When it comes to meal planning or better, healthy menu planning, most people get lost in a sea of websites, recipes, cookbooks and a general sense of being completely overwhelmed trying to figure out how to put it all together.

It can be especially daunting when you’re trying to turn over a new leaf and get your nutritional act together at the dinner table night after night. Making a shift like this isn’t as easy as you think it might be, or should be.

I get it–it’s a lot. And menu planning is exactly what I have based my career on. I’ve been planning menus, writing recipes, cookbooks, and creating healthy meal plans professionally for 19 years!

The All-Important Step One for Successful Menu Planning

To get from the place of being completely overwhelmed to menu planning nirvana when it all comes together for you with a clean eating meal plan you can live with, you have to start with your own definition of what constitutes healthy.

It’s a critical component to menu planning. If you skip that step, you will most certainly be sucked into the menu planning abyss of being lost and confused and totally overwhelmed.

That is a big differentiator that I think gets forgotten about. You have to do your own research to determine the right path for you and your family and not become a lemming of some nutritional guru out there (or well meaning friend) who is promising you the world when you know in your heart of hearts, that your family is going to hate it.

For example, I have a Dinner Answers customer who wrote me about the following scenario–I’m distilling her email to me (probably one of the longest emails I’ve ever received) and rewriting it to capture the essence, not quoting directly and not mentioning the diet she felt pressured to try. See if you can relate–

“I was a Dinner Answers subscriber a few years ago and it was because of Dinner Answers that I learned to cook so I want to thank you for that first and foremost. Second, will you take me back? I’ve strayed from the flock and need you now more than ever.

Let me explain–I had a friend who recently started eating ____________ and told me it would change my life. I checked out the (multitude) of articles she sent me but still didn’t feel like it was for me. Plus I knew my family would hate it and the last thing in the world I wanted to do was cook two different meals night after night.

But she was insistent that I needed to try this. She swore this new way of eating is what she served her family and everyone loooooved it, no complaints, it was a gift from heaven above.

Hesitancy and going all in are not good bedfellows but here I was, saying I was going to do this even though I knew it wouldn’t work. Why do we do that to ourselves?

Still, I did it and I regretted it and here I am asking you to take me back!”

My answer to her was of course was I’ll “take you back” (LOL) and wow, that’s an accurate assessment of what happens in that great big world out there.

There is pressure; this is what so and so is doing and even though you don’t feel that it’s a good fit. All your friends say this is what you should be doing and they’re all getting great results; losing weight, kids think it’s terrific, they all feel GREAT. They pass you articles from the internet touting the guru, the diet, this new way of life.

You feel the pressure to comply. Just like the woman who wrote the email, you make the jump and go all in. You buy the food, spend the time cooking it and feed it to your family who rebel and turn on you; a mutinous bunch of pirates threatening to make you walk the plank.

It’s usually an expensive mistake–food ends up not getting eaten and thrown out. Feelings are hurt, a lot of effort went into a whole lot of nothing.

And I know this happens more than with just my penpal above. She’s not the only one I’ve helped pick up the pieces from an ill advised diet. A lot of these poor people who’ve all but thrown in the towel on menu planning out of sheer frustration, end up going right back to where they were before–feeling like they’re missing out, hating that they’re stuck in a rut and wanting a new way, but one that works for them.  

To define your own style of healthy meal planning, it’s a good idea to look at the different styles of eating to see if you can find a fit, one that works for you, not one your neighbor insists is the “right way”.

Paleo vs Auto Immune Meal Planning

For some that might mean paleo meal planning because they’re looking for an anti-inflammatory plan without all the grains and dairy because of known food sensitivities or allergies with a family member. Other folks are looking for more specific plans, like AIP meal planning (Auto Immune Protocol) to help with health issues they’ve had including autoimmune diseases like Hashimoto’s and more. An AIP approach can be a real game changer for people faced with health challenges.  

Keto vs Paleo Menu Planning

Keto meal planning is still hot and a huge topic with a variety of ways to reaching keto heaven. As you can imagine, there are experts galore out there that will have you peeing on sticks to see if you’re in ketosis or doing blood sticks on your tender little fingers to test your blood for ketosis, have you mapping out your macros and such on a phone app and essentially, giving yourself a part time job to manage this new state of ketosis.  

It’s exhausting.

Besides all the work that goes into achieving ketosis, I’ve got a few reservations on the way the diet itself is approached (too much dairy which can be really inflammatory and slow weight loss). It’s because of that that we created our own clean eating version called the Hot Melt Diet.

Paleo vs keto for example is a huge topic–and there are purists on both sides. I look at it from a different perspective, and ask the question, what feels best to you? For example, you can be paleo and eat keto and you can be keto and eat paleo–it’s simply a matter of adjusting how much protein you eat (you eat a little less with keto) and how much healthy fat you eat (keto will have more fat than paleo) and both ways of eating can merge–simply dump the dairy and the grains and you can play in both “food camps”.

If you’re trying to get into ketosis however, you’re going to want to stay strictly keto and restrict the carbs from all sources (including the healthy sources of carbs like winter squashes, fruits and sweet potatoes, all permissible in a paleo diet).

Just recently, the U.S. News and World Report ranked the tried-and-true Mediterranean Diet as the top diet to pursue for this year.

The Mediterranean Diet Is Popular Again

The Mediterranean Diet comes from native diets in the region (Greece, Southern Italy, and Spain) in the 1940’s and 1950’s before fast food and a lot of other cultures invaded the area. It’s a traditional, old-ways style of eating that according many, defines heart healthy and clean eating.

There’s no distinct plan per se for the Mediterranean Diet–just google it and you’ll find a lot of interpretations.

It’s easy to understand why it’s been given such a high honor–the Mediterranean Diet is based on lots of veggies of all kinds, olive oil, nuts, beans, legumes, avocados, fish and chicken, beef on occasion and yes, a little bit of wine.

The American Heart Association (AHA) talks about the diet on it’s website, acknowledging the Mediterranean Diet’s statistics for lower rates of heart disease and deaths in the region for those following the diet. However, on their website, they’re reluctant to put their seal of approval on it. “We need more studies to find out whether the diet itself or other lifestyle factors account for the lower deaths from heart disease.”

Healthy Eating is Healthy Menu Planning

Most people however, are just looking for for healthy menu planning; food that offers family-friendly recipes and food the whole family will eat. And while that term, family-friendly, is always going to be subjective (I mean, what really constitutes “family-friendly” anyway?), the keyword is always going to be customization.  

When you have the ability to customize your meal plan according to what your family will eat AND you are able to put it into a framework of “healthy”, you’re on your way to making it all work.

Meal planning or menu planning as I prefer to call it–meals imply one meal at a time while menus imply a plan, so much different–is a journey in wellness that we all need to pursue on purpose. We cannot menu plan on default, it doesn’t work.

And while there’s a question for everyone on what constitutes a “healthy diet” as we discussed here, there’s a lot of room to find out for yourself.

Remember this, it’s not about what some guru deems as “healthy” that should determine your menu planning path; it’s about deciding for yourself what defines a healthy menu plan for you and your family.

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