Meal plans are everywhere. And for good reason. Meals plans can be inspirational, educational and motivational. However, they can also be restrictive and confusing.
In my opinion, the craft of the nutritionist is to change only those things that need to be changed about the way you like to eat, and absolutely nothing more. Meal plans are just one tool that I use in this journey.
To put some more words to these statements, below, I pull apart the role of meal planning in my practice and explain how I go about things when it comes to your manner of eating.
The benefits of meal plans
Personally, I love meal plans. When there is a link to a meal plan, you can be sure I will be clicking on it and having a look to see if there is anything I can learn. I can see three key benefits to meal plans: inspiration, education and motivation.
Meal plans, by their very nature, are inspirational. When you are looking at a meal plan written by an athlete, or a chef, or a nutritionist, it can inspire you to eat in a better way. You start to imagine how great it would be to wake up to the light and fruity breakfasts, how wonderful it would be to have such a hearty delicious lunch, and how relaxing it would be to have the allocated dessert at the end of the day. I have found that heading into the day (or week) knowing exactly what you’re going to eat not only gives structure to your day but also lets you look forward to what you’re eating.
Whenever I am trying to wrap my head around a new diet, it always helps to look at a meal plan. It outlines the ingredients that are regularly used, how people who are experienced with the diet space food out across the day, the kind of cultural influences that might best match the diet in addition to the diversity of meals available.
When you have a meal plan that you are trying to stick to, it is a bit like a to do list. You know what needs to be done, it gives you enough information to plan forward and have ingredients ready, and even when you stray from the meal plan, it is there waiting to guide you back to the correct path again, with clear, detailed instructions.
The downsides to meal plans
Despite these benefits, the meal plan doesn’t come without its challenges.
Most people have family recipes. They have those old classics that they love to pull out on a rainy day, or by the BBQ on a hot summer’s night. So when they have a meal plan that contains ingredients they aren’t familiar with, combines flavours that they don’t like, or uses cooking methods that don’t suit their mood at the time of the meal; the meal plan can feel restrictive and might begin to generate feelings of frustration.
One thing I have found with meal plans is that they rarely educate the consumer on why these meal combinations work so well together. For instance, they never really educate you as to why this breakfast fits so well with this lunch and dinner. While the meal plan is educational in a broad sense, by providing some insight and inspiration for the kinds of ways you can eat, it is not necessarily educational in a more minute sense, in the sense of…why does this diet meet my calcium requirements? What aspect of these meals makes them low kilojoule? So people can often become confused about graduating from a specific meal plan and left wondering whether they will be eating the same meals on the same meal plan forever.
I have given this a fair bit of thought, and so have established the following process for meal planning in my clinic.
I do use meal plans, but only as a temporary, 1 or 2 week measure. Let me explain.
The first consult
The first consult is all about you and your history. With regards to meals and eating, it is just as much about what you are eating as learning the way that you like to eat.
What you are eating helps to establish some of the causes behind how you are feeling, and why you aren’t able to reach your health and fitness goals.
The way that you like to eat helps to establish the foods you enjoy eating and assists in determining the way in which you should be eating moving forward.
After our first consult, I have an idea of the ways that you like to eat. Perhaps you love having porridge for breakfast every morning. Maybe you like your largest meal at lunch. Maybe you love cheese snacks throughout the day. Maybe your post-workout protein smoothie is unconditional.
I take all of this information, and provide you with what I call a ‘semi-personalised meal plan’. I provide a few days of meals that follow your eating patterns, but which meet all of your specific nutritional requirements. However, I tell you to use this only for education, inspiration and motivation. Look at it, and take what you like from it. Don’t worry so much about the details, but rather try to find your balance.
Some people might find that one of the recipes really resonates with them—’I never thought to include beans at breakfast!’ Some people might find that some or none of it resonates with them— ‘I hate broccolini!’
The purpose of this first step is not to try to make you eat in a certain way, but to inspire you and gently nudge you towards a more nourishing way of eating. It is a loose comb through your diet. Some big changes might need to be made at this stage, though. If you eat one vegetable serve a day, I will be providing a diet that you are not very used to. The changes really depend on how far away from meeting your nutritional requirements you are.
The second consult
In the second consult I review what you have been eating for the past week or two since I first saw you. This is really fascinating for me, as I am able to see what you liked and didn’t like. Then, I use this diet as my absolute template. Maybe I suggested a calcium-rich mid-morning snack, and you say it absolutely doesn’t work for you. I work with that, and try to find ways to increase your calcium elsewhere, at lunch or breakfast perhaps, with small, specific food swaps.
I provide detailed, clear explanations for the food swaps I recommend so that you have complete understanding of why the changes are suggested, and I involve you in the food selections, so that you are making the choices that work for you, and can see how to make choices on your own in the future.
Third and continuing consultations
It might take a few iterations before we reach that state of minimum change, where you are able to self-select only the most minor changes to your diet to meet your specific nutritional requirements while still eating how you like to eat.
From that point forward, I just offer continuing inspiration and education to help you move higher on your path to being a better and more well person.
My process in summary
So my process is:
Learn how you like to eat, and establish your nutritional requirements
Inspire you with a slightly personalised meal plan
Educate you on ideal food swaps given your preferences
Continue to refine and nuance your diet until you find the balance that works for you
Continue to provide inspiration and education for ways to improve your health and wellness and meet your fitness goals.
I look forward to helping you!