For those that work a traditional Monday-Friday work week, weekends offer a break from the usual routine and structure that a workday installs. This is a beautiful thing - it gives us a chance to spend time on things we enjoy, and to rest, refresh and reset for the week ahead.
When it comes to nutrition though, this weekly change to routine also presents a threat to consistency. It comes in many forms: late starts, social meals, a desire for novelty and variety, indulgences and choices that prioritize convenience over nutrition. And none of these things are bad on paper. In fact they're part of the joy of the weekend and some balance of this is a good thing. But they're also the downfall of dieters.
Regardless of the goal, good nutrition requires consistency. Or at least enough of it to nudge you along in the right direction. We know we can't follow a diet five out of seven days a week and expect amazing results. Developing a nutrition strategy that works for you requires us to look at how you eat in all contexts (including when structure is a little different). This is why I firmly believe problem solving is the key to good nutrition. So let's break down common weekend trends that present nutrition roadblocks.
Roadblock #1: Drops in food quality
One of the most common reasons I see for a drop in food quality is lack of availability of usual foods. Often this is a result of not having prepared ahead for the weekend to come, and only noticing that's the case upon opening the pantry or fridge and staring at empty shelves.
Often what results is snacking and grazing through the weekend rather than focusing on building healthy meals. Naturally, food quality drops when pre-packaged foods are a primary nutrition source since there's not the same focus on protein and plants. Of course, I want clients to enjoy indulgences when they want them, but I find when these snacks are replacing meals, they're not really registered as treats in the same way. So despite calories going up and nutrient density going down, this habit doesn't seem to provide the same food satisfaction as it would if it were a packet of chips consumed as a delightful afternoon treat.
The solution for this habit is twofold: firstly we must bring the concept of meals back into weekends, and secondly we need to encourage food acquisition and preparation on the weekends. Generally we just need to buy food for the weekends so the fridge and pantry shelves aren't so empty. With clients who don't want to think all the way ahead to the next weekend when they grocery shop for the week, I often suggest a pre-planned top-up shop to pick up some quick meals and healthy snacks on a Thursday or Friday afternoon.
Another reason for lack of available foods is travel - lots of my clients go away for the weekend far more regularly than I ever realized was a thing. It does mean that their food environment changes. Thinking about this ahead of time and being prepared by planning some meals ahead of time can reduce the randomness of eating on the road. For example, finding food places on the way to regular destinations that suit your nutritional needs for a roadie stopover, picking up some snacks for the car to tie you over until you reach your destination, and knowing what the cooking facilities are so you can pull together a quick meal on arrival can save you from ending up at another drive-through when that wasn't your intent.
Roadblock #2: Over or undereating
If someone relies on the structure of their weekday to eat at appropriate times in appropriate volumes, a lack of structure can throw that out. Even something as simple as a sleep-in can change someone's meal structure on the weekend. And in terms of overall health, that sleep-in might be a very good idea, so that may not be something that we should aim to change just to get another serving of whole grains in.
That said, applying some structure to weekends and creating a similar (but adjusted) set of guidelines around food can help manage calories and nutrition. If, for example, you love brunch, we can plan a new meal schedule on the weekend that allows you to have a more sizeable meal in the late morning and then build a day of meals and snacks that fit around that. It might also mean you tweak the contents of the brunch a little to make sure you're making selections that work for your nutrition goals. This way, rather than throwing structure out the window, we instead create a series of optional structures that you can choose from depending on how your day looks and what you're most likely to enjoy.
In most cases, any structure is better than no structure, and you'll be better prepared to make good food choices.
Roadblock #3: Grabbing "whatever"
This meal pattern often happens when someone is out running errands and they pick up a "quick bite." It's often a kebab, pie, sushi, or another grab-and-go option. None of those are bad foods, but the grab-and-go option is rarely loaded with fruits and veggies or packed with protein. And since they're being eaten on the run instead of being really enjoyed as an indulgence meal or snack, they fly under the radar and aren't always registered as being a treat or satisfying a desire for novel flavors.
It also means you're less likely to meet your preferred nutrition criteria (especially if this happens a lot). So it could lead to missing out on protein or fruit and veg, or other usual goals.
So what's the solve?
Instead of "whatever," try grabbing something specific: instead of strolling into whatever food outlet enters your field of vision first, consider planning some grab-and-go options that work well. For example, pick up a lower-calorie sushi roll and add some fruit and a protein bar on the side. Or consider swapping a pie for a sandwich and drop into a convenience store for a piece of fruit. Or perhaps that there's a takeaway salad, poke or wrap joint near your destination and you can order a satisfying, tasty meal that also ticks your nutrition boxes.
I'm also a fan of having tie-over snacks in the car for those that are happy to wait and eat at home. Portable options like fruit suckies, jerky, protein shakes and dried fruits can work wonders for buying yourself another hour of time before food needs to happen.
Roadblock #4: Social meals
I've talked before about tactics for navigating social meals. There are lots of ways to manage them, but there are a few key concepts that all of these tactics rely on. They are (1) setting intentions, (2) separating desire from decision, and (3) eating mindfully.
Going into social situations with a plan of attack can be very helpful when it comes to sticking to your overall nutrition strategy. This could be a broad approach, like, "this is a let-your-hair-down-meal tonight because it's my birthday and frankly I don't care about calories," or, "this is my great-Aunt's birthday and we only talk once every eight years so it's not really worth messing with my diet for." It might also be more specific, like "I'm going to try to make sure I get a decent hit of protein with my dinner and I'm going to have just one of the three available desserts." In any case, some form of thinking ahead usually allows us to make better decisions when we're faced with them in the moment. Having a set of loose guidelines or a planned mental checklist can be a helpful way to steer ourselves in a better direction around food.
Separating desire from decision
When we act on impulse, we're less likely to make decisions that align with our longer-term goals and values. Creating space to practice good decision-making often requires slowing down and checking in with ourselves. This allows us to ask ourselves questions like, "Is this the food I really want?" "How much of this food will truly be satisfying?" "Am I accepting this food because I want it or because of social pressure?" and "How will I feel after eating this?" Rather than having to pass through several filters in the instance you're offered a food, having thought through some of these things ahead of time can help you make decisions you will feel good about 10 minutes, 10 hours, and 10 days from today.
This one seems boring and obvious, but it's really easy to forget to think about food when you're busy socializing. Make sure you are conscious of your food, take in the color, the smell, the texture and the taste (without completely ignoring your mates). Any degree of checking in with yourself will likely enhance the experience of the food and also mean you're less likely to keep going back for more, since you've actually experienced it fully the first time around.
What do all these roadblocks and solutions have in common?
Planning! Almost all of these simply require some thinking ahead. Weekends don't have to be hard - putting a little bit of forethought into what a successful weekend would look like can help reduce the difficulty of decisions around food in the moment. Not every bite of every meal needs to be predetermined, but putting into place some structure, having foods on hand that work for you, and thinking ahead to the situations you'll find yourself in can significantly improve your chances of making good choices when you're focused on achieving a nutrition goal or generally trying to improve your nutrition.