The Art of Designing a Perfect “Cheat Meal”

By Aubrey Worek

B.S. Exercise Science


Nutrition Specialist – AASDN

 I want you to say the word “CHEAT” out loud.  Say it. CHEAT!  How do you feel after you say this word?  What things do you associate with this word?

When we actively CHEAT, we know we are doing something dishonest or something we know we should not be doing.  So when we use this word to describe food, we are labeling the food in a way that can leave us with feelings of guilt after consuming it.

How can we cure this?  How can we feel like we are not cheating on our diet when we are simply trying to enjoy a food that gives us pleasure?  And, can we have a cheat meal without feeling like we ruined our diet completely?

Let me preface this by saying, I have a personal distaste for using nutrition buzz terms like, “cheat meal,” or “eating clean.”   I prefer to say TREAT vs. CHEAT and “proper nutrition” vs. “eating clean.”  But to get my point across easily, I will go with flow.

Having a cheat meal can sound like a fun way to reward ourselves after a week of eating clean. “Mmmmm, I’ll take some of those buttermilk, chocolate chip pancakes with a side of bacon, hash browns, and the bottomless mimosas to wash it all down, please!”

So much fun, right?!  But how do you feel afterwards?  Duh, not good!!!!  Let’s bring on the self-mutilating guilt trip and start pitying ourselves now!

One reason why we feel the need to have cheat meals is that we are accustomed to being rewarded with refined and decadent foods, and it all started when we were kids.  Do we give children celery sticks after they bring home a grade “A” paper?  No way!  We say, “Good job, Sally!  Let’s go out to get ice cream to celebrate!”

The ice cream is a great TREAT, but as we grow-up we feel that it is no longer a treat, it’s a CHEAT!  What happened along the way?!  Honestly, who cares at this point because we need to address these cheat meals now and take some action.  I don’t care what you call it, Reward Meal, Treat Meal, Cheat Meal, Off Track Meal – it’s all the same.  They are all meals or foods that make you feel like you’re doing something bad.

Let’s go back to the pancake breakfast example.  I love pancakes and probably have dreams about them once a month (shhhh, don’t tell my husband).  If I’m going to brunch with friends I have two choices:

  1. To eat what I have been fantasizing about for months – THE PANCAKES!
  2. To eat the egg white omelet, swap the toast with berries on the side and throw in all the veggies from the garden out back.

I typically choose Option 2.  But, was that considered my cheat meal?  For some extreme people YES is would be because they have specific goals that pertain to achieving the leanest physique possible.  But for most people Option 2 would NOT be a cheat meal.  I think we can all agree Option 1 is the real-deal cheat meal.   It does not provide much nourishment, but it will provide a moment of comfort and joy during consumption.  The yummy-in-the-tummy factor is rated high for Option 1.

Cheat Meal vs. Blow-out Meal

What I recommend doing is to be intentional with your cheat meal and ask yourself, “Is this a cheat meal or a blow-out meal? “ Blow-out meals should happen few and far between.  Let’s face it every month there is some special event, birthday, or holiday.  I consider Thanksgiving to be my ultimate, annual blow-out meal.  Sometimes Christmas Eve I may have a blow-out too.   The blow-out meal takes you to the point of no return.  You feel so stuffed you are not sure if you’ll explode or puke if you move to fast.  Blow-outs should happen LESS THAN four times per year.  Yeah, I’m serious!  Why do you need all that food?  If you are having more than four blow-outs per year, check your head.  Are you an emotional eater?  Do you have disordered eating habits?  Do you use food like it’s a drug?   If “yes” then please seek professional help.  It is perfectly acceptable and sometimes very necessary to get help.  Food can certainly be used as a drug just as much as heroine; food addictions are just as harmful to your overall health and well-being.

6 Tips on How to Cheat on Your Diet Without Feeling Like You Did….

  1. Decide in advance what you are truly longing to eat.
  2. Write down why you want this meal. For example you may write something like, “I am choosing this meal because it brings me back to my childhood when my grandma used to bake for me.”    “I deserve this meal because I ate clean this week.”  If you continue you to tell yourself you “deserve to have a cheat meal” then you will continue to choose food as a means to reward yourself instead of simply enjoying the food minus the guilt.
  3. Ask yourself, “Will this meal be worth it?” If the answer is an honest “yes,” then go for it!
  4. After you write down your why, follow it will a statement of, “I will eat this food until I am satisfied, not stuffed.” This is important and sometimes hard to do.  Cheat foods are often foods we binge eat.  I recommend not having certain foods in your house.  Go out to eat at your favorite restaurant but don’t take home the leftovers.  Or, if you desire to treat yourself to plain old junk food, simply go out and buy it for that day and have a few servings of whatever it is.  Then get rid of it.  It’s labeled junk for a reason after all!
  5. Leading up to your cheat meal, eat healthfully and mindfully. If your cheat meal is at breakfast, take charge of your day by getting back on track to your clean eating.  If your cheat comes later in the day, do not skip meals leading up to the cheat or else you could end up eating a blow-out meal because you are so ravenous.
  6. Remind yourself it’s just one meal. One meal will not make or break you and it sure should not define you!  So let go of the guilt and enjoy the delicious meal you have been fantasizing about (in moderation)!

In conclusion, if you notice your cheat meals are turning into cheat days or blow-out meals, this may be a sign that your diet throughout the week is too restrictive.  I recommend working directly with a nutrition specialist or registered dietician to establish a well-rounded meal plan that you can stick to 5-6 days a week without feeling starved, deprived, or stressed.  I personally view food as both a fuel source and a fun source!  Designing your perfect cheat meal is unique to want YOU want and obviously can vary from person to person.  Keep your cheats to a minimum but allow yourself to enjoy them!  Remind yourself that YOU are in charge of your diet.  It’s truly up to you to make a decision on how you fuel your body.  At the end of the day we are all human and not perfect – so our diets don’t have to be.  Consistency is key and as long as you are consistently eating clean, you can have your cake and eat it too!  So the next time before ya cheat, try my 6 Tips to help you design YOUR perfect cheat meal!

Photo Credit:  Paul Buceta

MUH:  Sarah Scotford


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