Many of us associate dieting with swearing off all cheats, treats, and comfort foods—but what if we could have our cake and lose weight, too?
Trying to stick to a too-strict diet can ultimately make healthy eating unattainable, says nutritionist Torey Armul, R.D., spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. So enjoying the occasional ketchup-covered fry or gooey brownie can actually be a smart move and help you maintain an overall healthy diet in the long haul. “Occasional indulgences can reduce feelings of deprivation, improve satisfaction, and maintain the pleasurable aspect of eating,” she says.
That’s where the ‘cheat meal’ comes in. This once-in-a-while opportunity to eat purely for your soul is supposed to help you stay true to your fruits and veggies the rest of the time. This way you can stay on-track with your health and fitness goals while still enjoying a good ‘ole Belgian waffle on the weekend. But it’s not all sunshine, abs, and maple syrup. Cheat meals, when mismanaged, have been known to mess with our heads, turn into all-day eat fests, and sabotage our relationship with food. But they don’t have to!
Think of these meals as treating yourself to something you love (even if it’s not super healthy). In a perfect treat meal world, you’ll embrace every bite and then return to your healthy routine. Yeah, we know that can be harder than it sounds, but with these expert-backed tips, you’ll be a treat meal pro in no time:
1. Plan ahead
Don’t just decide last-minute that you’re sick of your diet and need a splurge. Instead, plan for treat meals a meal or two in advance. “A premeditated splurge is better than an impulsive one for getting back to your normal eating habits,” says Armul. Knowing you have a treat coming can motivate you to eat your veggies in the meantime and keep you from spiraling into a black hole of indulging afterward.
2. Don’t call it cheating
How we identify our indulgences has a lot of power over whether they become a healthy part of our lifestyle or a problem. So, for many dietitians and psychologists, the biggest issue with cheat meals is the name itself.
“I don’t like the word ‘cheat,’ because it implies morality, and I think that’s not helpful when you’re approaching weight control,” says Edward Abramson, Ph.D., professor emeritus of psychology at California State University, Chico and author of Emotional Eating: What You Need to Know Before Starting Your Next Diet.
“The idea of a cheat meal creates a feeling that you’re being ‘bad,’ not ‘good,’ which is a moral dichotomy that shouldn’t apply to food,” agrees nutritionist Jessica Levinson, R.D., founder of Small Bites by Jessica. So spare yourself unnecessary guilt and reframe them as ‘treat meals’ instead. We’ll call them by that name from now on, too.
3. Keep it rational
Indulging doesn’t mean scarfing down all the yummies from Friday to Monday. Take an 80/20 approach to treating yourself, says nutritionist Christy Brisette, R.D., president of 80 Twenty Nutrition. Eat as healthy as possible 80 percent of the time and enjoy your favorite eats during the rest. And remember that portions still count when you do treat yourself. “Calorically, one cheat meal can negate many days’ worth of healthy eating,” says Armul. So eat intuitively and stop when you’re 80 percent full, she says.
If you want to break your treats up throughout the week instead of having one full treat meal, pick one thing—like that cocktail, a side of fries, or a dessert—to enjoy every few days, Brisette recommends.
4. Fill in the gaps with healthier goodies
Between treat meals, don’t just ignore your cravings. Instead, find healthier ways to satisfy your cravings throughout the week. The more nutritiously you can satisfy your cravings, the better. Some ideas: Trade ice cream for frozen yogurt with fruit, or a double-cheeseburger for a bun-less burger with avocado and baked sweet potato fries, says Levinson. Swap a chocolate chip cookie for a quality dark chocolate bar, for example, and you’ll not only down fewer calories, but enjoy some benefit from the antioxidants in dark chocolate, says Abramson. When you’ve been enjoying your healthy grub all week, you’ll approach your treat meal in a more balanced, less cookie monster-ish way.
5. Go into your treat meal well-fed
While it’s tempting to ‘save up’ calories for a delicious dinner (and dessert) out, treating yourself when you’re famished just makes you more likely to go overboard. Make sure you have a healthy meal or snack—which should include filling protein, fiber, and healthy fats—leading up to your treat time, so you’re not as tempted to go all-out, suggest Brisette and Armul.
6. Eat mindfully
Once you’re enjoying that treat meal, take small bites and savor them. “The more you focus on sensations like the flavor and texture, the longer it will take to eat the food and the more satisfied you’ll feel,” says Abramson. When you eat mindfully, it becomes almost impossible to binge because you’ll be more aware of when you’re really full.
7. Check in with yourself
Keep track of how your treat meals affect your weight and whether they’re actually helping you stick to your diet. If you’re sticking to other parts of a healthy routine but still notice tighter-fitting clothes, you may need to reevaluate treat meals.
And get real with yourself about your eating behaviors after those treat meals. “For some people every healthy decision increases momentum for the next one, and the same can be true for unhealthy choices,” says Sherry Pagoto, Ph.D., licensed clinical psychologist specializing in diet and nutrition and professor at the University of Connecticut. So ask yourself: After your treat meal, do you go back to your usual diet, or do you sometimes continue on the treat yourself train?
If you do go tend to go overboard, give yourself a break. “We make over 200 eating decisions each day— so no one is going to get them all right,” says Abramson. Don’t expect yourself to eat 100 percent clean 100 percent of the time! Consider every decision a new opportunity to get your healthy eating back on track. If your treat meals regularly spin out of control and you can’t stop once you start—even when you feel full—though, you may want to meet with a mental health professional, Abramson says. These treat meal mishaps may indicate some turmoil in your relationship with food and mental health.
Watch Out For These Treat Meal Saboteurs
While splurging once in a while can be super helpful when you’re trying to stick with healthy eating long-term, it’s easy to lose perspective. Here are a few slippery slopes to watch out for so you can either make treat meals healthier for your lifestyle—or identify if they’re not right for you:
1. Don’t deprive yourself the rest of the time
If one treat meal Oreo turns into the entire sleeve, chances are you’re depriving yourself in the rest of your diet. And when treat meals become treat days and treat weekends, you end up sabotaging your initial goals anyway, says Armul. Your treat meals are only as helpful as the rest of your diet is balanced and nourishing.
2. Never eat until you feel sick
This is a major no-go for healthily incorporating treat meals. When you keep eating even though you’re stuffed, you may be tempted to under-eat the next day, which will leave you wildly hungry and likely to just binge again, starting a nasty cycle of binging and restricting, says Brisette. Not only does this pattern of eating mess with your head and your relationship with food, but it’s also tough on your digestive system and throws your blood sugar out of whack.
3. Don’t beat yourself up if you overindulge
“Watching your weight requires energy and concentration, and if you get discouraged and angry with yourself, it’s hard to maintain the motivation,” says Abramson. It’s easy to feel guilty after a treat meal turns into a treat weekend, but use this opportunity to understand what leads to you overindulging.
Depriving yourself throughout the rest of the week is a big culprit here, as are emotional eating (more on that in a sec) and social situations like parties. Self-awareness can go a long way in preventing future treat meal snowballs, though, so being tuned into your patterns can help you make sure treat meals don’t sabotage your goals.
4. Avoid emotional eating.
One of the biggest treat meal mistakes is eating to forget you’re upset, bored, or stressed, which tangles up our biological need for food with our emotions. “It’s okay to eat when you’re physically hungry, not when you’re just emotionally aroused,” says Abramson. So when you’re really itching for a treat, stop to ask yourself why you want it. Are you hungry—or are you actually pissed at your partner, feeling tired, or worried about something at work?
As soon as you identify that you want to eat for emotional reasons, distract yourself, says Abramson. Take a bath, go for a walk around the block, or make a mug of tea. “Cravings aren’t permanent. If you can distract yourself, they’ll go away,” he says.
5. Consider treat meals with any health concerns in mind.
Treat meals are tricky territory: They have the potential to cloud our relationship with food if we aren’t careful in how we use them. If you have a history of eating disorders or are unsure how to make them a healthy part of your diet, talk to your doc to decide how to best approach them.
The same goes for chronic health conditions. “If you have diabetes, for example, having a large amount of carbohydrates or sugar in a single sitting will cause your blood sugar levels to skyrocket,” says Brisette. That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the occasional goody—but a qualified health professional can help you delight in your favorite treats in a healthful way.