Meal Plan Makeover: A Step-By-Step Guide to Un-Suck A Sucky Meal Plan

Last week, I posted about the controversial topic of WHY I think most meal plans suck! In the post, I talked about the different types of meal plans that people typically try to follow in hopes of reaching their goals, as well as my thoughts on those plans…which is that most often, they’re setting you up for failure!

To recap my “why:” Because you might kill it following a specific plan for a while and might even hit your goal! But eventually, after the feeling of deprivation sits with you long enough, either: 1. You will slip up and fall off the wagon, or 2. You will be sick of the usually boring foods on your meal plan, and you’ll never want to eat another piece of chicken, asparagus, or whatever you’re having to force down! The reality is that we’re humans, not meal plan robots.

When it comes to dieting, we tend to have an all-or-nothing mentality. And once we’re off the bandwagon because we ate birthday cake for breakfast or overdid it on our macros, we’re likely to binge on those forbidden foods and end up even farther behind on our health goals than when we started. Instead of coming away from our meal plan experience with a sense of accomplishment, we’re left with a negative attitude towards healthy eating.

That’s just not cool. Or feasible.

If the thought of sticking to a meal plan makes you want to run and hide, I don’t blame you! Here are some real life examples of minor tweaks you can make to your daily eating habits to help you see lasting progress toward your goals.

Meal plan phases: Small changes for big results

The goal with this next section (which I learned from Precision Nutrition) is to remind you that you don’t need to change your entire meal plan at once! Doing so will often lead you right back to where you started, and oftentimes, in a much worse place. The GOAL is to change one small thing at a time. Baby steps do add up! 

I’ve taken two traditionally popular meals (breakfast and lunch) as most people might eat them. They are based on convenience because let’s face it, that’s what it’s all about these days! 

Instead of completely removing the meal of donuts and a blended coffee calorie bomb (which we’ll call Phase One), I’m showing you how you can slowly transition over time to Phase Two, then Phase Three, and finally Phase Four.

Just one phase at a time. Broken down to one meal at a time. 

I’m in no rush. You shouldn’t be either.

This is about lasting success and total transformation. NOT a quick fix.

Keep in mind that these are just examples of the changes you can start making. Each phase builds upon the previous one and goes from unhealthy to healthier. Wherever you are, the point is to make doable changes. Even the smallest adjustments can bring huge results if you’re consistent.

An important side note: For some people, eventually getting all meals to Phase Four (healthiest) might be the name of your game. You just might find happiness and health there! For others though (myself included), you might find your happy place living anywhere between Phases Two and Four. And that’s okay!

You might be at a Phase Four for meal one, a Phase Two for meal two (because you are busier during that time of the day), and a Phase Three for dinner because you have time but still like your piece of chocolate.

Wherever you feel your meal plan is MOST sustainable, creating longer lasting success, is where you should ultimately land. Remember: Deprivation is NOT the name of the game!

BREAKFAST

Phase 1:


Phase 1 represents the not-so-healthy daily habits a lot of people have adopted. If this is close to where you currently are, that’s OK!

  • 2 cake donuts (380 calories)
  • Blended Frappuccino, large (400 calories)
    Total calories: 780

Phase 2:


This is your first step in making those small changes to advance toward a healthier lifestyle! Consider cutting your donuts down from two to one and substitute that second donut with some healthy protein to keep you full longer!

  • 1 donut (190 calories)
  • 2 scrambled eggs (160 calories)
  • Light blended drink, no whip, small (150 calories)
    Total calories: 500

Phase 3:


Take Phase 2 to the next level! Swap out those donuts for a bagel with cream cheese and keep your two scrambled eggs. Your coffee has gone from a blended, high fat, high sugar drink to an iced coffee with sugar and cream.

  • Bagel and cream cheese (200 calories)
  • 2 scrambled eggs (160 calories)
  • Iced coffee with sugar and cream (100 calories)
    Total calories: 460

Phase 4:


Think: Totally healthy! Notice all the changes you’ve made to get to this point and take a minute to see how delicious this meal really sounds!

  • Multigrain organic bagel with lox and low fat cream cheese (230 calories)
  • Side of berries (70 calories)
  • 4 scrambled egg whites (68 calories) 
  • Iced coffee, unsweetened, with almond milk and stevia (30 calories)
    Total calories: 368

That wasn’t so bad, was it? Keep in mind, nobody expects you to make all these huge changes every day. Set your own timeline.

YOU are the keeper of these goals. No one is going to rush you, and you are the only one who knows what it takes to gain personal success! Still want a donut or your favorite Frappuccino once in a while? Go for it! The point is to eat healthy the majority of the time so you can indulge once in a while without sabotaging your goals. It’s all about balance.

Other tips for healthifying your breakfast:

  • Forget the fancy coffee drink and try taking your coffee black! Add in zero calorie sweetener and fat free creamer.
  • Want to keep that donut? Try eating only half instead! Share the other half with someone or save it for later.
  • Choose a whole grain bagel or muffin.
  • Skip the cream cheese altogether.
  • Sub your baked goods (donut, muffin, bagel, etc.) with a piece of fresh fruit or a small handful of almonds.
  • Have a protein shake as part of your meal.
  • Eat a low or nonfat Greek yogurt topped with a bit of low fat granola.

LUNCH/DINNNER

Phase 1:

Once again, this is the starting point for many people. There is NO shame in this at all. It also might be a point you (and I) come back to every so often to fill the need for indulgence and get rid of the feeling of deprivation. Is this the healthiest? No. But baby steps.

  • Cheeseburger (300 calories)
  • Fries, large (500 calories)
  • Coke, large (300 calories)
    Total calories: 1,100

Phase 2:

Phase 2 is about making one step closer to healthy from Phase 1. We decided to keep the cheeseburger AND the fries, simply reducing the size of the fry from a large to a medium. Instead of the sugary soda drink, we opted for diet, eliminating a whopping 300 calories!

  • Cheeseburger (300 calories)
  • Fries, medium (380 calories)
  • Diet Coke, medium (0 calories)
    Total calories: 680

Phase 3:

By the time you’re ready for Phase 3, you don’t mind swapping the fatty red meat with a leaner white mean. We chose to go with  turkey burger on a whole wheat bun, swapped the french fries for baked potato chips, and added a side salad for added bulk and micronutrients. Instead of any kind of soda, we went with sweetened water.

  • Turkey burger on wheat bun (350 calories)
  • Baked potato chips (130 calories)
  • Side salad with vinaigrette (100 calories)
  • La Croix or sweetened water (0 calories)
    Total calories: 580

Phase 4:

Phase 4 is the healthiest option. We opted for organic grilled chicken breast and steamed quinoa, grilled asparagus, and a side of mixed berries. Antioxidant overload! We also swapped our sweetened water with BCAA water.

  • Grilled chicken breast with side of quinoa (200 calories)
  • Side of fruit (60 calories)
  • Grilled asparagus (15 calories)
  • Water w/ BCAAs (0 calories)
    Total calories: 275

Other tips for healthifying your lunch or dinner:

  • Order a side of small fries instead of the typical size that comes with the meal.
  • Same with the soda. (Size down!)
  • Omit the cheese and/or sauces on your burger.
  • Add extra tomato and/or lettuce to your burger.
  • Sub a cup of fruit, a side salad, or a baked potato for fries.
  • Really want the fries? Make some sweet potato fries to satisfy that craving!

SNACKS

I hear from people ALL the time that late afternoon and evening snacking can be a huge roadblock in their progress towards their goals. Let’s figure this one out together!

Phase 1:

  • Measure out single serving sizes of your favorite go-to snacks and put them in separate containers, even if they’re donuts, Hot Tamales, whatevs. Just portion and enjoy every bite!

Phase 2:

  • Sub your favorite protein bar for that candy bar that’s been looking at you.
  • Eat some dark chocolate—the higher percent of cacao, the better!
  • Choose baked chips over fried chips.
  • Try adding a protein shake to your serving of ice cream.
  • Pair a piece of fresh fruit with your regular indulgence.
  • Cut the amount of chips you normally eat in half, and sub the other half with whole wheat crackers.

Phase 3:

Phase 4:

  • Eat some air-popped popcorn. Spray it with coconut oil and sprinkle on your favorite seasonings (sea salt, etc.).
  • Opt for prepped veggies with yogurt ranch dip.
  • Grab a small handful of nuts, portioned out, of course.
  • Bake some kale sprinkled with sea salt.
  • Keep hard-boiled eggs on hand and enjoy them with your favorite no-salt seasonings!

Remember: You might be in different phases during the day, during the week, or even during the month. Real life is just like that! The important thing is to be cognizant of what you’re eating and make the best choices you can without adding unnecessary stress to your life!

Finding the perfect plan that meets all of your criteria can be tough, but it’s not impossible. You might find over time that you stick to your plan like super glue for awhile, but then fall into what we call Meal Plan Fatigue. You just can’t do it any more, and you and your plan need to break up for a while.

No matter which type of plan you follow, life will get in the way. What will keep you ultimately on track is not giving up when it does. Instead, be willing to adjust your plan and keep working toward that goal!

What makes a good, sustainable meal plan?

If you do decide to follow a meal plan, make sure it meets the following requirements:

  • It encourages long-term healthy habits.
  • It includes a wide variety of foods. Remember, no foods should be off-limits! Food should never make you feel guilty.
  • It fits into your budget.
  • It’s easy to follow and understand.
  • It works for YOU. This is so important! Your plan must be right for you, your body, your lifestyle, and your goals. Not your spouse’s, not your BFF’s, not your co-worker’s or neighbor’s. Just because a specific plan worked for Sheila from accounting doesn’t mean it’s the plan for you!
  • It follows the 80/20 rule. Eat clean, healthy foods 80% of the time and leave room to enjoy your treat-like faves 20% of the time.

How do I begin?

This is an important question. What I see happen so often is that people want to do everything perfectly from the beginning. Please don’t do that!

Trying to make ALL the changes right away only sets you up for failure. Instead, pick ONE small thing you can do right now. You need to break your goal up into small, manageable steps so you can see success and stay encouraged. Eventually, you will reach that big goal!

Chris and I put so much emphasis into promises because we really believe they’re vital to your transformation! Making a promise to yourself (and keeping it) is one of the most important things you can do. And you know what? Once you realize you’ve been able to keep that promise, you’re more likely to make another.

Maybe your promise is to only make one small change, to one meal, each day. That’s a GREAT start! Say it out loud, write it down, and do it. What is one small promise or change you’re going to make for yourself this week? Whether it falls in the category of food, fitness, or any other areas of your life, I want to hear about it. I can’t wait to read through all of your amazing goals!

xo,

Heidi

Related reading:

Meal Prep Tips and Tricks You Need to Know
Six Tips for Diet Success
Eat More, Lose More: Settling The Fresh vs. Fast Food Debate
Our Top 4 Transformation-Friendly Food Faves
4 Kitchen Must-Haves for Transformation Success
Grocery Shopping 101


22 Comments

  1. Caroline Mansell - September 29, 2018

    I have the book and love it. I keep trying quick diets that aren’t sustainable bit this seems more like a lifestyle and not a diet, just changing habits. Now I’m considering the app but want to know if there are more recipes than in the book? Like casseroles? Crockpot recipes. Simple ones? I love the ones in the book but some days I just need simple.
    Thanks.

    • Team Powell - October 1, 2018

      Hi Caroline: With this next update, we’ll have 487 recipes in the app for all meal categories and prep times from grab n’ go to quick prep to gourmet (not necessarily “gourmet,” they just take a bit longer to prepare). We do have some multi-serving recipes also, and each recipe is scaled for 1 serving. Hope that helps – you’ll love the app!

  2. Nikita1600 - August 16, 2018

    Love this article! I start out the same way with meal plans and then I get really bored. Sometimes it just feels so limiting. I love the approach you laid out here!!! Great article!

  3. Valerie Halstead - August 15, 2018

    I always try to find a magic plan that will lead to weight loss, but never stick to any plan for long! Thank you for these ideas! I like that they are reasonable and require responsibility on my part, not a magic formula! 🙂

  4. Wendy Marple - August 15, 2018

    This is very helpful. I am at the beginning of my transformation and this post helps me with my transition. I get overwhelmed easily and your advice is so helpful.

  5. Emily Staheli - August 15, 2018

    I’ve never been taught how to eat strategically. I come from a family that loves to have dinners and we love sweets. I’m not over weight but I’m unhappy in my skin. After 4 babies I’d like to get feel good about myself and I want my love handles to stop hanging over my pants! I would love to learn how to eat right and help lose the extra weight I don’t like and finally get a body I’m happy with. I just need someone to help show me how and show me how to fit it in my crazy everyday life. I think you guys are amazing!

  6. Andrea - August 13, 2018

    Thank you so much! This is the most realistic and actually manageable ‘plan’ I’ve ever seen! I love it! It’s always a good reminder to hear that little steps do matter and it’s not ‘all or nothing!’

  7. Beth McKamy - July 19, 2018

    Thanks for your response above and for sharing the link about making promises to myself. As you stated in that particular blog post, many times what derails me is making too many changes at once and getting overwhelmed. I’m excited about making one promise at a time. Running the marathon instead of the sprint. Patience for results has never been my strength lol. Thanks again for your response of not only the link but your encouragement. Blessings

    • Team Powell - July 23, 2018

      Hi Beth: You are so welcome! You got this! 🙂

  8. Kim Christenson - July 14, 2018

    This was SO good, Heidi! Makes healthy eating so much more approachable and sustainable.

  9. Elissa - July 13, 2018

    Love the phases approach. Totally makes sense!

  10. Michelle Trca - July 13, 2018

    Fantastic approach to a very realistic eating transition! I love the phases approach. Very inventive! Also, I NEED that round cutting board/chopping block in the first picture above. Where can I get my hands on one of those?!!

  11. Beth McKamy - July 13, 2018

    Great article!!! I’ll start by saying I’m 140-150 lbs overweight. Or should I say obese. At 61 years old I’m scared, especially since I’m in a phase where I’m eating constantly. Although I have no big health issues (Mostly just ankle swelling at end of day and problem with acid reflux) that are noticeable, I fear at my age that won’t last long. I take an over the counter heartburn pill (so I can drink my soda that I’m addicted to) and a baby aspirin because I’ve read at my age I should. I’ve had trouble dieting and exercising. I live alone and have no one to hold me accountable so diets last from 1-5 days. Recently it’s closer to 1 day. I find it hard to eat healthy because my go to is potato chips, cheese and soda. That’s for all meals and lately I’m really craving sugar products like cake with buttercream, ice cream or anything else sweet I can find. I like fruit, love carbs and starches & hate vegetables except tomatoes. A couple of weeks ago I went to store to buy a week’s supply of healthy food on a meal plan I found. Unfortunately I spent for a week half my monthly food budget. That plan lasted a day and a half. Discipline isn’t my strength. Thanks for this article. I’m going to give it a try.

    • Team Powell - July 16, 2018

      Hi Beth: Thank you for your comment and for sharing your struggles with us. Here’s another post I think could help you get and stay on track, and it’s Chris and Heidi’s #1 transformation tool! https://heidipowell.net/8679. Give it a try? You can totally do this…one baby step at a time! 🙂

  12. Angie - July 13, 2018

    This was very thoughtfully written. I really appreciate this. Thank you for taking the time to put it together for us.

  13. Sandy Wentzel - July 13, 2018

    Great,I mean great article!!!

  14. Beth - July 13, 2018

    This post helps me to see in front of me, what I’m actually doing right. I’m at about a 2.5 in the phases. 🙂 I could do better. But, I could do worse. I definitely believe in the 80/20 rule. If I don’t get a treat once a week, I know I would just slide and overindulge in something. That treat once a weeks keeps me diligent the rest of the week. Food should make you feel like you are in bondage . Either to overeating, or losing pleasure in eating. Food is meant to be enjoyed as well as be healthy. It can be both! You’ve helped me see that, Heidi ! Thank you!

    • Beth - July 13, 2018

      I meant shouldn’t make you feel like you’re in bondage! 🙂

    • Team Powell - July 13, 2018

      Hi Beth! We love that you love the post and that it’s helpful for you! 🙂

  15. Becky - July 13, 2018

    Good read! I have trouble mentally with diet because I already eat very clean and keep a close eye, but can’t seem to get the 5 pounds off that I would like to! I love your blog, is there an article about getting those last few pounds off that maybe I’ve missed in checking it out?

  16. Stela Festini - July 13, 2018

    I love these tips and found for me I have no room for 80/20 because I have battled my weight loss and gain all my life since i was born. I have lost weight three different times in my life and two of them was being forced to eat very low amount of calories and very unhealthy during my teenage years. When I first found out that I can eat more then one meal a day to lose weight I felt so happy that helped me lose the weight again but it didn’t stick I always went back to the chocolate, fast food and chips. While I was pregnant with my daughter who’s 5 years old now I was heavy and lost weight during my pregnancy as I was eating healthy and was very happy I lost 60 lbs after delivery from when I got pregnant. Then life hit me hard my husband cheated on me and left me when my daughter was 3 months old I went back to food after that and gained back over 154 lbs and have been at it for the past 5 years. A couple of years ago I have started feeling anxiety for the first time from all the chocolate I was eating and I got rid of it all once and for all and havent eaten any chocolate in a couple of years and feel really happy about that and it helped lose 60 lbs and then I still didn’t let go of fast food and chips, pasta all of that I started to get heartburn every day and found out that I really need to change my life once and for all to have my health be a huge priority for myself and my daughter. I have since May had a huge wake up call when I felt sort of dizzy and had gone to the hospital that thought I had to go see a cardiologist for the first time and ended up being an inner ear infection thank you God made me change my ways and completely go to eating healthy all the time and I’m not saying it’s easy but I want quality food in my body to feed it only for health no pleasure I’m very addicted to food that I know I would start to turn one cheat meal to two and so on and get off track and I dont want that ever again. I love you Heidi you are a great inspiration to me and you are amazing!

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