As a nutritionist, the number 1 thing people ask me for is a meal plan. When I tell people that I don’t provide meal plans, 9 times out of 10, I am hit with a disappointing silence, a puzzled look, and an eyebrow raising “why not?”. The response is understandable. People have been conditioned to expect meal plans from a nutritionist or a dietitian. That’s just part of the service, right?
But to me meal plans are another short-term fix to a long-term problem. The best course of action is for me to help you develop your own meal plans until you get so good at developing your own meal plans that you no longer need my help. To me, anything less than that is an unsustainable solution. To more fully explain why I feel this way I have put together my top 7 reasons for not providing meal plans to my clients:
- You Can’t/Won’t Be on a Meal Plan Forever: I don’t know anyone who has been on a meal plan service (purchased, not of their own making) for a continuous, extended period of time. The vast majority of people cycle on and off meal plans during the course of the year. The periods of time “off” the meal plan typically result in weight gain. And why wouldn’t they? They aren’t following any type of plan.
I want to teach you something you can do forever and without my help, not just for a few weeks or a few months at a time. In full transparency, I do advocate for using meal replacements, meal delivery, meal kits, and tv dinners for 4-6 weeks at the start of your diet to help you lose weight (see Table 1 for examples). I don’t tell you what to eat, I let you decide that just as long as you can meet the overarching guidelines.
Table 1. Meal Options for Phase I Weight Loss. These options are “tools” for losing weight in the short term and are no substitute for home cooked meals.
But these are not long-term solutions, they are short-term tools. You can use these tools when you need them (Phase I dieting or to fill in the gaps later on) but I do not believe these meal options are sustainable for weight loss over the long-term.
There’s no shortage of options when it comes to meal planning or meal solutions. I’ve put together a table highlighting some (but not all) or your options (Table 2).
Table 2. A Sampling of the Different Meal Replacement, Meal Delivery, Meal Kit, and Meal Plan Services.
- You Will Need to Transition Out of the Meal Plan: when you stop using meal plans, replacements, delivery, or kits you will come to a fork in the road. You can go one of two directions: go back to eating more restaurant/order in food or you can meal plan on your own and home cook your meals. Eating out is WAY easier than meal planning and cooking (Table 3) so chances are you will slide back into eating more meals out. Eating meals out is not conducive to losing weight and keeping it off.
Table 3. Meal Options and Their Difficulty/Burden.. Meal plans are only one notch away from Do It Yourself Home Cooked Meals. Just take the next step!
- Meal Plans Cannot Cater to Your Tastes and Preferences: I have lived with my wife for 11 years and I still get some of her preferences wrong. There is just no way, that a meal planning service or dietitian will be able to create a meal plan that meets your tastes and preferences on a consistent basis. They will never spend enough time with you to fully understand you.
If you’ve ever been on a meal plan or created one for someone else, you know how difficult it is to get it right. I could tell you to eat fish, salads, and grilled chicken breasts (even after discussing it with you or having you complete a survey on food likes/dislikes) but if you don’t like it, you’re not going to eat it – but you will find a less healthy alternative, guaranteed. There are just too many food combinations (millions), and your tastes change from week to week, day to day, and hour to hour.
- I Don’t Know Your Ever-Changing Schedule: people’s schedules and time commitments are not static. They change by the day, the week, and the season. Only you know the logistics of your schedule and whether and when you need to make crockpot meals, 30-minute meals, eat breakfast cereal or find other options. Nearly ever day something comes up that you need to be able to adjust to on the fly. Meal plans just cannot account for that. This is another reason why you should try to develop your own weekly meal schedule.
- It is Very Difficult to Assess Your Current Comfort Level in the Kitchen: do you like cooking, do you hate cooking or are you indifferent? Do you have the time, knowledge, skills, desire, and equipment? What are you comfortable doing in the kitchen and where are you out of your element? These are all difficult questions for me to answer. You’re much better suited to pick out meals and recipes that match your culinary comfort and available time than I am.
- Meal Plans Don’t Teach You Anything: when you’re done with your meal plan, you’re left naked and afraid. You’re lost and don’t know what to do because you’ve always been told what to do. For those of us who came before GPS, my parents drove me to the local town (Eau Claire, WI) numerous times and I thought I knew how to get there and get around town. I’d been there literally hundreds and thousands of times. Nope, when I got my driver’s license, I had to relearn how to get around town. Learning comes from doing, not passively following.
To lose weight and keep it off you need to know where calories come from (portions, energy density, food frequency) and how to limit or adjust those calories through portion control, recipe modification, etc. You also need to learn how to be flexible and adjust on the fly. If you don’t have time to make a recipe, what is your backup plan? If an unexpected work lunch or dinner comes up, what are you going to order to stay on track?
There is a baseline level of knowledge about food, your food environment, and your decision-making process that are not included in meal plans. Again, if you want to learn about something, you need to do it yourself.
- You Don’t Need to Pay Me for Something You Can Easily Do Yourself: dietitians and meal plan services will tell you that nutrition is WAY TO complicated for you to do it yourself. You need to know your macros (fats, carbs, proteins), get the recommended number of servings from each food group, hit your vitamin and mineral quotas, get the right amount of essential fats and amino acids, meet your fiber goals, limit your added sugars, saturated fat, and excess sodium. The list goes on and on and on.
But don’t let them fool you. Weight loss is about calories in/calories out. Even if you have a great meal plan provided for you it is SOOOO difficult to meet all of the recommendations. Unless you are eating “perfectly” day in and day out, you’re not going to meet all of the recommendations, even on a meal plan. I have a real beef with the unrealistic expectations that dietetics puts upon us (people that eat food) but that is a story for another time.
I get it, there is definitely a comfort in knowing exactly what to do and having a well-defined roadmap to get to where you’re going but paying for a meal plan for the rest of your life just isn’t feasible. There are too many other ever-changing factors in your life.
To me, asking for a meal plan is telling me that you don’t want to have to think or do the hard work that it takes to create lasting, sustainable eating patterns. That’s a red flag to me, telling me that maybe you’re not ready to make a real change.
To be committed to lasting change you can’t rely on me to tell you what to do. You have to learn to figure out what to do on your own (with my initial help, system, and structure). Whether you use meal replacements, meal delivery, meal kits, or meal plans, eventually you are going to have to learn how to plan and cook your own meals at home. Rather than failing again and again and again, let’s try to fix your diet once and for all by creating a systematic, sustainable way of eating through meal planning and home cooked meals. Stop wasting your time and get it done today!