjoy having eggs for a couple days in a row but then want to switch it up to ham instead. Or maybe you want to avoid bread so you would much rather have oatmeal.
The meal plan does come with an example day of what foods could fit into the plan so you have an idea and starting point but it is just an example. You should choose the foods you enjoy to fit into the plan for it to be successful for any period of time. Reaching your goals takes time and the method you use to reach that goal should be maintainable!
Forcing the user to make these decisions will TEACH the user how to structure a meal, how to make food choices by listening to preferences (maybe you really like toast but notice is doesn’t keep you full, so you choose oatmeal more frequently), and encourages food variety. Eating a variety of foods is one of the keys to optimal nutrition.
The goal of this type of meal plan is to teach you how to not need it! Meal plans that spell out every specific detail with no flexibility sounds nice at first because it takes the thinking out of it but it is bound to fail. If you are not enjoying the foods you eat, it will be extremely challenging to follow the plan for any length of time.
Instead, thinking about which foods give you satisfaction (maybe one day you want more volume so you choose your snack to be 3 cups of air popped popcorn but the next day you really want pretzels so you have ¾ oz of pretzels instead) will allow you to feel content and build confidence in food choices. It will also help you understand what foods are higher calorie and lower calorie as well as which foods contain which macronutrients (fat, carbohydrate, protein).
Once you have an understanding of the basics, transitioning to intuitive eating will be easier. The long term plan for all my clients is to eat intuitively (without having to follow a specific plan) while still meeting nutrient needs.
There is no right or wrong, good or bad food.
Along with learning which components you should try to include with most meals, following a meal plan can allow you to learn flexibility and independence overtime. I want you to learn how to eat in a way that fits your goals, lifestyle, and preferences by making food choices yourself that you can be confident in.
Pros to following this type of meal plan
- You become more conscious of food choices
- Can be maintained until your goals are reached
- Flexibility to choose foods you enjoy (forces you to think about which foods you enjoy and make conscious food choices)
- Teaches you how to structure meals (making sure each meal has a protein source and vegetables for example)
- Encourages you to listen to hunger cues to determine when and what to eat
- Promotes making foods at home
- Encourages eating whole foods
- Encourages regular eating patterns as opposed to skipping meals or trying to reduce calories too low
- Teaches “normal” portion sizes
- Teaches what foods fit into which food groups
- Encourages you to make sure you’re eating enough food throughout the day
- Focuses on foods to include rather than foods to avoid
- Sets you up for success when not following the meal plan
- Skills learned by following a meal plan can be implemented forever even after stopping following the plan
Cons to following this type of meal plan
- Might get in the way of listening to hunger and fluctuating meal size based on hunger/fullness cues
- Can create dependency to the plan if not used correctly
- Can worsen symptoms in those with disordered eating behaviors (those who believe they have disordered eating should work one on one with an eating disorder dietitian) need support? Contact me
- May not be able to optimize success without doing nutrition counseling along side it for additional individualization
Nutrient needs change day to day and can fluctuate greatly over a month so working one on one with a dietitian can help you learn how to be flexible while meeting nutrient needs and moving towards your goal. Reach out by clicking here if you need additional help.
Think a meal plan is right for you? Contact us and we’ll help you build one!
*Individualized meal plans can also be made after a one on one nutrition assessment in person or remotely.
Alyssa Broadwater MS, RD, LD, CSCS