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How to hack your meal plan when it isn't working

Wednesday 19 July 2017

A plan stands on a street corner, dressed in business clothing and holding books, hurriedly eating a pie on the go.
We all make poor food choices sometimes, but we can learn from the times when it's too hard to stick to the healthy eating plan.

One of the most powerful steps you can take towards healthier eating is creating a healthy meal plan. It’s easy to see the benefits: sitting down and putting together a list of the meals you intend to eat ahead of time allows you identify the points where you could be making healthier choices, and makes it easier to avoid temptation when you’re at the supermarket.

But creating a healthy eating plan and actually following through with it are two different things. Many old habits around eating can be hard to break, especially when life gets in the way and disrupts your carefully laid plans. A hard day at work might see you skipping one healthy meal in favour of ordering a pizza, or you could agree to meet a friend for coffee and find yourself ordering a chocolate brownie to go with your latte.

Pretty soon, one change to your meal plan becomes half a dozen changes in a week. Before long, creating a meal plan is a thing you tried that one time, a one-off healthy step that never quite turned into a long-term habit.

Here's the thing: all those healthy meal plans that you’ve failed to follow in the past? They can be really useful tools to figure out what’s gone wrong. Paying attention to the places where you’ve drifted off-plan, and why, gives you important information when figuring out how to do better in the future.

Today, we look at five ways you can hack a healthy eating plan that didn't work for you and transform it into something that will.

1. Don't sweat the past

Before we start looking at the plan in detail, let's get this out of the way: it's okay that your healthy eating plan didn't work out. No-one can predict every situation, and very few people make the switch to eating healthier and do everything right from the very beginning. You're not looking over your meal plan because you made mistakes - you're doing it because you want to make different choices in the future.

2. Figure out what stopped you from following your meal plan

Sit down with last week’s plan and take a look at the meals you didn’t eat. What got in the way? What did you eat instead, and why? Did you stick to your plan, but eat things you didn’t plan for? It’s time to take a look at when, how and why that happened, and what you can do instead.

The key here is looking for patterns, and their possible causes. Maybe you’re routinely heading off to find a snack at 3:00 PM, even if it’s not on your plan, because that’s the part of the day when you need a short break from work and a chat with colleagues. Or perhaps you constantly order take-away on a Thursday night, because you’re on the way home from training and it’s easier than thinking about cooking while you’re worn out.

It’s time to treat your old meal plans like a aeroplane’s black box and figure out where things went wrong, then start setting up some contingency plans to try and tackle the problems if they come up again. Identify the places where your plan didn't reflect the reality of your meals, and make a note of why you think you drifted off-plan - this becomes the bones of your new meal plan.

3. Identify new go-to options when you need to do things differently

The reality of any meal plan is that it won’t be possible to follow it to the letter. Life happens: sometimes you’ll find yourself unexpectedly short on time or energy when it’s time to eat, or just not where your planned food is. We’ve all been there before, and we’ll all be there again – bad days happen, and the allure of easy comfort food is incredibly seductive.

Worse, because we’re so used to justifying takeaway and comfort food as ‘exceptions’ to our usual habits, it can be particularly difficult to resist their siren song just because they’re not on our meal plan. In reality, those ‘exceptions’ have become the new normal.

Rather than fight the impulse, take a look at the things you turned to when you drifted off-plan and pick a healthier alternative to replace them when the situation presents itself. The easiest way to resist bad habits is install new habits in their place, and having your replacement plan laid out in advance means you’re not searching for alternatives while your self-control is already low.

If you’re struggling for alternatives, try 7 Ways To Eat Healthier When You’re Out or consider some healthy versions of classic comfort foods.

A notebook is opened to a blank page, sitting on a table surrounded by prepared meals in individual containers.

4. Before putting together your next plan, look at your commitments

It’s easy to be optimistic at the start of the week. There’s still plenty of time to get everything done, and that can make you feel ambitious. You pack your plan with meals that are healthy, delicious, and new and completely fail to take into account that you won’t feel much like cooking an extravagant feast each night when you get home.

Before doing your meal plan, make a note of your commitments in the coming week and look for situations similar to the events that knocked you off-plan in the past. Doing an early scan of your commitments also gives you a chance to identify days when you might struggle to stick to the plan, and decide what to do about it before you’re making decisions while tired and unmotivated.

5. Focus on the process, not the results

Odds are you started a healthy eating plan because you wanted the long-term benefits: feeling better, eating healthier, and improving your overall fitness. Then your plan fell by the wayside as you realised the long-term benefits felt like they were a long, long time away, and the immediate frustrations of changing your eating habits made it seem like a lot of hassle for not a lot of gain.

It’s easy to start something with your eyes fixed on the distant future, but it’s just as easy to fall over if that’s the only place you’re looking.

Don’t write your healthy eating plan focusing on what you hope will happen – write it with a focus on what you’re doing right now, and how each decision you’re making is an important step forward. Celebrate the incremental improvements you’ve made each week, and look forward to what you’re doing next, rather than how you will feel in a few months or years.

Want to find out more about using meal plans to live a healthier life? Check out the previous posts in our meal planning series – focusing on where to start and useful contingency plans to consider - and go the Healthier. Happier. website for recipes, advice, and more.

Feel like you could benefit from a personal coach to get you going? Call the Get Healthy information and coaching service on 13 HEALTH (13 43 25 84). You will receive up to 10 free coaching calls from your health coach and other support over the next six months.

Last updated: 19 July 2017