Why Most Meal Plans Suck and How to Find the Right One for You

Goal-setting has been a hot topic around here lately—making, planning, and achieving goals for our clients, our businesses, and our own family this summer—#StrongFamilyWithHeidi to name just one!

No matter who you are or what’s important to you, everyone has goals. Maybe yours is as simple as eating more vegetables during the day or working out for 5 minutes a day. Maybe it’s eating more protein or getting more fiber into your diet. Or maybe you have a long-term goal like competing in a physique competition, finishing a marathon, or losing a certain number of pounds.

No matter what your goals are, it’s impossible to achieve them without having a plan in place. As Benjamin Franklin said (and as I often repeat), “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.”

Outfit Details + Kitchen Accessories: Teal Tee, Kitchen Towels, Cutting Board

When it comes to health goals, that plan HAS to include some type of eating plan: The TRANSFORM App (our personal fave), Intuitive Eating, Paleo, Keto, Intermittent Fasting, Atkins, South Beach, Zone, DASH, Blood Type, Ornish…there are literally hundreds of ways to eat out there.

But let me throw you for a loop for a second. As much as I advocate meal plans (hello, The TRANSFORM App!), I also kinda think they suck.

“Hold up, Heidi. You create meal plans for a living, but you’re saying they suck?” Let me explain.

I read an article from Precision Nutrition titled “Meal Plans Usually Suck.” I’ll be honest. When I first read the headline, I was confused. Here is a nutrition-based business (a company I’m currently getting a certification from) telling me, a trainer and coach whose business revolves around meal plans, that they suck. Those are some fighting words!

But after reading it, I couldn’t agree more with the article. Precision Nutrition’s message falls right in line with what Chris and I try to teach our clients.

Having a meal plan is essential, especially if you’re competing, getting paid to be an athlete, or trying to lose weight for a specific event or occasion. But sticking to a strict meal plan long-term is dang near impossible (and honestly, it’s not always the healthiest)! We’re humans, not robots, people! So much of what and how we eat revolves around our personal opinions of and experiences with food. Our cravings, emotions, and our cultural and social traditions are all part of our natural human behavior. On top of that, each of our bodies function differently and need certain things to perform at their best. There’s just no way to find a one-size-fits-all meal plan!

One of our favorite things to do as a family is go out to eat or get a big tub of buttered popcorn as we head for Powell-family date night at the movies. Constantly restricting yourself from those types of things would eventually become too much and may lead to behaviors such as binging, falling off the wagon, and thinking “This healthy eating thing is too hard and NOT for me!”

It’s a fine line, because for some, it’s easy to become obsessed with clean eating to the point where it can create an unhealthy relationship with food. No matter who you are or what you’re working toward, it’s important to take a step back and really evaluate your personal goals to try and find the right balance for you.

In the Powell household, we follow the 80/20 rule. I eat healthy 80% of the time, then I indulge the remaining 20%, because I know if I tried to stick to it 100%, it would bring back too many unhealthy habits from my eating disorders of the past and spin me out of control. I’ve come too far to go back. I’ve also come too far not to allow myself the occasional treat. (Hellooooooo Marshmallow Dream Bars!)

So where am I going with all of this?

I told you that I create meal plans, but in the same breath, I told you they stink. Ha! Feeling a bit conflicted?

What I want you to realize is that finding a healthy lifestyle you can actually maintain is one of the most important things you can do for yourself and for your family. I say this often: “If your plan is not sustainable, your goal is not attainable!” Remember, there is no one-size-fits-all plan! We are all unique, and our bodies and innate behaviors respond better to different ways of eating.

I want to lay out and break down a few different approaches to a nutrition lifestyle. But before I do, I want you to keep in mind that you don’t have to go from 0 to 60 right away. Making big changes starts with baby steps, and you might be surprised to find that it doesn’t have to be difficult OR boring! You can still achieve optimal health while enjoying the things that bring a smile to your face. I’ll dig in to some specific ways to make those doable changes next week. For now, here are the four types of meal plans you’ll usually encounter:

Four Approaches to Healthy Eating

  1. The Super Strict Plan. This is the kind of plan that tells you the exact amounts of food that should be eaten at exact times, along with a specific list for every meal of the day. Every single thing you’ll eat during the day is laid out for you. It doesn’t take into account your preferences or allow cheat foods. It may even eliminate certain foods that are considered healthy. Some people like the “no thinking required” part of this plan, and that can be nice for a while. But it WILL probably get tiresome. And although you might see results, you’ll eventually start to rebel against the rigidity of this plan and miss the foods that aren’t included in it. Most people will stop following this type of plan because of how uncompromising it is.

 

  1. The Kind-of-Strict Plan. This plan includes a list of items to choose from with specific amounts and suggested meal times. It may take into account your preferences, or it may not. Again, it might be fun to follow for a while, but this plan can also become rigid and boring. You’ll probably start to miss those “forbidden” foods, and eventually, you’ll stray.

 

  1. The Not-so-Strict Plan.This plan offers suggested macros for the day, and you get to choose how you fill them. This type of plan gives you a lot of freedom, but for some, it takes too much time and effort to figure out what to eat and when to eat, and to pre-log and keep track of your macros. Most of the time, people won’t want to dedicate the time and they’ll bolt.

 

  1. The Eat What You Want, When You Want, However Much You Want Plan. Otherwise known as the newly-hyped intuitive eating approach. Yes, it can work, as long as you’re being honest with yourself about how much you’re really eating, AND if you’re making sure you’re actually choosing healthy foods 80% of the time.

 

So which one is right for you? Only time, trial, and error will tell. If you’ve tried Super Strict for a while, and time and time again you find yourself failing, drop the yo-yo and TRY SOMETHING THAT ACTUALLY WORKS! Find a feasible that makes more sense to you, your body, your lifestyle, and your goals.

What we love about our TRANSFORM App is that it makes nutrition so simple and customizable. It’s designed to be flexible, so you can go as strict as you feel comfortable with or as loosey goosey as you need to stick to your goals. Download it now and get a 7-day free trial on iTunes or Google Play.

Okay! So now I’m dying to know…what plan (if any) have you been following, and what have you found that’s working or not working? Leave a comment below, because I’d love to see what you’ve been doing!

Don’t forget to check back next week! I’m going to share my secrets on HOW to start making those small changes RIGHT NOW to get you closer to reaching your goals!

xo,

Heidi

Related reading:

Meal Prep Tips and Tricks You Need to Know
Our 12 Month Transformation, Month Four: Prep & Plan!
Ask The Powells: How Can I Structure My Meals?
Six Tips for Diet Success
Eat More, Lose More: Settling The Fresh vs. Fast Food Debate


23 Comments

  1. Denise Kemper - August 15, 2018

    Figuring out a good eating plan is truly the most difficult thing for me to figure out.

  2. Shawna Lutz - August 15, 2018

    Trying to figure out what works best for my family. We are probably 70% clean but we need to clean it up a bit more. My downfall is complex carbs and sweets.

  3. Britany Marpet - August 15, 2018

    For the past couple days I’ve been thinking about meal prepping but having gluten and nut allergies makes it slightly difficult. After reading this blog and the 4 approaches to healthy eating I’m confident I can successfully meal prep, thank you!:)
    Also commenting for the contest !

  4. Rachel - August 15, 2018

    Loved this post. I’ve often thought strict meal plans can contribute to isolation in a culture that has food at every gathering and promotes creation of bonds with shared recipes and love of food. It’s tough as a night shift nurse to follow meal plans and I’ve been struggling trying to figure out when to eat evenwith the help of the transform app. And I love the transform app. I keep restarting it because I continue to struggle with knowing how and when. (Possibly lame excuses) We’re all here to learn. Thanks for your honesty and encouragement. I enjoy following your posts.

    🤞🏼 Hoping to join the dietbet with my workout buddy and fav cousin who lives a few states away. @rachelthewhitegirl

  5. Olivia Jobin - July 13, 2018

    I have tried them all! I am a relatively fit, 25-year old woman, but would like to become leaner (I want those muscles to pop baby!). I have never been able to get to that point where I can see real definition (unless I am flexing with a solid pump of course). I work out consistently with weights, yoga, and cardio. My legs are where I store most of my fat (like any typical woman I suppose). I have tried so many diets (fluctuated macro levels, calories, cut out gluten and dairy, went on cleanses) and kept wondering why nothing was working for me. I was always hungry, and then I found out I have hypoglycemia from also having fibromyalgia (explained a lot of things I had been experiencing over the years, especially the fatigue and overall body aches), so the doctor mandated I follow a strict diet of no starch, sugar, caffeine, or alcohol for two months. After this period you can slowly incorporate some of these back in to see how you feel. I am currently almost at the two month mark and have lost over 10 pounds (I am 5’5″ and went from 152-139 lbs). It may be something I have to follow though if my body does not handle carbs/sugars well. I don’t feel super restricted, I have always eaten relatively healthy, but I have been dying for a bagel! Or anything starchy for that matter. I am wondering if this has maybe also affected my muscle growth, since I am not getting enough carbs to fuel my workouts? Then again, people follow the keto diet and seem to have fat fall off them. The diet I am on is a mix between keto and paleo and I would have thought it would make me more lean. Maybe I have too high of expectations for myself, but I just can’t seem to find the diet or exercise plan that works for me that gets me the results I want.

    • Team Powell - July 16, 2018

      Hi Olivia: Thank you for your comment, and this must be so frustrating! Are you able to handle fruits and vegetables? Have you talked with your healthcare team about incorporating them into your diet? They are carbs also, so they might give you the carbs you need to help you achieve your goals. But always follow your healthcare team’s recommendations, and congratulations on losing 10 lbs! 🙂

  6. Cam - July 5, 2018

    Just wondering if you have meal plans for vegetarian, dairy and gluten free
    Thx!

  7. Joan - July 4, 2018

    Hi, I have been trying to count calories with the lose it app. I’m not sure how many calories are really appropriate for my weight loss goal but I know it’s only a matter of time before I tire of counting calories. I’ve tried a lot of different diet plans and have successfully lost 100lbs but in the last 2 years I’ve gained 60lbs and most of that has been over the last year. The problem is when I fall off the wagon, I fall hard. I can’t stop binge eating and of course eating all of the wrong things. First plowing a specific plan is very difficult because I’m on the run a lot. Any advice?

    • Team Powell - July 5, 2018

      Hi Joan: Thank you for your comment and for reaching out to us! Here’s a post that talks about Chris and Heidi’s #1 transformation tool, and I think it could definitely help you too: https://heidipowell.net/8679. The key to finding the right meal plan for you is to find one you can stick to for life – even beyond when you achieve your weight loss goal. This can take some trial and error, but it can be done! If you’d like to get an idea of what calories and macros are appropriate for your goal, there’s an amazing macros calculator in this post: https://heidipowell.net/10990 You can totally do this!

  8. Rana - July 4, 2018

    My family eats intuitively. I grew up in a family that ate 80/20, so I do the same. I keep lots of healthy snacks available (fruits, veggies, pre-portioned snacks) for my kids. It took a while for my husband to get used to this, but now it’s easier for him. We still indulge in sweets once a week as a treat. I use the Transform App for dinner, lunch and breakfast ideas.

  9. Keilah - July 4, 2018

    This couldn’t have come at a better time, my husband and I are trying to find the balance of eating all the food and eating nothing at all. Super strict makes me spiral out of control and triggers binge and destructive behaviours, where my husband in the other hand would be happy yo be handed a dish of perfectly measured macros and eat the same thing day after day. Do you have any suggestions for 2 people in the same home both with similar goals but such different eating preferences?

    • Team Powell - July 5, 2018

      Hi Keilah: Thank you for your comment! This can be tricky, for sure. Maybe each of you can try doing your own thing for meals during the day and then doing the same meal at dinner? You can then eat intuitively (or whatever program you’re following), and your husband can track his macros. Or you can each follow your own programs, but eat meals together? It can take some trial and error, but you both can figure this out!

  10. Tiffany O - July 3, 2018

    I used to be an intuitive eater and it worked well for me until 3 years ago when I got into a new relationship and he ate the exact opposite of me so I started to eat like him. I started eating foods I didn’t like (French fries, sweet tea, fried chicken, etc…) and now I have developed a taste for them and don’t remember how to eat intuitively as now I eat just as much as him or more and I constantly feel hungry even when I know I should be full. I’ve gained 15 pounds and stopped working out completely (he doesn’t work out) and we have a 19 month old. I guess looking back it’s hard for me to comprehend how I went from running 45 ish miles a week and weight lifting 4 days a week and eating intuitively and being very healthy for 32 years to a horrible diet consisting of fried foods and unhealthy foods and zero exercise in such a short time and I’m miserable. I don’t remember how or what I used to eat and what it feels like to not eat and eat and eat but never feel full. I really don’t even know where to start or how to make my body healthy and happy again.

    • Lauren - July 4, 2018

      Tiffany, just start with baby steps to get back on track. Don’t try to fix it all at once. Do one thing, right now, right as you read this, to start. It could be writing a grocery list for some healthy meals for the week. It could be going for a walk or run or walk/run. Take one step at a time and you may have an influence on your partner as well.

    • Vicki - July 4, 2018

      I enjoyed reading your post as I can completely see myself in your words. My situation is a bit different however the end result is the same. Twenty pounds gained over the past one year after maintaining a 100 pound loss for 15 years with a simple lifestyle change.
      Stress from a sisters cancer diagnosis and the betrayal of a trusted employer and loss of my job all contributed 🙃 The thing is, i (we)!know what we need to do but I find that My willpower has abandoned me and my taste buds are out of control lately. This post found me in the midst of my struggle and the struggle is very real! Praying that we both get back on track! For health 👍❤️

    • Team Powell - July 5, 2018

      Hi Tiffany: Thank you for your comment, and it’s so easy to tell how frustrated you are. Begin with those very small promises to yourself – learn more about promises here: https://heidipowell.net/8679. These small, simple promises are truly the #1 key to transformation success. What will your first promise be today? Make and keep that one, then another one…and you’ll be on your way! The other thing we recommend is to find your WHY – that super important reason behind wanting to transform your life. When you’re tempted to go off plan – not keep your promises – remember your WHY. Hope this helps – you can totally do this!

  11. Mindy - July 2, 2018

    I am actually trying the 2B Mindset by Beachbody. This plan is all about getting veggies into your diet and writing down your food and drinking a lot of water, which is good for me. However, what I am not liking about this plan is that I dont really know how many calories I am eating and I have to weigh myself every day. So I feel like I don’t eat as much as I should and I am afraid I will lose muscle. I have lost 4 pounds in about a month, but I feel that it is water weight.

    • Team Powell - July 3, 2018

      Hi Mindy: The correct amount of calories depends on your starting weight and your goal weight, and it is possible to eat too few calories. If you’d like to get an estimate of what you should be eating each day based on your goals, there is a macros calculator in this post: https://heidipowell.net/10990. And adding more veggies, tracking everything you eat, and drinking more water are all amazing habits to develop! 🙂

  12. Peggy - July 1, 2018

    Hi Heidi,
    I have been doing the Chris’s Powell dvd for 109 times. Was doing great. Had work to level 3 with no problem. Then all of a sudden I fell and landed on exercise step on corner on side. Ouch!! I must add I am 70 years old. Yesterday after three weeks of recovery I went back to level one. Question is, how long should I stay here before I go to level two? I normally worked out five days a week.
    Hope you have a great day. Hope to hear from you soon.

    • Team Powell - July 2, 2018

      Hi Peggy: I’m so sorry to hear about your injury. 🙁 I’d do level 1 until you feel comfortable moving to level 2. You’ve done this DVD so many times, that I have no doubt you’ll know when it’s time to move up a level. You’re doing amazing!

  13. Nicole - June 29, 2018

    Well I have been following the Transform App plan of course 🙂 I have been trying to get an extra 20 pounds off that wasn’t moving despite working out twice a day and training for a bike race on top of that. One week using the transform app and eating way more than I am use to and I’ve finally lost a few pounds. I can’t wait to keep it going. For me during the summer the nutrition plan has been amazing because we don’t have the time to have big sit down meals like we do during the school year. Huge lifesaver! And my kids are loving the simpler meals (ie grilled turkey burgers and veggie sticks) because that means more time they get to play outside. Win Win

  14. Stephanie Fitzgerald - June 29, 2018

    I’m an intuitive eater now. I started on the super strict went to Transform and did the macros. I ended up being so active that I had to be intuitive. I’d prefer going and working out that extra hour than weighing and measuring every bite. I so love you address this because as someone who actively deals with an eating disorder, we both know if we listen to that voice in our head we can take it to the extreme. Love it, lady!

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