Why Meal Plans Suck & What To Do Instead

We outlined  whether you should track your macronutrients or not in a previous article. In that article, we outlined the problem with meal plans, specifically how they are not designed for long term success due to their lack of flexibility and education. 

With the popularity of meal plans on the internet, below is an example of weekly calls our Powell Performance Staff has, they go like this:


Client: Hey, I need a meal plan?


Powell Performance Dietitian or Coach: Oh, ok. Why’s that?


Client: I want to get in great shape


PP: Absolutely, I think we can help you with that, but why a meal plan?


Client: … I told you… I want to be in great shape…


PP: Uh-huh… but what does that have to do with a meal plan?


Client: Well, how will I know what to eat without a meal plan?


This is a conversation our staff at PP has a few dozen times a week. People are often confused about what they should eat, rightfully so! There is a lot of information out there and lots of people saying one diet or way is the best. People often make it much more complicated than it needs to be.


Most of the time people know what to eat, they just don’t know how to make their planning, actions, and habits align to allow them to eat those foods consistently over time. Only consistent eating habits and actions will lead to the results they seek.


That’s where we come in. We don’t simply hand you a piece of paper with foods written in nice neat boxes to be eaten only at specific times. Why? Because the world is full of amazing meal plans that never led to results. How many times is a “free meal plan” included in signing up for an “influencers” email list, or a gym’s website?


If eating healthy and accomplishing your goals was as easy as a professional writing down foods on a piece of paper, we’d have millions of in shape people reaching their goals daily. Instead, we have record numbers of obese and unhealthy people.


So, what’s the difference? How do we help our athlete’s and clients reach their goals?


We have tough conversations, figure out the real problems they’re facing and help them reinforce small daily habits to reach their goals. This includes eating the correct hand portion sizes, with the goal of eating each of the following foods (macronutrients) for every meal:

High quality protein (plant or animal based)

Eat Less

Eat Some

Eat More

High fat ground meat

Medium lean meat

Lean Beef / Bison / Lamb/ Pork / Venison / Chicken / Duck / Turkey

Protein bars


Eggs & Egg whites

High mercury fish


Fish / Shellfish


Meat Jerky

Greek Yogurt /Cottage cheese


Protein powder

Lentils / Beans / Tempeh  

High quality carbohydrates

Eat Less

Eat Some

Eat More


Couscous / Granola

Beans & Lentils


Instant / flavored oats

Quinoa / Rice / Barley

Canned / Dried Fruits

Milk / Vegetable juices

Potatoes /

Cereal Bars

Pancakes / Waffles / Flavored yogurt

Steel cut / Rolled / old fashioned oats  

Fruit Juice / Flavored Milk

White grain bagels / muffins / oats / pastas / tortillas

WHOLE grain bagel / muffin / oat / pastas / tortillas

Muffins / Pastries


Buckwheat / sorghum / millet / Farro / Amaranth / Yuca



Fresh or frozen fruits  

Vegetables Dense with Micronutrients







Acorn Squash




Purple Asparagus

Butternut squash




Purple Cabbage


Brussel Sprouts

Red Cabbage

Jerusalem artichoke

Purple Carrots



Red Onions


Purple Cauliflower

Summer squash


Red Peppers


Purple Peppers

Yellow Beet/Pepper

Peppers / Beans




Yellow Carrots

Spinach / Kale


White carrots

Healthy fats
Eat Less
Eat Some
Eat More
Bacon / Sausage
Olive oil (not virgin)
Extra virgin olive oil
Processed meats & cheeses
Sesame / flaxseed oil
Avocado or avocado oil
Butter / margarine
Peanut butter
Egg yokes
Corn / cottonseed / sunflower / soybean oils
Cheese (aged < 6 months)
Seeds / walnts / almonds / pecans / fresh coconut
Dark chocolate
Cheese (aged > 6 months)
Hydrogenated oils & trans fat
Fish oil / algae oil


Now that we know what each food falls into, we can now figure out what to eat based on your goals and your current eating level. Our long-term goal for ALL of our athletes and clients is to eat as little processed food as possible. We want to focus on eating natural, nutrient dense foods as much as we can.


As you read through the listed foods above, try and find a balance between where you are now and where you want to go.


When we coach people who eat a lot of fast or highly processed food, we don’t ask them to change 100%. Instead, we slowly reduce the processed foods and introduce more natural foods that they want to try. We call this Good, Better, Best and here’s an example:

Average Breakfast
Good Breakfast
Better Breakfast
Best Breakfast
Coffee w/ cream & sugar
Coffee black
Green tea
Blueberry muffin
Yogurt Parfait
Guacamole topping
You scroll your phone, eat and drive your car mindlessly
Fruit cup or piece of fruit
Eggs with veggies mixed in (sous vide, omelet, etc.)
Egg frittata with veggies galore
You eat mindfully as you drive
You eat mindfully at a table & use a journal to track it
You drink water, journal mindfully and take 5 min to yourself


Now that we see a good way to determine how to improve your food over days, and weeks ahead, how are you deciding what your plate should look like per meal? If you look at the visual below, you can see that the goal of a person’s plate is to slowly increase the Eat More foods. These are the best options for the different macronutrients, the protein, high quality carbs, performance fats and vegetables. 


As the person starts to work with us here, the goal is not to track every single food they take in, but rather to prepare and eat more of the kinds of food per meal from the Eat More section. If the person is works to Improve Your Diet… By Addition?, and adds in vegetables to each meal, we are confident that alone will lead to improved health for most people. This increase in nutrient dense foods will often also lead to you making better decisions about the rest of your food!


Another drill we recommend is to go through and make a list of each different macronutrient color and the foods you want from each. Yes… this does include knowing what you will occasionally indulge in, we believe that if you are always limited and restricted long term success is less likely. So, pick 3 options from each color using the sheet below and implement them as you go forward.


Of course there will also be foods that you want to eat that aren’t on these lists or our spectrum at all, so what happens then? This is where all of your education from Powell Performance kicks in. You take the following steps and determine how much it should play a role in your diet:

  • Which macronutrient is most abundant in this food?

You know what they are now, so it’s important to figure out where this food fits in your spectrum. Does it help you towards eating lean protein? Maybe it’s a great vegetable? This is important just so you know how to work it into you eating and what to use it to replace or add in your current diet


  • Does this food help or hurt you towards your goals and fit your “diet”?

We know what it is now and we have an idea of whether it’s healthy. With this new information, is it going to fit into your current eating habits and help you reach your goal? If it’s not and it is a red food, how are you going to find a way to limit it and occasionally indulge without derailing your progress? These are all things to consider.


  • What are the common ways in which this food is prepared and eaten?

This one will often help you answer the other 2 we already asked. If it’s used as a starchy side dish than we know it’s likely high in carbs. Main dish offering? Usually high in protein. It’s also important to look at how it’s prepared and if it’s something you want to integrate or introduce make sure you look at multiple options of how to do that.


Finally, the last step is figuring out just how natural or processed is this food? This is important  because as we said earlier, the more processed it is, the less of it we want to eat. Natural foods prepared in ways that don’t add saturated fat are the ones we want to eat as much of as possible.


Here is a great visual of that from the American Heart Association:

Some quick ways to figure out how processed the foods are:

  • Does it look how it would if it came off the tree, bush and plant? Is there an animal it came directly from?
  • Frozen and fresh fruits and veggies are amazing, just try to avoid the canned ones due to all the added salts and other preservatives
  • Read the food labels, the 3 things that often increase with processing are sodium, saturated fat and sugar. When those are raised the food is almost always processed.
  • Limit foods that are packaged and boxed. There are some great foods that are sold in cartons, milk, eggs, etc, but often times the packaging is done after a lot of processing, so just limit these other less ideal packaged foods.


Want to learn more about how to reach your goals without meal planning, but by using long term sustainable actions and habits? Click Here to get started



Heart Foundation NZ. (2019, April 30). Why are some processed foods less healthy? Retrieved February 21, 2021, from https://www.heartfoundation.org.nz/about-us/news/blogs/five-ways-to-eat-less-processed-food

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