That’s what some clients and friends implore me to do. They ask me to tell them exactly what to eat in order to kick ass at getting lean, building muscle, or just becoming healthier for taking life by the horns.
My preachiness was cringeworthy in retrospect. I’d put on my Mike Brady voice and lecture them about why I didn’t write meal plans. If you’re too young to remember Mr. Brady, then I’ll pinch your cheeks, youngster, and school you.
Mr. Brady, the patriarch of the Brady Bunch, patiently doled out life lessons to his brood before telling them to skidaddle. He always had a neat and tidy answer at the ready.
Just like Mike, I tsk-tsked. There are better alternatives to handing out a meal plan.
That’s because very strict meal plans – you know, the ones that tell you exactly what to eat for every meal, don’t work for the long term.
- Meal plans don’t teach us why choosing certain foods help us meet our goals successfully.
- They tend to fall apart the first time that something unexpected happens. We have an event. Or we run out of an ingredient but it’s 6 p.m. and we’re hangry.
- Nobody is going to use a meal plan forever; so why not start by building skills that will teach you how to eat well for life?
Let me teach you, I say. I don’t think I sound like Mr. Brady, but who knows? Alice was an empathetic listener. I needed to channel her instead.
Yeah some people look at me like Cindy. When I see that look or sense that feeling in someone’s words, I know we need a new starting place.
That’s because I’ll always show you the ropes. But learning to climb dem ropes will take a whole lot of new skills.
- Learning the nutrition basics – macronutrients, micronutrients, etc.
- Counting calories. Not forever, but until you learn what’s in your food.
- Learning to manage your emotional relationship with food.
- Managing hunger.
- Learning what kinds of foods best meet your goals.
- Menu planning.
- Changing what kinds of foods you choose at the grocery store.
- Figuring out new ways to cook.
- Understanding what a healthy meal looks like.
- Incorporating treats so you don’t binge.
Damn, Cindy, I get it.
That’s a lot. And I’m not even done telling you what you’ll learn along the way to building the skills that will keep your body and mind happier and healthier.
So is there a middle ground we can find?
Some people can hop right in and get going with doing all the things at once. If this isn’t your first rodeo in the nutrition game, most likely you just need to do some fine tuning.
But it’s a lot different if all of those things I rattled off are brand new. I get you.
What vegans showed me about taking on new things.
I remember how exasperating it was to learn how to cook and eat like a vegan last summer. You see, I wanted to better understand clients who might not be on #teamchicken like I am. I came away with two giant realizations.
1. Vegan cooks share some surprisingly tasty recipes. It was good to shake things up and get new ideas. #teamlentiltoo
2. I now get why jumping into the deep end of lifestyle change can be so overwhelming.
Yes, I can better empathize with trying to make sweeping changes in one swoop. I needed training wheels.
If the thought of having to figure out everything at once makes you break out into a sweat, chill out. Instead, choose one thing that you think is both totally doable and will make a meaningful difference to how you feel.
Eat mostly junk? Stop bringing it into the house. And throw some apples into your shopping cart.
Working out sporadically? Make a schedule you know you can keep.
Too busy to cook? Choose some stupidly simple meals that are more like “throwing together things on a plate” than actually cooking.
But what if you still want me to just tell you what to eat?
Here’s one way I help clients who need more guidance. You can do it too:
1. First you need to understand what a daily meal should look like most of the time. My recommendations vary based on your goals, but nearly everyone should have a plate that has mostly non-starchy veggies, a portion of protein, and a small amount of fat. Meals surrounding workouts benefit from having some starchy carb too.
2. Start making lists of lean proteins, vegetables, fruits, starches, and fats that you actually enjoy eating. Begin with the basics: zucchini, broccoli, spinach for vegetables; chicken, pork, dairy for lean protein examples. Here’s a cheat sheet.
3. Refine your list. What specific recipes or meals do you have that would fill in the blanks for those categories? Instead of “dairy”, write down “Greek yogurt” or “string cheese”.
4. You’re almost there. Before you create your own plan, keep a few points in mind:
1. Are your meals really simple to prepare? They should be at first. You have time down the road to go full Martha Stewart.
2. Are your meals varied enough that you’re getting a fairly wide source of nutrients? I.E., your protein source shouldn’t be always the exact same thing.
That’s because your body needs to get different kinds of vitamins and minerals from that variety of foods. Also if you keep eating chicken for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, you may turn into one. And you’ll be bored to death too.
But what shapes up is a meal plan. One that puts your own needs into play and also begins to build your skills to a new and healthier lifestyle.
Mike Brady yourself while you work off a menu.
Try tracking your calories and pay attention to what kinds of nutrients are in your meals.
Pay attention to how hungry you were before, during, and after meals.
Slow down as you eat. Do you want the whole plate of food? If not, set it aside.
I ask my online coaching clients to track their calories at first. Not so it becomes a ball and chain. But because it shows you how your days shake out. You’ll often be surprised at what foods are calorie dense and which fill your belly for next to nothing.
While I don’t write up detailed meal plans and demand that people follow them, I’m happy to show them some of my own logs. Here’s one to teach you with. I’m not using my Mike Brady voice at all, by the way:
You can see how I had plenty of protein at every meal. You’ll notice that I ate mostly whole foods, with a bit of chocolate included for life happiness. If you look at my lunch, you will see that I too am a bro who loves Chipotle. But ordering two times the chicken and skipping the rice goes a long way toward meeting my daily protein goal. I don’t usually get 150g of protein, but this day was great.
Not every day will perfect. But you’ll see trends, as I did when I noticed I was insanely hungry at 11 a.m. if I ate too few calories at my morning meal. Or how cookie lunch made me feel blah by 3 pm. (It was glorious at the time, however.)
Looking back at the day’s log can be illuminating. Building awareness of how our bodies respond to how we fill them with food goes a long way toward a whole new healthy lifestyle and achieving your fitness goals.
And when that happens, you’ll be ready. Ready for whatever unexpected situations come at you, like a football to Marcia Brady’s nose, the next office party, or just eating in a way that makes you feel good, function well, and enjoy your meals for life.
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