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Updating Our Mental Models to Rethink Meal Planning

Last year I started mountain biking, but I am a timid adventurer when it comes to anything off my own two feet. Put me on a backcountry trail with a 40lb pack and I’ll walk for days without complaint, but accelerate me down a mountain on a two-wheeled vehicle and things get ugly.

I’ve consistently said, “I don’t like going downhill fast”. This mindset has led me to never be more than a beginner skier, despite being born and raised in Colorado, and hasn’t helped me progress with mountain biking. 

In July, I took a trip to visit friends in Northern Wyoming and brought my bike. My friends are not necessarily downhill mountain bike enthusiasts, but they’ve got a bit more guts than I do when it comes to “going downhill fast”. 

We rode on this great beginner loop with cushy soil and only a few rocks to potentially crack your head against – a stark contrast from the trails here in Northern Colorado. I was having a great time, with a big smile on my face, until the final 100 meters of the trail, which included a steep downhill turn. I immediately squeezed the brakes, swung my leg over the bike, and walked down the final part of the trail to where we were parked. I wasn’t able to bring myself to even try the downhill turn because I had created a mindset around fear and my inability to navigate small technical features.

We stopped for a minute at the car and decided to run the loop a second time. As we got on our bikes, my friend encouraged me to try the downhill section this time because, as she proclaimed, it was really fun. I agreed I would try, but knew full well there was no way I would actually do it. 

Just before we got to the last part of the trail, my friend turned back and shouted, “You can do it! Just give it a shot!”. I inwardly rolled my eyes, but instead of slamming on the brakes, I slowed to a turtle pace and before I could change my mind, I whooshed down and around the turn. It was terrifying and exhilarating. 

This was a point of growth for me as a novice mountain biker and a huge shift in the mental model I had created around biking. I thought I was too afraid and not capable of handling the turn, but I proved myself wrong with a little bit of peer pressure and courage. 

Sometimes we think we’re not good at something, it won’t work for us, or we don’t have the skill/talent/courage/confidence to execute. But perhaps we’re limited by our mindset or a sample set of experiences telling us it’s not right or we’re not capable. 

There are examples in all areas of our lives:

  • There are foods you thought you didn’t like, only to try it again later and realize you do like it. 
  • A calendar system, like time blocking, didn’t work for you before but now is the only way you stay focused and productive.
  • You tried an activity that previously scared you, but now you think it’s fun! 

Our mental models help us make sense of the world based on past experiences. Many people have past experiences with planning or organizational methods that give them reason to believe it doesn’t work for them. 

I hear this all the time in regards to meal planning: 

  • “I’m not a planner.”
  • “I need too much spontaneity for meal planning.”
  • “It’s too time-consuming/overwhelming/labor-intensive.”
  • “It just never ‘clicked’ for me.”

We have preconceived notions and assumptions about everything, but I believe in being adaptable and open-minded, which means we’re willing to consider new ideas and options.

You may try something again and realize it’s still not right for you. I could have gone down that turn and been so scared that it reaffirmed my judgment that “going downhill fast” was definitely not for me. 

Or you may try something and have a result that was better than you expected. I went down that turn and had so much fun. I was really happy I pushed myself to do it when we got down to the car. 

Not every mental model we have is meant for testing and reshaping. There could be dangers involved that you can’t justify (crashing the bike, tumbling down the hill, breaking a bone), but many of our models can be updated with little consequence or danger. 

I argue meal planning is one of those models of little consequence. 

If you’ve tried meal planning in the past (or not and simply have a preconceived idea) and thought it didn’t work for you, there are two possible outcomes when you try it again:

  1. You find it still doesn’t work for you and you’re only out a little time and effort (no danger of breaking a bone or cracking your helmet on a rock). 
  2. You find it fits into your life beautifully! You’re now saving time, money, and effort when it comes to food and you’re so glad you gave it another chance.

If we let our mindset about something (thinking it won’t work for us, or we don’t have the skill/talent/courage/confidence to execute) hold us back from ever trying again (or in the first place), we don’t get the opportunity to change our perspective, find new solutions, and remedy our mistakes. Without the retest, we’ll never know if our models have been updated, intentionally or unintentionally.

cropped image of woman sitting on a window bench with her planner and phone sitting in front of her

The Myth About Meal Planning

I don’t think this topic would be complete without discussing what meal planning is not. Part of what could be influencing a negative mindset around meal planning is what you’ve previously been told about it. 

Myth #1: You have to plan out three meals a day, seven days a week.

Planning every single meal, everyday sounds exhausting and I see why this idea would turn someone away from creating a meal plan. Rather than stick to that limited idea, we can recognize that the best way to meal plan is the way that works for you. Maybe you only need to plan dinners because that’s the most stressful part of your day. Or maybe you got advice from a dietitian to eat breakfast regularly, so that’s the meal you focus on. The ins and outs of how much or how little you plan are 100% up to you, your schedule, dietary needs, budget, food preferences, etc. 

Myth #2: You have to eat what you planned when you planned it.

Meal planning can be a lot more flexible than many people realize. You can set up your meal plan so that it’s broad and includes variety, and you still get to choose what you’re in the mood for on a given day. Having a plan is going to reduce stress and help you maximize your time, but it doesn’t have to be rigid or unrealistic. For more on implementing this flexible style of planning, check out my personal meal planning system

Myth #3: Meal planning is time-consuming and labor-intensive. 

In the days before our current technology, meal planning did take a lot of time. Maybe your Granny spent an hour every Sunday coming up with her meal plan and grocery list, but Plan to Eat customers report their time spent meal planning and grocery shopping has been cut in half with the use of digital tools. We all know technology can be a double-edged sword, but in the case of planning ahead, it will save you a substantial amount of time. We like to talk about “doing your future self a favor” with only a small amount of effort upfront and that’s what meal planning looks like nowadays. 

What are some of the reasons you don’t meal plan? Is it something you tried in the past and didn’t work for you? Do you have the mindset that you’re not a planner and that’s not going to change? Do you believe one of the myths about meal planning and it keeps you from giving it a try? 

You may find that meal planning still isn’t the right system for you, but is it worth giving another shot?

If you’re ready to try meal planning again, use the most flexible and functional meal-planning app available and try Plan to Eat for free today!

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