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Planning in Advance

This week, my client Jennifer told me that while her days have been going well, things have been falling apart around dinner. The first question I asked Jennifer was, “Are you planning dinner in advance, or are you getting to dinner time and then trying to figure out what to eat?” Jennifer told me that most nights it was the latter. She often thought about making a dinner meal plan but resisted the idea because she didn’t want to feel hemmed in. She wanted to be able to eat whatever she was craving that night for dinner and not something she had predetermined earlier in the week.

While I sympathized with this desire, I reminded Jennifer that in-the-moment decisions are the hardest to make effectively. In-the-moment decisions require us to use our “hot” brains, an id-driven brain that mostly focuses on what it wants in the moment and doesn’t take other goals into account. Future-oriented decisions, by contrast, allow us to use our “cool” brains, a rational brain that thinks through big goals and consequences and makes decisions based on them. It’s not a guarantee that an in-the-moment decision will lead us awry, but it is far more likely.

It’s no surprise that dinners haven’t been going well for Jennifer. End-of-the-day Jennifer, when she was tired and worn out, was not a great Jennifer to be making dinner decisions. Morning Jennifer was a great Jennifer to be making decisions! Morning Jennifer was fresh and sharp and could formulate how a successful day should go. Even though Jennifer understood this intellectually, something was still standing in her way. She still didn’t like the idea of planning dinners in advance.Hand writing out a list.

I asked Jennifer if she ever planned in advance or if she always waited until the last minute to make dinner decisions, and she said that sometimes she and her partner would decide in advance what to have for dinner. “How does that usually work out?” I asked her. “Are you happy when you get to dinner, or are you resisting the plan?” Jennifer told me that usually she was fine with the plan, and it sometimes was helpful because she and her partner often get frustrated with each other trying to figure out dinner every night.

I said to Jennifer, “I wonder, then, if the idea of planning dinner in advance is actually worse than the reality of doing so. The idea of planning dinner in advance makes you feel trapped, but the reality is that it keeps the peace between you and your partner, and it means you feel on track all evening long.” We discussed this idea more, and Jennifer was able to see that this was probably the case, at least some of the time. The idea of not being able to make spontaneous dinner decisions was worse than the reality. She made a Response Card to remind herself.

Jennifer also admitted that even though she resists making dinner decisions in advance, she often ends up eating the same things anyway, so it wouldn’t be that much of a hassle to make the plan more formalized, and that way it would cut down on tensions with her partner, she could make sure to have the food that she needed, and she increased her likelihood of staying on track all day. We also agreed that she should have an escape clause: for the first week, at least, if she really doesn’t want what she planned to have for dinner, then she didn’t need to have it! We decided that she would put some backup meals in her freezer that she could pull out if this happened.

I reminded Jennifer of one more thing: the reason to start planning dinners in advance was not to take away her freedom. It was because not planning in advance wasn’t working for her, and doing so would be in the service of a greater goal: achieving everything on her Advantages List. She would be doing it for hugely important reasons. Jennifer made a Response Card to remind her of this idea, too.

When Did Special Treats become the Everyday Norm?

When did it happen? When did we Americans go from an occasional piece of pizza to having multiple slices throughout the week? When did we go from the occasional soda to drinking sugary soft drinks throughout the day? When did we go from a weekly overindulgence, such as a big dinner on Saturday night, to excess food every evening?

Now, I’m not against special treats. In fact, I advise people to have a moderate portion of a favorite food every day. But not more than ONE. And they have to make sure the rest of their food intake is healthy and moderate, too.

I asked Marc, a dieter who consulted with me, what a typical day of eating was like for him. Here’s what he described: He would have some kind of sweet pastry for breakfast; packaged cheese crackers and/or chips for a mid-morning snack; a large hamburger, fries, coleslaw and soda for lunch; cookies and/or a doughnut with another soda for a mid-afternoon snack; a large entree such as lasagna, bread, salad and two beers for dinner; and candy and ice cream for a snack. He knew that he was eating too much unhealthy food. But at some level, it felt “right” to him, even though he was borderline obese and suffering from health problems. He felt entitled to eat that way. After all, it wasn’t very different from how his brother and best friend ate—though he saw that they had gained a significant amount of weight in the previous five years, too.  

Over time, I helped Marc change his attitude toward food. He began to see that his way of eating was “right” if he wanted the negative health consequences of carrying around excess weight to continue—and to likely grow worse. He began to see that his way of eating was “wrong” if he wanted to be fitter and healthier. Even as he was losing a significant amount of weight, Marc still occasionally mourned not being able to eat as he had in the past. At these times, he needed to review his list of all the reasons it was worth it to stick to a healthier way of eating. And he needed to read a response card that reminded him that the excess and unhealthy food he had been accustomed to consuming was “right”, only if he wanted to be obese. The concept of “only one favorite food a day” eventually became Marc’s new norm; he stopped grieving and was able to fully celebrate how much better he felt.

What a Relief

When Mark sat down in my office this week, he said, “Before we start, can I just tell you how relieved I feel?” When I said, “Of course,” Mark told me:

“I finally get it. I do. Cravings go away. I don’t have to eat to make them go away. When I’m tempted, the more I say, ‘Don’t worry, you’re going to eat again at ______ o’clock, the easier and easier it gets.’ ”

I asked Mark to give me an example.

“It happened again late yesterday afternoon. A vendor brought some cookies—really big ones—to the office. I really started craving one but I said to myself, ‘No, you’ve already had your snack and you’re going to have dinner at 6:30. So no choice. Get back to work.’ I had to make a phone call and by the time it was over, the craving was gone. It was like, “Well, it’d be nice to have a cookie but I know I’m not going to have it.” I can’t tell you what a relief it is to know that I can make a craving go away, that I don’t have to give in to it. I know, I know, you’ve been telling me this all along but somehow it really clicked yesterday.”

 I asked Mark if we should write something about this on a Response Card that he could read regularly to really cement the idea in his mind. This is what he wrote:

Cravings really do go away. I don’t have to be at their mercy any more. Remember the March 30th cookie situation. When I finished the phone call, the craving had gone away.

 Mark is typical of the dieters with whom I work. It makes sense to them intellectually that cravings go away, especially when they turn their attention to something else, but they don’t really believe it in their gut—not until they’ve had repeated experiences of finding this out for themselves. And when they do, like Mark, they tend to experience a profound sense of relief.